Most intelligent political analysts’ reaction (right, left, and centre) to the news that Donald Trump may be considering a run for the presidency could be summed up as some version of: “You have got to be kidding me.” Followed quickly by: “This is going to be so much fun!” But the real punchline to this joke of a candidacy was actually on the punditocracy, when Trump’s poll numbers took off and soon put him either in the lead or very close to it for the Republican nomination. Republican voters, it seems, aren’t following the punditocracy’s lead on “The Donald.”
What it all means, from my perspective, is not very much. There are two basic trends at play here. The first is the fact that the political chattering class reads far too much into polls taken way too early. The second, which stems from the first, is that at this point “name recognition” is one of the biggest factors in whose name winds up on top of the list. Donald Trump’s celebrity value is showing up loud and clear on the straw polls taken in the past few weeks. But this doesn’t mean he is even going to run — and if he does, it’s likely not going to get him very far.
If you’re reading this column, it’s a good bet that you already know names such as Haley Barbour and Tim Pawlenty. But not many average American voters have. The politically-aware crowd is already vetting the Republican candidates (and possible candidates) and weighing their chances of success (hence the reference to “this column”) — but most Americans are simply not that interested at this point in time. Meaning Trump may be one of the only names in the list of possible candidates they’ve even heard of — which can drive poll results like the ones we’ve seen in recent weeks.
But this doesn’t mean that Trump can be written off entirely. Celebrities often do much better in American elections than anyone would have given them credit for beforehand. Name recognition can often push the unlikeliest candidates across the finish line. There are many examples of this in our history, and Republican celebrities are more often actually elected than Democratic celebrities. [Since I wrote about this imbalance back in 2006, Al Franken has evened the score a bit, I have to admit.]
The most spectacular of these in recent memory was the election of Arnold Schwarzenegger to the governor’s office in California. This was an interesting “laboratory experiment” sort of an election, because due to it being a special election in conjunction with a recall of the sitting governor, the entire campaign was only two months long. Add to this the fact that there were dozens of people running, and the upshot was that Schwarzenegger waltzed into office — beating other celebrity candidates such as Larry Flynt, a porn star, Arianna Huffington, the actor who played “Father Guido Sarducci” on Saturday Night Live, and Gary Coleman.
With only two months to campaign, and with an insanely-large slate of candidates, Schwarzenegger’s name recognition was the overpowering factor behind his victory. If the Republican primaries were all held one month from today, Trump might actually have a shot at it, in other words. Name recognition is something that normal political candidates pay millions and millions of dollars to achieve in the general public, meaning that anyone who is already well known starts with an enormous advantage.
Sometimes this advantage diminishes with time, and sometimes it does not. Schwarzenegger not only won his special election, but he also won re-election in a normal campaign later on — even though he hadn’t fulfilled any of his initial campaign promises (he actually left the budget in worse shape than when he entered office, which was not only his signature issue but the reason the former governor was recalled in the first place). Voting for the Terminator was such fun for so many voters that his opponents didn’t really have a chance.
Much to the embarrassment of the intelligent political analysts, I might add. Sometimes candidates who are widely considered to be “a joke” actually win.
Having said all of that, I don’t think Donald Trump is going to be the Republican nominee. Trump has something going for him — his public persona. His shtick, if you will. How many other real estate magnates are as widely known to the public as Trump? None that I can think of, in the last 50 years or so. Trump has parlayed this schtick into not only a real estate empire, but also a “reality television” show that’s been on the air for quite a few years now. Trump has a signature hairstyle, theme song, and even a catchphrase known to just about everyone in America (“You’re fired!”). That may all sound silly, but Trump not only has built name recognition for himself his whole life, but he’s actually built the Trump name into what can only be called “a brand.” How many Republican politicians have that going for them, at this point in the race? None that I’m aware of (unless you count Ron Paul, which is pretty small potatoes next to the strength of Trump’s brand).
As an actual Republican candidate, though, Donald Trump would be deeply flawed. This multitude of his flaws will only become more and more apparent to Republican voters as time goes by (assuming he does actually run). His propensity for trading in his wives for a younger model of arm candy is simply not going to sit very well with the deeply religious Republican voters. His past support of Democratic candidates is also going to be a big bone of contention. If Trump does run, he’s going to have to open his books on his media empire — which could dredge up all sorts of problems for him. His personality is fun to watch on television, but likely wouldn’t be when he’s on stage at a candidate debate (although I could very well be wrong about that one). And then there’s always the gold mine of things Trump has said which will indeed be mined to the fullest extent by other Republicans running — and this goldmine of quotes is far deeper and more extensive than just the things he’s been saying in the past month or so. Looking at what he has said recently is just the tip of the iceberg, really, even if that tip does contain such gems as Trump’s birtherism and his answer to the problems in the Middle East (which can be summed up as: “Just take their oil”).
Trump may be fun for Republican voters to flirt with, a year and a half from the election (especially when a pollster phones up), but over time most voters will likely reconsider what it would be like to actually have Donald Trump in the Oval Office. Trump, if he does run, will have lots of money and will likely enjoy the heck out of the campaign trail. The last celebrity to run for the Republican nomination, Fred Thompson, entered the race with very high poll numbers, and then immediately plummeted — but Fred Thompson was a horrible campaigner. Trump’s campaign is not going to replay the Thompson model — although his trajectory through the polls may turn out to be similar.
Of course, the whole Trump “candidacy” may very well be nothing more than self-promotion on Trump’s part, to boost ratings for his now-running reality show (it’s notable that NBC News seems to be pushing the concept of “Trump for President” in an enormous way). If this turns out to be true, than all of the speculation (including the digital ink spilled for this very article) will turn out to have been a gigantic waste of time on all our parts.
If I was to bet money, right now my bet would be that Trump doesn’t even run. If he does run, he isn’t going to place higher than third overall (in the Republican nomination contest). If by some miracle he secures the nomination, Obama will beat him in a landslide.
But there are lessons to be drawn from the current Trump mania in the mainstream media (and the polls). Politics is, at this point, indistinguishable from show business. The entire concept of “reality” television itself is that you can take something mundane, write a clever script with lots of twists and turns, and thereby hook yourself an audience. Which is pretty close to the goals of any political campaign, when you think about it. In fact, it would probably be a better idea to spend campaign dollars that normally would go to yet another professional political analyst on hiring a reality television show writer, to provide some scripted twists and turns to distract the media during the campaign.
This may sound like a radical concept, but really, how far are we from what I’ve just described? America loves watching television — a lot more than we love watching politics. And we all — mainstream media most definitely included — love glitz and glamour. We love a spectacle; the bigger, the better.
If you doubt any of that, please consider the week we are about to go through — where a large chunk of the American public (and the entirety of the mainstream media) is going to have an absolute orgasm over covering a wedding, across an ocean, in the house of royalty that we fought our first war to overthrow. It’s only Monday, and already I’m sick of hearing about the royal wedding (although that may just be me, being crotchety).
Consider also the reaction to Donald Trump already in the media. Trump has gotten so much coverage in the past few weeks for a reason — that he is so much more fun to cover than any of the other folks in the race, who are collectively about as exciting as watching paint dry. Trump’s shininess in the media eye right now rivals that of Sarah Palin — and that’s saying something indeed. No matter what happens with Trump, the media is going to hang on his every word, every step of the way. And, like I said, other candidates would have to pay millions and millions of dollars to get half as much impact with the public than Trump is going to get for free. Which is certainly food for thought. Trump, if he runs, is “Going to be huge!” (as he might put it), one way or another.
Chris Weigant blogs at:
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant