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Seriously, Trump Won't Win

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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It's no surprise that more and more Republicans who initially dismissed Donald Trump are starting to believe he has a good chance of winning after all. National Review has an item today on how people like Ed Rollins (Ronald Reagan's 1984 campaign manager) and Steve Schmidt (John McCain's campaign manager in 2008) are taking Trump seriously. Washington Examiner’s Byron York reports that strategist Alex Castellanos has changed his mind about Trump having no chance, and now believes "the odds of Trump's success have increased and been validated in the past few weeks."

It’s true that Trump continues to maintain a comfortable lead in national polling – about 10 percentage points ahead of Ben Carson, and another 10 or more over the rest of the field. He’s probably still on top in Iowa, too, although Carson is close there.

Despite that, nothing so far tells us that Trump has any serious chance of being the Republican nominee.

For most voters, it’s still early, meaning that poll results remain more of a combination of name recognition and media attention than anything else. When voters know all the major candidates, they will find things to like about them, too. And those voters who caucus in Iowa and cast ballots in New Hampshire will know quite a bit about the candidates by then. 

What is highly suggestive is that Trump dipped in the polls after both Republican debates. He didn't "lose" those contests. But the surge of attention to the race allowed other candidates to briefly get a larger share of media attention, which boosted some of them in the polls.

Then the media moved back to focusing on Trump, and his rankings recovered (although he’s still a bit below the peak he reached before the second debate). The media focuses on Trump when nothing else is going on, and that won't be the case once we get to the primaries and caucuses. And instead of 17 candidates to sort through (as the Republican race originally had), we will see a more manageable number. 

The process will be helped along if at some point one of the other candidates becomes the clear party choice, something that hasn’t happened yet.

No, voters don't automatically do whatever their party leaders tell them to do. But the views of the influential party actors tend to shape the overall information environment, so that eventually voters hear more good things about the party's favorites and more bad things about those it wants to defeat. And the more the Republican leaders, strategists and activists are united, the clearer the signal is going to come through. In a Trump contest against Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush (if it comes to that), we can expect a united party and a strong signal indeed.

And the Republican Party is adamant about not wanting Trump. He still hasn’t picked up a single congressional or gubernatorial endorsement. His slash-and-slash campaign style constantly earns him new enemies, and likely hardens the opposition of old ones.

Two months ago I saw three paths leading to a Trump loss. Now it seems unlikely he’ll just drop out at the first sign of trouble. But a slow fade leading to a weak finish in Iowa is possible. Or his rankings could stay capped at the 25 percent to 30 percent range, and he will lose once the further winnowing of the candidates produces one or two strong opponents.

In short, everything we know about how presidential nominations work says Trump isn’t going to be the nominee, or even come close.

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

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

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