Playing by party rules.

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Trump Gives Republicans What They Wanted

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, has reportedly asked Donald Trump to "tone it down." That's OK, I suppose, but it misses the larger point: Priebus himself has set up a process that is begging Republican candidates to amp things up. He's only getting what he asked for.

So expect some wild stuff from Republican candidates before the month is over.

Priebus wanted fewer party debates in this presidential cycle and to start them later. He had decided, based on virtually no evidence at all, that the number and timing of debates in the 2012 cycle had harmed Mitt Romney in the general election. 

The consequence has been to raise the stakes for the first debate, which is on Aug. 6 on Fox News. In the 2012 cycle, debates started in May 2011, and with six events held through September 2011, no single early debate had that much weight. And because Priebus didn't try to dictate which candidates would be included this time, the television hosts took on the job. Fox decided to invite 10 candidates based only on recent polling results, giving the candidates in the crowded field a strong incentive to act up so they can capture as much attention as possible in the weeks leading up to the debate. 

After all, as Trump is demonstrating, reaching double digits in early polls of a 17-candidate field isn't about getting people to like a candidate. If a candidate can make the entire campaign a referendum on himself, then even if he loses by a lopsided margin, the 10 or 12 percent who do approve of him will place him among the polling leaders. That won't help him in 2016, when voters take the whole thing more seriously, but it's enough to get into the top 10. 

Any candidate who doesn't make the cut loses an opportunity to spark a public-opinion rally. Even worse, party actors may use the polling cutoff as an excuse to narrow down the list of contenders they are actively considering. That could spell the end for several of them. 

So Trump is just doing what he was invited to do. It's the muted behavior of the other candidates, the ones who aren't running naked through the streets, that's more of a puzzle. As Ed Kilgore notes, however, they probably still have time to say or do something dramatic to draw attention to themselves.

HuffPost Pollster's current estimate has seven apparently safe candidates. Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Scott Walker, the three likeliest nominees, are in. So are Trump, Ben Carson, Rand Paul and Mike Huckabee. Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina and Rick Perry currently fill out the top 10, but they are in a large group with Chris Christie, Rick Santorum, John Kasich, Lindsey Graham and Bobby Jindal, all of whom have finished tied for 10th or better in one or more of the nine most recent polls that HuffPost Pollster tracks.

Kasich may have a bit of an advantage: His official announcement scheduled for July 21 could give him the publicity he needs to move up a notch. The candidates currently holding office may be able to generate some news. The chances that Ted Cruz will give an extended speech in the Senate seem strong, while Jindal and Christie may try to pick the kind of high-visibility fights with state interest groups that Fox News and Rush Limbaugh love to cover.

The others will have to find something else -- and they'll have to overcome (or piggyback off of) the avalanche of Trump coverage to get there.

  1. HuffPost Pollster includes several polls Fox News won't use. Still, it's probably the best estimate of what would happen in future polls, assuming nothing changes.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net