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Stampede from the Starting Gate

News & Features | October 12, 2015

In February, when statistics blogger Harry Enten declared, “Chaos, not Scott Walker leads the Republican field in Iowa,” he could not possibly have known how squarely he hit the nail on the head. At the time, Walker was leading in Iowa, polling at 16 percent, and attracting heavy media coverage as a result. In many circles, he was spun as the favorite—an exciting Washington-outsider with proven appeal in purple states. On September 21st, just eight months later, Walker—down to 4.5 percent in Iowa, and less than 1 percent nationally—suspended his campaign. Those who wonder how a possible frontrunner could so quickly fall into oblivion need not look far for a reason.

The most common metaphor used to describe a presidential primary is a horse race. Candidates spend a long time jockeying for a position, often without making much of an impact until close to the end. The 2016 Republican primary has asserted itself as one of the most chaotic in history by adding a wrinkle to this comparison: there are now too many horses to fit on one racetrack. At its peak, 17 candidates were active at once, creating an electoral scene more hectic than any other in recent memory.

According to Tufts Political Science Professor Deborah Schildkraut, however, this election is unique not only for its field size but also for its field depth: “Usually a lot of the candidates are terrible, but this year there are a lot of quality options.” From Walker to Jeb Bush to Marco Rubio to John Kasich and many more, Schildkraut sees several candidates who could be viable nominees and probably hold a much larger percentage of the vote than in any other primary.

Schildkraut said that the large number of both total and quality candidates gives the race several interesting and confusing complications. First, there is only so much support to go around—both in terms of polling numbers and campaign donations—and the sheer number of contenders means some candidates will not garner enough. Walker seems to be an example of this: though a potentially perfect nominee, he did not do enough to distinguish himself in the crowded field and quickly fell out of the race. In an era when Super-PAC money is so important to political success—en route to the 2012 nomination, Mitt Romney’s Super-PAC spent nearly twice as much as the next biggest PAC—appealing to donors is priority number one for most candidates, and differentiating oneself from the pack is key to accomplishing that goal. Scott Walker’s failure to accomplish this is most likely what led to his downfall.

A candidate who has had no trouble in differentiating himself from the pack is current frontrunner Donald Trump. As of September 28th, Trump holds 26 percent of the vote, leading the field by a 10 point margin. In a theoretical sense, an unexpected candidate leading the field early in the primary doesn’t seem all that strange—after all, 2012 saw a meteoric rise in the polls for four separate candidates (Santorum, Perry, Cain, and Gingrich), none of whom came all that close to being the real nominee. However, there is a lot about the Trump campaign that is drastically different from any other candidates’ poll surges.

One difference is that Trump is already famous. Three of those four men, as well as Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina in this election cycle, were relative unknowns at the beginnings of their primaries. As a result, they benefitted from an effect Professor Schildkraut says is very common in electoral politics: “Political science tells us that the shiny new object will get a lot of attention.”

Unfortunately for these novel candidates, once the shine fades, so too will their campaigns. All three of the “outsider” candidates who took the helm in 2012 saw their leads crash and burn, and Schildkraut feels there is reason to suspect this may happen with both Carson and Fiorina. Trump, on the other hand, may be a different story, because while he is new to politics, he is not new to the general public.

So if his freshness in the political scene isn’t the cause of his prolonged surge in popularity, what is? Part of it is how differently the media treats Trump. Perhaps due to his fame prior to politics, the news media is covering Trump in completely unprecedented ways for a candidate this early in the race. In comments to the Tufts Observer, ABC News’ Chief White House Correspondent Jonathan Karl said that the frequency with which Trump appears in televised interviews on the phone is unheard of among primary candidates and shows how intent media organizations are on interviewing him. It seems that the way Trump has interacted with the media has been a boon for him in the polls—Karl described Trump’s use of free media as “brilliant.”

Another defining part of Trump’s campaign is his boisterous and unconventional rhetoric. In particular, he seems to be appealing not to the advocates of limited government or Christian values who traditionally have made up the fringe of Republican races, but instead to those who favor a platform of white identity politics. Conservative columnist Ben Domenech describes this platform as promising “protectionism, tariffs, infrastructure, subsidies, entitlements, and always [blaming] the presence of immigrants for the creative destruction of the global marketplace.” These Republicans, including Trump, are different in that they do not want government to shrink; they merely want it to serve their interests.

Many Republicans closer to the establishment have found this new, caustic rhetoric threatening. In an interview with the Tufts Observer, Massachusetts State Representative Sheila Harrington, a Republican who supports Fiorina, said, “Most of what [Trump] says is rhetoric and not particularly substantive. A lot of the things are unrealistic to the point of being ridiculous, and it’s very dangerous to have a crowd get all riled up on a crazy notion.”

This sentiment has clearly been shared by several of Trump’s competitors. In his concession speech, Walker said that the Republican field was too centered on “how bad things are” rather than on “how we can make them better for everyone,” and that the party needs to unite around a candidate with a more “optimistic” vision.

While Trump’s, Carson’s, and Fiorina’s poll numbers might suggest the opposite, it still seems likely that the Republican field will be restored to order and, in the end, spit out an establishment candidate, like Bush or Rubio. According to Schildkraut, the support of party elites tends to be a better predictor of primary success than early polling. This would suggest that neither Trump, Carson, or Fiorina have any chance of winning, since they have a combined two endorsements from current Republicans in Washington, compared to Bush’s 23. Harrington, too, believes that the party will eventually coalesce around a moderate.

ABC’s Karl thinks differently, citing the high numbers of not only the Washington-outsiders, but also another candidate cemented on the fringe of the Republican field: Ted Cruz. He asked, “How could you not think a non-establishment [candidate] has a chance?”

Regardless of whether the nomination of such a radical candidate is truly possible, the fact that it’s even being discussed has certainly shattered the sense of inevitability that had surrounded this race ever since it was rumored that Bush was throwing his hat into the ring. Maybe this hectic election cycle will eventually revert to the mean and end up with a third Bush Republican nominee, or maybe something absolutely unprecedented will happen and an outsider will usurp power. All we can be sure of is that this crowded presidential horse race is nowhere close to over, and it’s fair to expect some turbulence, confusion, and maybe even some collisions before we reach the finish line.