What did I tell you?

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Why Trump Caught the Pundits Off Guard

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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Since both Ezra Klein of Vox and Chris Cillizza at The Fix have re-evaluated their skepticism about Donald Trump's campaign, it's time to revisit this subject.

For the last two months or so, Trump has dominated the media. To the extent Republican party actors have moved against him, it has been to attack him -- not to rally around one of the other 16 candidates. This has focused even more attention on Trump.

So naturally, his numbers surged and then continued to surge.

Remember, most people at this point barely know who Scott Walker, Marco Rubio and even Jeb Bush are, let alone the more obscure candidates. As far as voters are concerned, the choice is between Trump and a bunch of other people. When Trump rises to about 25 percent in trial heat surveys, think of it less as "Trump leads" and more as three-quarters of Republicans saying "no" to Trump.

Cillizza is right to admit to putting too much reliance on earlier polling in which Republicans claimed they would never vote for Trump.  Voters, it turns out, are willing to answer questions from pollsters about things they haven't considered much. We should treat early polls as off-the-cuff reactions to the current information environment, not as voters' choices that have been thought through or that are binding. This goes for all the early polls, including ballot tests and favorability ratings as well as the surveys that ask people if they would ever consider voting for a particular candidate.

Political scientists were warning about all of this at the beginning of Trump's surge. 

Granted, Republican voters might nevertheless oppose Trump if they disagreed with him on the issues but, as Greg Sargent points out, his positions aren't far from where many conservatives are. They also might dismiss him as a rabble-rouser unqualified for the presidency, but the conservative movement and Republican politicians have long incited rank-and-file voters to embrace what Jonathan Chait calls "undifferentiated resentment."

But it's a mistake to think that Trump is uniquely able to supply things Republican voters crave or that the staying power of his polling surge so far means that someone wants to nominate him. He's just the only choice voters are hearing about right now. 

  1. As I said a while ago: "That's why I also don't take seriously the polling on which candidates voters will or won't consider supporting. It, too, can be artificially inflated (or deflated) by recent news."

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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