Danielle Allen is a political theorist at Harvard University and a contributing columnist for The Post.
At his rallies, Donald Trump’s supporters carry signs that read, “The Silent Majority Stands with Trump.” On Twitter, his supporters invoke the slogan to answer the candidate’s critics, such as myself, adding, “Silent No More.” Yet it’s the other part of the phrase that merits attention. Is there any sense in which Trump’s supporters constitute a majority?
Trump may indeed get to the 1,237 delegates he needs for a majority at the Republican convention. He might even get to a majority of the voters of the Republican Party, though I think that’s highly unlikely.
As of Tuesday’s primaries in Arizona and Utah, Trump had secured 37 percent of the vote of the Republican primary electorate, or roughly 7.8 million votes out of approximately 21 million.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were 142.2 million registered voters in the country as of 2014. This means that, so far, Trump has secured the support of 6 percent of the electorate. Yes, that’s right, 6 percent. Or perhaps it would be better to focus on the two-thirds of the electorate who actually vote. In that case, it should be acknowledged that Trump has secured, well, 8 percent. Even after every state has voted in primaries , Trump’s tally will at best probably be around 10 percent of the general electorate. Of course, turnout is lower in the primaries than in the general election, but that doesn’t change the fact that Trump can’t claim a silent majority.
Yet recently, a journalist from a reputable outlet called me for an interview, and among her questions was one that began, “Given that the vast majority of Republicans support Trump . . . ”
Thanks to all the signs at his rallies, Trump’s message about a no longer silent “silent majority” has been broadcast so frequently that people have begun to believe it. It’s marketing, pure and simple.
We know that Trump really cares about the signs at his rallies because his campaign manager wades into the crowds to accost protesters with signs containing swear words, on one occasion even grabbing a protester by the collar. On ABC’s “This Week,” Trump explained, “He wanted them to take down those horrible profanity-laced signs.” He added, “When signs are put up, lifted up with tremendous profanity on them, I mean the worst profanity, and you have television cameras all over the place and people see these signs, I think maybe those people have some blame and should suffer some blame, also.”
This clear focus on the part of Trump and his campaign manager on the branding that will get onto television reveals the core of Trump’s campaign. The thesis is that a silent majority exists and that Trump will be its champion, decimating its foes. His strategy has been to secure votes by convincing people he already has them. If his thesis about a silent majority is wrong, his candidacy has no basis. Importantly, the numbers are telling us that the thesis is wrong.
Trump is little more than a celebrity who has been converting a fan base into vote share. What’s more, his celebrity is like a jet plane that’s about to run out of fuel.
Trump has been winning because he started with much greater name recognition than anyone other than the old establishment candidates. Some 20 million people watched “The Apprentice”; he began the campaign with 3.4 million Twitter followers. As an outsider in an election driven by antipathy to elites, Trump was able to clear out the other candidates with national name recognition: Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and Mike Huckabee. This left him facing candidates new to most Americans: Ted Cruz, John Kasich, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson.
Three of these relatively unknown candidates, Cruz, Kasich and Rubio, have beaten Trump soundly in all the markets small enough for a newcomer to penetrate against a celebrity. Of the 11 contests in which fewer than 200,000 people voted, Trump has lost eight. In other words, when voters get a chance to come to know the other candidates, they reject Trump.
Cruz, with his victory in Oklahoma and the draw in Missouri, has proved his ability to penetrate larger markets. This means he can beat Trump in markets where the pool of votes to capture reaches 1 million.
At this point, the challenge for both Cruz and Kasich is to penetrate the markets with pools of greater than 1 million voters. To date, Trump has captured all the contests between 1 million and 2 million, and he has done so with 38 percent of the votes. And to date, each contest with a vote pool of greater than 2 million has been won by a home-state candidate. Cruz took the biggest prize with Texas; Trump took the second-biggest with Florida (Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach gives him a high-profile second home beyond New York); and Kasich took the third in Ohio.
In other words, we don’t know yet who truly has the potential to capture the biggest remaining vote markets with no home-state favorite: California and Pennsylvania. Cruz and Kasich will benefit more than Trump from the winnowing of the field, thanks to the simple fact that, at last, many people will learn their names. In the lead-up to Super Tuesday votes on March 1, people were still having trouble pronouncing Kasich.
The Republican Party should avoid being taken in by Trump’s marketing claim to represent a silent majority and the related suggestions that his supporters might riot if the party turns away from him at a contested convention. The electorate is proving false the thesis that a silent majority stands with Trump. Yes, a determined minority stands with Trump, but that minority is likely to shrink as other candidates gain in name recognition. The party would be unwise to stake its fortunes on this determined minority.
Read more on this topic: