I am very much looking forward to the Republican debates.— Neera Tanden (@neeratanden) June 16, 2015
The real estate mogul-turned-reality star’s entry into an already crowded Republican field will rightfully be treated as a political sideshow—but it’s a sideshow that could have serious consequences on the 2016 election. Thanks to his name recognition alone, Trump is poised to poll highly enough to be one of the 10 candidates on stage at the first GOP presidential debate, hosted by Fox News on Aug. 6. If he sticks around, Trump might even earn a slot at the second debate, hosted by CNN on Sept. 16.
Both networks are using national polling averages to decide which candidates make it on the main stage, and which do not. In the latest RealClearPolitics rolling average, Trump places 9th with 3.6 percent support. That’s a point behind New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and four-tenths of a point ahead of former Texas Gov. Rick Perry. If Fox News were to send out invites today, Trump would get one, but Rick Santorum, John Kasich, Carly Fiorina, and Lindsey Graham would not. That might make for good TV. But it would mean leaving out the 2012 Iowa Caucus winner, Ohio’s popular governor, the only serious woman currently in the GOP field, and one of the most experienced Republican foreign policy voices in the Senate.
He’s got a point. After all, Trump excels at insulting pretty much everyone, and he’s already started ripping the rest of the GOP field. That said, Trump can only crowd out one of these candidates (unless Trump’s ego and hair are filing separately with the FEC). Also, it’s hard to see how Trump is any less experienced at politics than, say, Ben Carson, who will also be displacing one of those more experienced candidates. So let’s not exaggerate Trump’s displacement effect.
In the interest of out-#slatepitching a #slatepitch, I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that there are several ways in which Trump’s participation in the debates might actually be a good thing for the GOP. Consider the following three reasons:
Trump is the anti-LeBron — popularity is performance in politics, and Trump is the first candidate in modern presidential primary history to begin the campaign with a majority of his own party disliking him. A whopping 57 percent of Republicans have an unfavorable view of Trump, according to an average of the three most recent polls….
Taking into account name recognition, Trump’s net favorability rating (favorable minus unfavorable) of -32 percentage points stands out for its pure terribleness at this point in the campaign. Like his unfavorable rating, it is by far the worst of the 106 presidential candidates since 1980 who are in our database.
So the system will work — Trump will have entered the race, will likely qualify for the debates, and will not come close to winning the nomination. The GOP’s nomination process will have proven itself able to weed out superficial blowhards like Trump. And The Donald will be just another failed presidential contender with a television contract.
2) Trump makes the real GOP candidates look good. It’s been noted that some fictional villains have better favorable numbers than some of the GOP field. Trump is a real-life villain who doesn’t look as good as the viable GOP candidates who have, you know, been elected to the Senate or governorships and stuff. Just by comparison, Trump makes real politicians look better by comparison — even Ted Cruz is an actual seasoned politician compared to Trump. Politics is a skill, and on a debate stage with people who have done this for a living, Trump will likely do about as well as Ross Perot did debating NAFTA. And the people watching these debates will think to themselves, “I’m not sure how I feel about Bush/Rubio/Walker/Paul, but I feel a damn sight better about them than Trump.”
3) Trump offers an opportunity for GOP contenders to shine in the debates. A big problem with the GOP race to date has been the homogeneity of the candidates’ views. Oh, sure, Rand Paul has stood out a little, as has Jeb Bush, but really, debates where there are spasms of agreement are pretty boring. And since no one in a primary wants to say anything in a debate that causes irreparable harm to the eventual nominee, these affairs wind up being mostly about smaller secondary issues.
Fortunately for the rest of the field, Trump’s “views” are heterodox on a variety of policy areas such as trade. Indeed, based on one metric, Trump’s positions are the most liberal in the GOP field. This will make him the perfect punching bag in the debates. And since Trump is so widely disliked by so many GOP voters, other more viable candidates will have a real incentive to lay waste to him. Indeed, eviscerating Trump on the debate stage could be a way for a Cruz or a Paul or Christie or a Perry to stand out. This will be much more interesting and than watching everyone argue over who is the true conservative in the race.
Would the GOP be better off if Donald Trump decided to become apolitical? Sure, probably. But since he has decided to be a political actor, it’s better for the Republicans that he be inside the tent — and get destroyed — than act like a kingmaker looking in from outside the tent.