GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump’s victory in South Carolina, his expected victory Tuesday in Nevada, his poll dominance in the upcoming states, and the increasing unlikelihood of an “anybody but Trump” bandwagon coalescing fast enough around another candidate is causing a lot of pre-nomination autopsies about what in the world happened.
There have been two strands of this anti-Trump cri de coeur. The first is genuine puzzlement over why most of the Republican Party hasn’t trained its fire on Trump. Sure, most GOP officials might prefer him to Ted Cruz, but that doesn’t explain why the other candidates have attacked one another more than Trump. The New York Times’s Michael Barbaro and Ashley Parker, for example, report an astonishing figure: “In a presidential campaign during which ‘super PACs’ spent $215 million, just $9.2 million, or around 4 percent, was dedicated to attacking Mr. Trump, even as he dominated the polls for months.” As Slate’s Jamelle Bouie observed Monday:
Now that Jeb Bush has left the contest, everyone in the race is more focused on someone other than Trump. It’s as if the GOP’s traditional candidates are in denial about the state of the party’s primary, as though they don’t believe that Trump could win the nomination outright. It’s the same mistake that Republicans made throughout 2015, when Trump gained steam and GOP elites refused to confront him.
Or, to put this in terms that “Star Trek: The Next Generation” fans would understand:
GOP, as Starfleet: "Hey, why engage the Borg at Wolf 359? Let's wait until they get to, like, the Moon."
— James Pethokoukis (@JimPethokoukis) February 23, 2016
The second strand is anger at the mainstream media for enabling rather than critiquing Trump. Most of the recent fire has been concentrated on the hosts of “Morning Joe,” but in many ways this echoes an argument from last summer that media coverage of Trump enables him. According to this narrative, the media never condemned Trump’s racist, bellicose rhetoric, instead giving him tons of free coverage and thereby boosting his electoral chances.
So what’s going on? I have a theory, but it’s very speculative and I will welcome pushback from actual experts in campaign politics.
Basically, I think the fault lies with political scientists.
To explain this, I need to start with pitch framing in baseball. Last month Fangraph’s Jeff Sullivan wrote something interesting about the waning ability of major league catchers to “frame” pitches — i.e., make a ball look like a strike to home plate umpires. In short, over the past year or so catchers who were historically skilled at pitch framing stopped having consistent success at it. What’s puzzling about this is that over the past decade, new data about the location of pitched balls made it easier for teams to use catchers who were excellent pitch framers.
So what happened? Sullivan’s hypothesis is that because of all the analysis of this phenomenon, umpires are now cognizant of pitch framing. They responded to the new data by becoming more suspicious of catchers who are really good at it:
Pitch-framing isn’t just some nerd interest. They talk about it on television broadcasts. They talk about it on the MLB Network, and they write about it on the MLB website. It’s still not household information, like saves or RBI, but it’s known in the industry, and along with that comes knowledge of who’s supposedly good at it. …
It’s a really extraordinary situation. Pitch-framing research uncovered an area where teams could gain or lose rather significant value. Some teams acted on that, and some teams have benefited, but the unusual thing about this is it’s related only somewhat to actual on-field talent. The rest is in the hands of the umpires, and at some point, umpires were going to catch wind of what was taking place. And then they could have a response, because umpires don’t want to be manipulated, not intentionally and not for a team’s direct gain.
So, in other words, analysts noticed a real thing in baseball, analyzed it, and quantified it — but because the umpires care about this stuff as well, they internalized this analysis and changed the way they called the game, thereby obviating the analysis to some degree.
What does this have to do with Trump? Let me suggest the following hypothesis. For the past few years, political scientists and pollsters have developed a number of explanations, indicators and theories for why some candidates do well and others don’t. The Party Decides, for example, has been the primary theory driving how political analysts have thought about presidential campaigns. It seemed to explain nomination fights of the recent past quite well.
When Trump announced that he was running last summer, his lack of establishment support and high unfavorables made it extremely easy to very smart people to confidently assert that he had almost no chance at securing the GOP nomination. I certainly predicated my own horrible, no-good, very bad predictions on this kind of analysis.
So why has it been proved wrong? My hypothesis is that GOP decision-makers also read the same analyses and concluded that they did not need to do anything to stop Trump. Sure, his poll numbers stayed robust even after he kept saying racist and insulting things, but there were good auxiliary hypotheses to explain why that was the case. They kept reading analysis after analysis in 2015 about how Donald Trump had little chance of winning the GOP nomination. They read smart take after smart take telling them that Trump didn’t have a chance. Even as the media covered Trump, even as late as the South Carolina debate, pundits were also talking about how his latest transgressive comment would doom his chances.
So GOP party leaders didn’t take any action. Except that the reason smart analysts believed Trump had no chance was because they thought GOP leaders would eventually take action.
Even now, the circular firing squad of the non-Trump candidates is predicated on the theory that There Can Be Only One who challenges Trump, and so the last non-Trump standing will win the nomination. Even now, there are tweets like this one:
Had coffee with a very senior banker today who literally laughed off Trump as "entertaining" and not a threat to win. So. Clueless.
— Ben White (@morningmoneyben) February 22, 2016
Just as sabermetrics led to a change in how umpires called the game, political science led to a change in how party elites intervened in the campaign. Because the smart people said he had no chance, they presumed that they did not have to do anything. And now it’s too late.
Let me be very clear at this point: This is just a theory and I have almost no data to support it. This is an untested hypothesis. Like most of my analysis of the 2016 election cycle, it’s probably, mostly wrong.
But I wonder: Just how much of Trump’s rise came about because the people who could have stopped him read analyses asserting that he had no chance of winning? How much did political scientists refute their own hypotheses?