Is Donald Trump Just a Summer Fling?

There are significant differences between the billionaire's political ascendancy and those of other flash in the pan candidates.

on August 25, 2015 in Dubuque, Iowa.

Photographer: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Without a doubt, the summer’s biggest political story is Donald Trump’s surge to the top of the 17-candidate-strong Republican presidential field.  And, when it comes to assessing Trump, there is an odd alliance between quantitative geeks and media pundits.  Although both continuously write and talk about Trump, the conventional wisdom is that Trump’s surge is akin to a sugar high. 

In other words, when voters really start paying attention, the fundamentals or the regularities that drive vote choice and elections will re-assert themselves. As Amy Walter put it, “summer is for dating, winter is for mating.” And while voters may enjoy dating Trump over the summer, they eventually will want to marry “a nice boy from a good family.”

In a less folksy fashion, the crew at Five Thirty Eight give the Donald very little chance of being the Republican nominee, with Nate Silver pegging his chances at two percent and Harry Enten coming in at an emphatic negative 10 percent. Lynn Vavreck reminds us that there almost always is a splash for some candidate, who ends up fading away as the primaries approach.

In very recent history, Rudy Giuliani led for much of the run-up to the 2008 Republican primaries and Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry took turns at the top of the Republican field in 2012.

I’m a fundamentalist when it comes to elections and definitely a geek. It’s August of 2015 and we do not want to over-react to or over analyze summer lovin'. While Trump’s 25—30 percent share of GOP support is enough to propel him to a lead in a 17-person field, he will need to build on that to compete when the contest boils down to a two or three person race. And, Trump’s high unfavorable ratings and the desire of Republicans to actually win the White House in November of 2016 most likely create a ceiling for him. In short, I would still place a wager on the field, rather than Trump, to be the Republican nominee. 

All that said, there is a difference between Trump and the Cain, Gingrich, Perry, and Giuliani boomlets of years past. One can wonder about how well the polls represent the likely GOP electorate, but Trump has across the board support from virtually every sub-group that comprises Republican primary voters. Trump also continues to attract immense amounts of media coverage and is generating huge TV ratings. Furthermore, he is driving the discussion in the race—shaping what his opponents say and do on a daily basis.  None of this was the case with previous shooting stars.

Does anyone think that immigration would have this high a profile in the Republican primary if Trump was not running? Does anyone think that is a good thing for Republican general election prospects?

The evidence suggests that Trump will not just fade away. He will need to be engaged with the blocking and tackling of election campaigns, and how that is done will have an influence on the nomination fight and, ultimately, the general election.

Put another way, even if Trump is a summer fling, the nature of those flings and how they end can matter. Even if the nomination ends up following the road we expect to an “establishment” candidate like Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio, the process has an impact.    

In other words, summer dating can make a lasting impression if you tattoo the name of your fling on your back (#trumpstamp). Staking out hardline positions on immigration that alienate important parts of the electorate, keeping Obama’s birth certificate in the news, or tagging other potential nominees as being “low energy” (Bush) and presiding over states that are a “disaster” (Walker) are not things that Republican candidates may want to be saddled with. Waking up to that next summer and fall could be a rude awakening. And if the summer fling sticks around and runs as a third-party candidate, it could spell disaster for the GOP.