Friday, September 4, 2015

Trump Damage Assessment: The Zombie Campaign

The smarty-pants political experts will tell you this: "It's August--Summer, the year before the election. Polling doesn't mean anything. Just ask Presidents Giuliani and, erm, Bachmann? Cain? Ha-ha!"

Indeed, it is true--the people who led in August September the year before the election usually don't seem to win the primary. On the other hand, let's take a closer look:
2008 - Yellow Ski-Slope is McCain

2012 - Red Mountain (and foothills) is Romney
At this time in 2008, Giuliani was riding high at about 35% of the polls. Near where Trump is now. By the end of the year, though, he had crashed and burned. Conversely, McCain, while having a hard time, was polling in the low 20's, well ahead of anyone else.

In Sept 2012, Rick Perry was in the lead at around 25.5%. Romney was close on his heels, though, at around 17 or 18%. Undecided was beating Romney.

What's this look like today?
The problem isn't Trump at 33% (although he seems to have blown the doors off his ceiling--if that mixed metaphor makes any sense). The problem is Bush polling at 7.7%, Rubio (the other establishment hopeful), running 6% . . . and Scott Walker, the guy who could unify the GOP Base and the GOP Establishment, running at a lousy 3%.

In neither case (2008 or 2012) did the eventual winners poll that badly against the bubble-challenger. This potentially speaks to damage being accrued by low-stangings instead of just flavor-of-the-month.

But wait, there's even worse.

Bush's problem isn't just low-polling--it's lousy favorables (Slate):
All of these flaws are reflected in his polling numbers, which aren’t the most important metric to look at this early, as well as his fundamentals. Seemingly each new polling of favorability, a rough way of considering a candidate’s ceiling of support, shows Bush in horrendous shape. A Public Policy Polling national survey of Republican voters released Tuesday pins Bush near the middle of the pack in support (as in, 20 or so points behind Trump), and near the bottom of the pack in net favorability. His 39–42 negative favorability rating is among the worst in the field, surpassed in dislike only by candidates such as Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Rand Paul whose viability was always limited. (Meanwhile Trump, whose unfavorables only a few months ago soared into the 60s or even 70s, now finds himself with a solid 56–30 rating.)

The Zombie Campaign

To compound the problem, Bush has a ton of money--more than any primary contender has ever had--and that means his campaign can become a Zombie Campaign: still walking (and splitting the vote), even after it is dead. From the same Slate article:
We race past Super Tuesday at the beginning of March and reach the latter end of the calendar when state primary rules switch from proportional to winner-take-all delegate allocation. Jeb and his super PAC still have bushels of money and figure they might as well stick around and hope something changes, because why not? He and Rubio split up the moderates. Trump either doesn’t blow up or retains enough support to take those winner-take-all states on his own, or he does blow up, and a figure like Cruz successfully coalesces the anti-establishment vote.
This is a real possibility: in order to fail completely Jeb would have to run out of money and right now he pretty much can't (this is especially true if he doesn't try hard to compete in probably-lost Iowa and New Hampshire and keeps his powder dry for Super Tuesday and then Florida--a likely strategy).

The problems with Jeb's comeback strategy is that he was never going to be the darling of the base--he was (bravely) "running the general election in the primary." This has some merit: one of the most telling dynamics of the 2016 race is that Hillary, assuming she does not go to jail, will be talking about the same things in the general that she is in the primary. The GOP candidates will all have to have an etch-a-sketch ready (save for Trump, who will just brute-force his way through whatever objections people have). Jeb was the exception to this--but in order for it to work he had to appear statesman-like.

He had to be the sensible choice. Today the (establishment) NRO publishes this: Why Jeb? There Is No Obvious Case For Bush III:
If the best we can say for Bush is that the people who dislike him most intensely exhibit a worrisome compound of rage and stupidity, that’s not much of an endorsement, either. Jeb Bush was a good governor in a different era. In this era, he is a good man with his heart in the right place even when his head isn’t, an unquestionably decent gentleman and an ornament to the Republican party with no obvious reason to be its presidential nominee, much less president of these United States.
This is the nice version. The other version is that Jeb is a weak candidate getting pwnd by a school-yard bully who is pulling his pants down for kicks. In that model, playing the long-game looks like cowering. That's bad for your favorables. It also courts the dare-not-speak-its-name 'Cuckservative' label which is about the un-manliness / beta-male nature (the term comes from the heart of the manosphere/NRx/White Nationalism Internet) of candidates.

Say what you will, this is a damaging label to be thrown around and Trump is probably one debate away from offering to buy Jeb a testosterone patch.


If Jeb is doing poorly, Scott Walker may even be doing worse. Unlike Jeb, Scott always had to make his case.

(More here). If neither Romney nor McCain came back from 6%, certainly neither of them came back from 3%. Rubio, on the other hand, isn't making gaffes and isn't doing any worse than Bush or Cruz. It is worth noting that the prediction markets kind of track this analysis:

Yes, they still have Bush at the top--and yes, by a margin--but after that we see Rubio instead of Walker (although notably we don't see Cruz in the top-slots--and Carson and Fiorina are doing way better than they should be).

Again, though, the problem isn't so much Trump-at-the-top--it's what Trump does at the top--namely torpedo Bush every chance he gets. This is creating the Zombie Campaign that Slate warned us about. It's also worth noting that until Trump gets boring, he's going to continue to dominate:

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