WASHINGTON – Yes, Donald Trump is still the number one preference among likely Republican primaries voters. And the rich New York real estate developer is followed by retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson. If you put them together, these two outsiders who never held any public office prior to their candidacy for the Republican nomination get almost 50% of the stated preferences of probable Republican primaries voters. Astonishing, but true.
Trump for President
And yet, we do know that Trump is at best a clever, media conscious populist who appeals to the raw emotions of lower middle class and working class Whites, an important but declining component of the national electorate.
His policy proposals are a mix of nationalism, protectionism, and grandstanding. With Trump as President –he tells everybody– we shall win again. We shall get really tough with China, Japan and Mexico, countries that steal our jobs.
We shall also engage in a massive deportation effort aimed at getting rid of all the 11 or 12 million illegal immigrants currently residing in America. We shall build a wall at the border with Mexico, and we shall force the Mexican Government to pay for it.
Yes, to be charitable, none of this is doable. Most of it is just hot air. And yet a large segment of the potential voters love it. And they love the fact that Trump shoots from the hip. He rambles, he says amazingly crude things. But he says all this with vigor and conviction.
And he always reminds his audiences that he is not a traditional politician. The pros are weak, unimaginative, and stupid. He is very rich, and therefore smart. And he is his own man. He does not need funding from special interests.
Anyway, whatever the experienced Washington pundits may say, the package sells. Trump is ahead.
Not enough to get elected
Of course, the caveat is that Trump is favored by a significant but narrow segment of the Republican voters. While lower middle class White people are important, they are not even close to being a national majority. In today’s America they constitute an important voting block, but not big enough to get anybody elected.
And so, while Trump consistently polls around 28% or even 30% among Republicans he does not go beyond that ceiling. And it is obvious that 30% or even 40% of GOP primaries votes, while the may get Trump the Republican nomination, are simply not enough to win the national election in November 2016.
Carson is even worse
Anyway, if Trump at number one is a bizarre leading candidate, Ben Carson at number two is an even more improbable would-be President. Carson has a compelling personal story. He was born Black and poor; and yet through personal effort and perseverance he got a good education and he became a famed neurosurgeon.
This is a great American story, very appealing. And yet in the give and take of debates and interviews Carson has demonstrated to know almost nothing about major public policy issues. The man is obviously intelligent. But he is completely untutored. He cannot handle a serious conversation about the Middle East, or US fiscal policy. And yet at least 20% or more of would be Republican voters would pick him because he is likable, and because he looks honest.
Have the Republicans gone mad?
What’s going on here? Why select weird candidates who have no chance to win a national election? Have the Republicans gone mad? Yes, something like that.
Look, I do understand the yearning for change. Clearly there is deep frustration with unimaginative establishment politicians. There is a widespread perception that America is stuck; and yet the people we’ve been sending to Washington are not doing anything about it.
Hence the desire to look elsewhere: new faces, fresh ideas. Yes, except that Donald Trump and Ben Carson, while undoubtedly new, are also spectacularly unsuitable and inexperienced. Trump promises impossible or truly bad policies. Carson has no idea about most of the issues, let alone putting together a policy platform to deal with them, and a team that will execute.
If you want to dig deeper into this baffling picture, take a look at the highlights of a recent Washington Post poll. What motivates Republican voters to select their favorite? 52% replied that they picked the candidate who will bring needed change to Washington. (OK, so you get why Trump and Carson are popular. Most certainly they will bring change). 28% replied that their choice is for the most honest among the candidates. (A very low percentage. This means that for most Republican voters bringing change is more important than personal integrity. Not a good thing).
Prior experience not needed
But it gets worse. Only 11% indicated that their choice is based on who has most experience. (And this explains why Jeb Bush and John Kasich are so far behind in the polls. They are proven and capable policy-makers. But right now very few voters care about real qualifications).
But wait, it gets even worse. Only 4% of potential Republican voters responded that they picked the candidate most likely to win against Hillary Clinton in the 2016 general election. In other words, almost zero consideration about which candidate can appeal to the (relatively narrow) Republican base but also to the millions of uncommitted voters who normally decide the outcome of a general election.
Change above all
Here we go. In picking the person likely to become a national candidate in a presidential election, experience and electability at this stage hardly matter at all. The GOP primary voters are inclined to pick really strange “change candidates” simply because they are fed up with the old party leaders.
Broadly speaking, in a democracy change is good. There is inherent danger when we create a class of perennially re-elected professional politicians who dominate the scene with their established biases and prejudices.
What kind of change?
Therefore, let’s open up the field, by all means. Let’s not go for yet another member of the Bush dynasty. (Jeb would be the third President Bush, after George Senior, and George Junior).
But if the GOP idea of change is Ben Carson or Donald Trump, then the Republican Party is in real trouble.