Why 'Has Trump peaked?' is Exactly the Wrong Question


Everybody’s stressing and speculating on whether Donald Trump has peaked.  Jonah Goldberg expresses hope that he has, writing “It’s obviously too soon to tell for sure, but I think we’ve reached Peak Trump.”  Neil Stevens agrees with the “too soon to tell” but isn’t so sure there won’t be more up in Trump, citing one RCP poll showing a decline as insufficient data.

But the point is: who cares if The Donald has peaked?

I usually don’t rely on Nate Silver’s analysis for much other than bashing Republicans, but on Trump, FiveThirtyEight might be right.

We’re a tad less than 6 months away from the Iowa caucuses, and there’s lots of time for all kinds of things to happen, and we know many of them will happen.  That’s Nate’s argument and he’s right on target.

But the problem isn’t just that the national polls at this stage in the race lack empirical power to predict the nomination; it’s also that they describe a fiction. I don’t mean to suggest that Donald Trump’s support in the polls is “fake.” I have no doubt that some people really love him or that he’d be the favorite if you held a national, winner-take-all Republican primary tomorrow. However, the “election” these polls describe is hypothetical in at least five ways:

  • They contemplate a vote today, but we’re currently 174 days from the Iowa caucuses.
  • They contemplate a national primary, but states vote one at a time or in small groups.
  • They contemplate a race with 17 candidates, but several candidates will drop out before Iowa and several more will drop out before the other states vote.
  • They contemplate1 a winner-take-all vote, but most states are not winner-take-all.
  • They contemplate a vote among all Republican-leaning registered voters or adults, but in fact only a small fraction of them will turn out for primaries and caucuses.

The question isn’t if Trump has peaked, the question should be if Trump is capped below any possibility of winning the nomination.  And the polls show he most definitely is capped like a sarcophagus filled with nuclear waste.

Trump’s unfavorable poll numbers among Republicans are higher than Jeb Bush (who is at 18 percent, with 12 percent “haven’t heard enough” in the July 23-28 Quinnipiac University poll), way higher than [mc_name name=’Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX)’ chamber=’senate’ mcid=’C001098′ ], on a par with Gov. Chris Christie, and in fact only exceeded by Hillary Clinton’s dimensional rip at 91 percent.


It doesn’t matter how loud the 47 (dropped from 50) percent Trump supporters shout, because the trend shows that the more people hear about The Donald, the more likely they are to dislike him.  Almost nobody hasn’t heard of Trump, so you can’t claim he’s unknown, just that for some, the jury is out.

Can Donald recover from the gaffes (his supporters would call them qualities) that created the cap?  History would indicate “no.”  Quoting Silver:

It’s possible — pretty easy, in fact — for a candidate to improve his standing in the polls while he simultaneously lowers his chance to become the nominee. Currently, the average GOP voter has a favorable view of seven Republican candidates; being agreeable won’t help you stand out in the near term, even though the nomination is a consensus-building process in the long term.

What about being a jerk? If you can make yourself the center of attention — and no candidate in modern memory has been more skilled at that than Trump — you can potentially turn the polls into a referendum on your candidacy. It’s possible that many GOP voters are thinking about the race in just that way now. First, they ask themselves whether they would vote for Trump; if not, they then choose among the 16 other candidates. The neat thing about this is that you can overwhelmingly lose the majority in the referendum — 75 percent of Republicans are not voting for Trump — and yet still hold the plurality so long as the “no” vote is divided among a sufficient number of alternatives.

It’s much more likely that Trump will go the way of Rudy Giuliani in 2007, or Howard Dean, although he may make it to the GOP national convention.  As for Trump’s intentions, he’s playing it close to the vest, although a totally undesirable third party run is not out of the picture.

Either way, I tend to agree with Nate Silver on Trump’s fate in the primaries—we need to stop asking the wrong question.

At FiveThirtyEight, however, we’re fairly agnostic about what will happen to Trump’s polling in the near term. It’s possible that he’s already peaked — or that he’ll hold his support all the way through Iowa and New Hampshire, possibly even winning one or two early states, as similar candidates like Pat Buchanan and Newt Gingrich have in the past.4 Our emphatic prediction is simply that Trump will not win the nomination. It’s not even clear that he’s trying to do so.

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