Trump’s “Strength” and the Big Myths of 2016

It’s no coincidence Donald Trump issued his outlandish plan to ban all Muslim visitors to the United States (sorry Jordan’s King Abdullah, Queen Rania, Gulf War allies and girls who have been abused by the Taliban) the same day a poll showed him trailing in Iowa. Trump abhors not being the center of attention and no one knows how to grab headlines better than Trump.

Trump’s latest absurdity, however, may create an inflection point in the campaign in which we examine and reject the myths and fake narratives that have defined the race so far. Such a moment couldn’t come soon enough.

Myth 1: Voters are tuned in

Reality: Voters are just now considering paying attention. Therefore, much of what has been written about the “horserace” is something else related to horses.

In the past two presidential cycles, nearly 40 percent of voters didn’t make up their mind until the final six weeks of the campaign. And that was when the choice was binary —between two candidates rather than 10.

The last two Republican primary races have been defined by what looks a “volatility principle” or “uncertainty principle.” In reality, however, those cycles show that normal people don’t tune in until much later in the process than the media. For journalists, election season is like retailers bringing out Christmas displays not merely after Halloween, but after the Fourth of July. The “Christmas in July” media analysis starts way before voters care.

For instance, in 2012 there were five different frontrunners — Romney, Perry, Cain, Gingrich and Santorum. Today, we’re a little less than eight weeks from the Iowa caucuses. At this point in the race four years ago, “future president” Herman Cain was in the lead but would be overtaken by Newt Gingrich a month later. Oh, don’t forget, future president Rick Santorum was at 3 percent in the polls a month before winning the Iowa caucuses, which vaulted him to the frontrunner position in mid-February before Romney locked up the nomination.

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Source: Real Clear Politics

In 2008, Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson led John McCain at this point in the race. A month later, Mike Huckabee would begin his surge and win the Iowa caucuses before briefly becoming the frontrunner.

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Source: Real Clear Politics

Today, in 2015, even if voters truly care earlier, the odds are the race will look very different eight weeks from now than it does today.

Myth 2: This is the year of the outsider versus insider

Reality: The major divide in this election continues to be novelty versus non-novelty candidates. This divide is nothing new. This cycle, like previous cycles, has seen surges by novelty candidates who were defined by their capacity to entertain or merely inspire rather than lead and articulate a coherent policy agenda.

I’ve described the fake establishment narrative in greater depth here. The bottom line is “the establishment” as described by the conventional wisdom doesn’t exist. Trump’s presence proves its absence. As for Trump himself, he’s hardly a marginalized outsider unable to access the corridors of power.

Myth 3: Donald Trump’s surprising strength

Reality: The surprisingly strong Republican field has dispersed support among a number of candidates, allowing a novelty candidate who is opposed by a supermajority of Republicans, but is an A-list professional celebrity, to be the long-term “frontrunner.”

Since the race started Trump’s support has never exceeded 30.8 percent, according to the RealClearPolitics poll tracker.

What is surprising is that such a weak candidate could be the so-called frontrunner for so long. The reason he has maintained a lead has less to do with Trump and more to do with support being dispersed among several credible candidates. The odds of Trump winning the nomination after the field narrows are exceptionally low.

Trump and Carson occupy the lightweight division of the Republican field and are obviously out of their depth on matters of policy. That’s why Carson is sinking and Trump is grasping.

Myth 4: Ted Cruz, Donald Trump’s doppelganger, is an outsider, like Trump

Reality: Ted Cruz, a former Bush administration official, is an exceptionally gifted Washington politician who has tirelessly and relentlessly worked to cultivate an anti-establishment image without ever reforming government in any meaningful way.

Cruz and Marco Rubio are the two most gifted politicians in the race. The fact that two Tea Partiers are viable top-tier candidates shows the degree to which the Republican Party has become more conservative.

But Cruz, a Bush compound runaway, is hardly an anti-establishment outsider. I worked for an anti-establishment member, former U.S. Senator Tom Coburn. An anti-establishment member was a friend of mine. Trump, Carson and Cruz are not anti-establishment. Coburn himself has criticized the “Cruz effect” in which Washington politicians like Cruz create unrealistic expectations that disappoint and alienate voters. Coburn even took aim at the “anti-establishment pretenders” in the race in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed. When Cruz effectively limits government he can present himself as “anti-establishment.” Until he does, I’ve got a Bridge to Nowhere to sell him.

Myth 5: This year is different and everyone who disagrees is in denial, and part of the establishment conspiracy

Reality: Every year is unique but it’s more likely this year is like previous cycles that saw unexpected surges, particularly by populist politicians. Human nature, and the processes by which people make decisions, haven’t substantially changed in the past four or eight years.

Choosing a nominee is a lot like shopping for a home. It’s a very human process that balances emotion and reason. As marketing pros have argued, emotion can hook a buyer but reason reels them in. Some homes may look captivating and interesting but not all (i.e. Trump and Carson) will pass the home inspection. (Aside: it was the voters, not an establishment conspiracy, who nominated McCain and Romney in 2008 and 2012 respectively.)

With just under eight weeks to go until Iowa, Trump, with his latest comments, doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously. But his proposal to put Jordan’s King Abdullah, who has a clearer understanding about how to fight terrorism than Barack Obama, on a de facto terrorist watch list should spur us to rethink everything we think is true about the race.

It’s time to let go of the myths and let the real race begin.

John Hart is the Editor-in-Chief of Opportunity Lives. You can follow him on Twitter @johnhart333.