Four months ago, after Donald Trump built a surprise lead in national (and some state) polls, I asked the most prominent political "data journalists" if they were eating crow yet. Nate Cohn, a reporter for the New York Times's Upshot, admitted his "surprise" that Trump had not yet eroded. Nate Silver, the founder and editor of FiveThirtyEight, was somewhat less retrospective, pointing to evidence that the media was overrating Trump. "It seems like you’re being pretty straw-manny and cherry-picky," wrote Silver.
Well, it's December, and good luck reaching into the tree and plucking anything but cherries. When I wrote that piece, Trump was averaging 23.8 percent in national polls. In a CNN poll released today, Trump is at 36 percent. When that poll is added to the invaluable RealClearPolitics average, Trump is at 30.8 percent.
This morning, Silver subtweeted the universe by dismissing the news value of CNN's poll.
That's a pretty direct challenge to a political press corps that covers Trump more closely than anyone else running for president. It's also, surely accidentally, an exercise in missing the point of the campaign's "news." The story of an election is far, far bigger than the story of who won it. The Trump drama, and the movement that has discovered and elevated him as its candidate, is obviously the political news story of 2015.
Actually, it's the latest in a long, semi-tragic history of primary campaigns that revealed plenty without producing a nominee. You can start the clock in 1964, when then-Alabama Gov. George Wallace ran for president for the first (of four) times. He had no chance of defeating President Lyndon B. Johnson in the primaries, but where he competed, he scored margins that baffled the political establishment. In "Before the Storm," his history of the 1964 election and the stirrings of modern conservatism, Rick Perlstein recounts how Wallace's 43 percent of the vote in Maryland hit the media.
"They 'went to the polls with big grins on their faces,' a local editor marveled. 'I never saw anything like it.' Wallace's opponent Governor Brewster said the voters had been duped by a 'pack of mindless thugs ... stewed in the vile corruption of the same ruthless power that one finds at either end of the political spectrum.'"
You could have looked at that result and chided the media for making "news" out of what was, obviously, not a victory. You would have missed a historic moment in the politics of backlash.
Losing campaigns have played that role again and again. Ronald Reagan didn't win in 1976; you know how that turned out. Pat Robertson's 1988 primary campaign cemented the influence of the religious right in Republican electoral politics. Howard Dean's 2004 primary campaign collapsed memorably in Iowa, but accelerated the Democratic Party's evolution from a party that could put Joe Lieberman on a national ticket to one that was skeptical or apologetic about foreign military intervention. Indeed, by the autumn of 2006, Dean was chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and Lieberman had lost his Senate primary.
Arguing that "news" consists of who will win a contest is arguing for the cancellation of most news. Thirty-one NFL teams will not win the Super Bowl next year; you'll be laughed out of any room if you said only the 32nd team was newsworthy.
That brings us to one of the points Silver made in August to defend Trump-skeptical coverage. "What’s happening with Trump has plenty of precedent," he wrote. "It occurred for Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich (twice) and other GOP candidates in 2011/12."
If we're talking about polling leads, this is almost true. All of those candidates built leads at one point in that cycle, though none of them did so for as long as Trump. But none of these candidates commanded the sort of crowds that Trump has. It's unusual for a non-incumbent candidate to draw thousands of people to rallies months before the primaries begin. Howard Dean pulled it off in 2004; Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has done it this year.
But for five months, Trump has been able to swing into states and draw the biggest crowds of any Republican candidate. It's been two and a half months since a thinly-attended South Carolina event, organized by a third party group, that was supposed to mark the end of Trumpmania. It's been a month since a rambling Trump speech in Iowa, where even the people standing behind him grew bored with his rants about Ben Carson. The crowds kept coming. And they keep coming.
Few, if any, reporters will tell you that they expected this to happen. Some may fantasize about another universe, where the field is Trump-less, and candidates like Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) are dominating the news with substantive fights about privacy rights and terrorism. Even this summer, the rise of Trump was seen by the Republican establishment as a way to freeze the field, while the grown-ups could hibernate and take over when it counted.
We do not live in that universe. We live in the one where, as The Fix's Philip Bump points out, 53 percent of Republicans want all illegal immigrants to be deported and many are finding a champion in Donald Trump. Nate Silver left room for this one year ago, when he contradicted the conventional wisdom that Jeb Bush would win the GOP nomination because establishment candidates always pulled it off.
"Bush may face more vigorous competition on his right in 2016 than [Mitt] Romney did in the likes of former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry in 2012," Silver wrote. "And to the extent that Republican voters have shifted slightly further to the right over the past four to eight years, that could make his task harder at the margins."
Sure enough! It's a great story. The mystery is why political data maestros, who are so well-equipped to debunk conventional wisdom, have spent 2015 stretching to confirm it.