Trump and the Fundamentals of American Politics

As an American, I look at the ascendancy of Donald Trump with exasperation, and increasingly, with a sense of fright. As a political scientist who specializes in a different part of the world, though, I look at the current state of politics within the GOP as a kind of intellectual curiosity, a case that for which I have lots of anecdotes but for which I do not have a good model. Like many political scientists (I suspect) who do not study U.S. presidential politics, I studiously avoid paying too much attention to the ins and outs of daily politics in U.S. presidential races, because most of what happens is just noise (see Gelman and King), and looking at this noise encourages us to identify patterns that don’t exist and issues that don’t matter. For most of the past year, I have just assumed that Trump’s candidacy part of that noise.

It is no longer possible to conclude that Trump is just noise. And Trump’s success provides a useful piece of input for a my emerging—but non-expert—model of American politics: money is everything, and the rest is details.

Here are the stylized facts about the past year that lead me to this conclusion.

  1. Trump is a billionaire using his own money to fund his own campaign.
  2. The GOP establishment is somewhere between panic and disarray.
  3. The backers of the more establishment candidates (Bush, even Rubio) are upset specifically at their inability to use their money to ensure the success of their candidate.

These three stylized facts are obviously all related. Trump is proudly unbeholden to the demands of anyone else in his party, and purely because he does not need their money. For the first time in the modern era of America politics, we see a presidential candidate who has the money to fund his own campaign, and everything that we thought that we knew about “how American politics works” is wrong. Forget ideology. Forget decorum. Forget party.

Obviously, the idea that money matters in American politics is anything but new, but in modern presidential history, the candidate with the most money has also been at least obliquely sensitive to ideology, decorum, and party interest (think George W. Bush). Trump’s behavior during the invisible primary decouples these variables from one another, and the results speak for themselves. Indeed, Trump’s success allows for greater clarity into just how important money has always been.

This conclusion does depend on Trump’s candidacy being something other than noise. Perhaps all of the polls, all of the buzz are wrong. Perhaps Trump lacks the ground game, or perhaps irregular turnout is correlated with being a Trump supporter in ways that likely voter models do not adjust for. We’ll know if those things are true pretty soon, and if so, I’ll happily mark my beliefs to market once again. But for now, Trump’s success leads me to model of American presidential politics as driven exclusively by money. Sure, there are nuances, there are details, but of course that’s true.

And importantly, my conclusion is not restricted to the GOP. Here is the counterfactual: imagine that Donald Trump announced as a Democrat rather than a Republican. Six months ago, I would have said that Hillary Clinton would have crushed him. I no longer am confident that that is true, and those Americans who oppose Trump from outside of the GOP would do well to consider this.

Comment 1

  1. Mandy Nace January 27, 2016

    I respectfully disagree with the idea that “Trump’s success leads me to model of American presidential politics as driven exclusively by money.”

    There’s no denying that money is among the most significant factors in presidential politics, but I’d argue that it’s not the sole driver of this election. For the past decade, national and state legislative approval ratings have fallen to record lows, with presidential and other executive approval ratings not far behind. Poll after poll shows that Americans, regardless of party, are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the way government works (or lately, doesn’t work), but gerrymandering has prevented major overhaul in the Legislative branch.

    Add in a dash of the bloggers and other traditional and nontraditional media galvanizing socially extremist conservatives, and you set the stage perfectly for Trump.

    Up until now, several of Trump’s public remarks have fallen into the category of statements that make a candidate unelectable. In 2012, Romney had far more money than President Obama, but several statements did irreparable damage to his campaign.

    Trump’s ability to maintain public support in spite of these statements, I think, involves much more than money.

    I completely agree that his campaign has gone well beyond “noise” at this point, which is really disturbing. I’m really banking on his lack of a ground game and the decisions of prudent voters in primaries and caucuses to quickly dissolve his momentum.

Comments are closed.