Donald Trump’s continued strength in public opinion polls despite controversial remarks about Mexican immigrants and John McCain, among others, confounds pundits. More significantly, his presence at the top of the nomination field heading into the first debate worries many in the Republican Party, as they consider the long-term implications of Trump’s brash campaign style.
Although it is too early to determine Trump’s fate or the ultimate impact of his candidacy on the party, there are many lessons the GOP can learn from the rise of Donald Trump.
Presidential elections are going to attract large and diverse fields. Traditionally, the Republican nomination process was an orderly affair with small fields and a nominee being the person who had “paid his dues” through previous runs for the White House. Beginning in 2012 this orderly process has been dismantled by two significant events. First, Barack Obama proved that little political experience was an advantage in winning the presidency. Likewise, the 2010 Citizens United ruling changed the funding of presidential campaigns. Many Republican candidates in 2012 and 2016 circumvented traditional sources of funding, like the party by having supportive independent expenditure groups, often funded primarily by a billionaire supporter.
Donald Trump’s entry and early success in the polls indicates that political experience is not necessary to gain the support of almost one-quarter of likely Republican primary voters. Also, although Trump has the ability to self-finance his campaign, he symbolizes the new breed of presidential candidate who doesn’t need party regulars for his campaign war chest.
Leadership within the Republican Party has declining influence. With the rise of Super PACs and billionaire donors, political parties have seen their influence over the nomination process decline. Party leadership can no longer dictate, through controlling financial resources and persuasion, the number and type of candidates seeking the nomination, or the strategy and tactics used by these candidates. When Donald Trump attacked John McCain, Rick Perry, and Lindsey Graham, many within the Republican establishment chastised Trump for violating Ronald Reagan’s mantra about “not speaking ill of any fellow Republican.” These attempts to change Trump’s behavior not only failed to soften his statements, but appeared to strengthen his standing among supporters.
A significant portion of the electorate continues to be angry. Donald Trump’s core message is that government and its leaders are dysfunctional and this taps into historically high levels of dissatisfaction in government, as measured by recent Gallup polls. Although Ted Cruz and other Republican candidates attack Washington, Trump’s status as a true outsider and his ability to attack politicians, even Republicans, as “idiots,” or make bold statements about how he would deal with China plays into the frustration many Americans feel about America’s inability to deal with domestic and foreign issues. People seemed unconcerned about Trump’s lack of detail on many issues or even his seeming inconsistencies on issues like immigration. They are more attracted to the perception of Trump as a strong person of accomplishment.
There is no longer a distinction between entertainment and politics. For the last 20 years, the distinction between entertainer and politician has all but disappeared. From the election of actors and comedians to prominent political positions to President Obama’s comfort level in noshing with Jimmy Kimmel and Jon Stewart, we have entered an era in which politicians need to be as concerned about their Q-score as their approval ratings.
Donald Trump is a celebrity who is comfortable hosting The Apprentice, flying his private jet to the British Women’s Open golf tournament, and exchanging tweets with actors and athletes. He understands that ratings on his NBC show depended on his outrageous statements and hallmark line “You’re fired!” While many of the 2016 Republican candidates for president jockey for slots on Fox News or Meet the Press, Trump’s meteoric rise to the top of the Republican field is because he has always been an entertainer.
Donald Trump’s popularity among Republican primary voters may wane in the coming months or, conversely, he may solidify his role as a top Republican contender, but the GOP would be well served to acknowledge that the rules of the game have changed in significant ways.