Political scientists generally failed to see Donald Trump’s primary victories coming. Worse than that, many of us (myself included) confidently predicted to friends, family and unsuspecting blog readers that Trump would never come close to the Republican nomination, much less the presidency. Many of us thought that the nomination battle would come down to a struggle between three candidates with solid mainstream credentials: Jeb Bush, Scott Walker and Marco Rubio.

As of April, the nomination remains undecided, but all three of those candidates have left the race.

Despite the overwhelming and perhaps appropriate urge to self-flagellate, it’s possible that political science still has insight to offer. First, it’s important to note that the major misfire about the Republican nomination comes from a failure to correctly predict elite behavior more than, as Vaughn suggested, a failure to pay attention to voters. Political scientists look back on the Trump run: A TBR series running this week.
Mon: Conroy
Tues: Vaughn
Weds: Azari
Thurs: Calfano
Based on the arguments in The Party Decides, an influential book about presidential nominations, many of us assumed that party elites would coordinate around one of the “establishment” candidacies. We also, I think, assumed that Trump would get bored and drop out.

Mass political behavior is generally easier to predict. We have far more data points, and predicting how a lot of people will behave is paradoxically easier than coming up with models that correctly predict the behavior of a few elites. But there were some missed calls on the mood of voters too: political scientists, along with pundits, generally thought that any of Trump’s first 100 outrageous statements – notably about McCain’s military service – would end his support among voters. This hasn’t happened, and we should have seen it coming. There’s not a lot of evidence that “gaffes” of any sort matter much – and Trump’s support has been very steady in the polls. At some point, we probably should have realized that what we were seeing was signal rather than noise.

Although there has never been a major party candidate quite like Trump, there are some important contextual factors that should have provided some clues about his rise. First, political scientists – along with sociologists, historians and journalists – certainly have the tools at our disposal to understand politics and racism. Michael Tesler’s work has illustrated this well in the Obama era and Jamelle Bouie makes the case on Slate for Obama’s presidency giving rise to Donald Trump. But going further back than this work, scholars have for years observed the hierarchy of oppressions that inform American political culture: gender inequality, the racism of legal institutions and the hostility and xenophobia with which immigrants have often been met.

What makes this campaign unusual is Trump’s combination of unvarnished language in an era in which we are used to colorblindness and dog whistles, and his true outsider candidacy in which he has wrestled the nomination away from the control of Republican officeholders and other elites. We’ve known for a long time that presidential nominations were technically permeable through the primary process, which has been around in more or less its current form since the early 1970s. But until now, no one has actually permeated it the way that Trump has.

The signs of this anti-politically correct outsider combination should have been evident over the past few years as well. The Tea Party movement contained elements of both: more racially conservative attitudes than other constituencies within the Republican Party and a desire to throw establishment types out of office and elect “political outsiders” – including Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, who have ironically become, in succession, the “establishment lane” candidates in the 2016 primaries. Republicans (and to some extent, Democrats as well) have been embracing outsider rhetoric while generally practicing politics as usual for years – even decades. Trump’s candidacy may partly be a sign that voters are onto the ruse, and will take matters into their own hands.

Finally, there’s been speculation about what will happen in the general election. Both Trump and Cruz inspire concern among mainstream Republicans in terms of their appeal to the broader electorate. One possibility that I’ve heard is that Hillary Clinton (assuming she’s the nominee) will move back to the center on business issues, therefore engineering a massive victory in the fall. If we’d been listening to what numerous observers of Congress and voters had been saying recently, we’d admit that the Republicans moving right while the Democrats tack to the center is perhaps the most predictable outcome of all.

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.

  • While I’m just a regular observer I still very much followed the consensus view of scholars like Azari that Trump wouldn’t be the nominee both because people like Trump simply don’t get nominated in the modern era and Republican party actors would never let him be the nominee for a host of reasons.

    Looking back on his success have to wonder if maybe the explanation is pretty simply that of Norman Ornstein. That is to say the Republican Party really is “worse than it looks” in terms of doing the things functional political parties should do. After all on the Democratic side of things the nominations process has gone according to “The Party Decides” theory pretty well. That is Hillary Clinton consolidated party support early, then forced her most potential rivals (Biden, Warren, etc) out or converted her to her caused, and then used her superior party resources to put O’Malley and the one protest candidate left running away fairly easily. Meanwhile most GOP elected MoC’s, Senators, Governors still won’t endorse in the race.

    Maybe this is just a story about the GOP becoming so dysfunctional it can’t even stop someone like Trump.

    • Realist50


      Hillary Clinton almost certainly will win the nomination, but it’s still striking just how well Sanders is doing – in both votes and fundraising – against someone who has an overwhelming endorsement lead and sense of inevitability (at least among the party “elites”). For example and in contrast, by April 2012 Romney was winning every state, Santorum dropped out on April 10, and Gingrich dropped out on May 2.

  • I feel that all political analysts have missed the point of the chaos in both political parties. What is emerging is a strong distrust by the middle class and the working class of the intentions of the super rich. Historically the general population trusted the rich to work for a fair system and instead have seem them become incredibly greedy. They control the Congress, they control the financial system, the have allowed for the creation of an exceedingly over priced healthcare system that rewards health insurance companies, drug companies, hospitals and doctors. To the average American the ruling class are scary and they no longer trust anyone who has close ties to this corrupt system. Candidates who talk about tearing it apart or “kicking ass” are the ones the public is listening to. This is probably the first act of an emerging American revolution. The old guard may win this election. Hillary may go on and placate the rich and bring little change to the economic system. The banks that are too big to fail will stay in place. Already Burnie Sanders has won. He has convinced many Americans that socialism is no longer a dirty word. If the system goes on as it has been without any significant change and the disappointment of the American public continues to grow then that shift to the left may develop into demands for a more socialistic system and sooner or later the demands of the general public have to be met. The whole movement started when Obama ran for President on the call for “Change” This call led to his victory but unfortunately not many people understood what that meant to many Americans. I do not want a revolution and prefer a system where the super rich get the message and cooperate more with the people. But if they continue to be set in their ways and look for more ways to grab more of the pie then there will be a revolution and then they will loose all that they have.

  • I think the biggest problem is sample size and ego. Political scientists WANT to analyze the presidential elections, because it’s the biggest thing going and the one everyone pays attention to.

    But there’s not enough data to reach valid conclusions. The sample size is too small. Political scientists could reach valid and statistically significant conclusions about, say, city council elections, which happen all the time, but not presidential contests.

    So you had a ton of poli sci types making broad pronouncements about what MUST happen in the Republican primary, and it turned out they were all wrong, because they didn’t have a large enough sample size to rule out a Trump.

    What they should do is basically stop lending their academic authority to rank punditry about presidential elections where they really can’t predict any better than the people on television. But they won’t. It’s too much fun to be in the spotlight.

  • 2sides

    Mr. Pikketty wrote a book “capital in the 21st century”. On a bloomberg interview the reporter, as the media asked him, why all the constant obsessive fuss with wealth inequality. Rushing to commercial Mr. Pikketty quickly replied “you will lose the voters on immigration and free trade”. Aka, Mr. Trump and Mr. Sanders

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