Saturday, February 27, 2016

The Wages of Underestimation

Some of the voices that are now declaring Donald Trump to be an imminent threat to the Republic were, a few short weeks ago, pronouncing that he would be a flash in the pan--someone who would pull about Buchanan's margins in the 1996 primary.  I think it's arguable that Buchanan's rise pointed to serious tensions in the GOP coalition, but, even leaving that contention aside, it seems clear that many on the right severely underestimated Trump.  Other than Jeb Bush and, eventually, Ted Cruz, many leading Republican presidential contenders avoided hitting Trump hard throughout much of 2015 and early 2016.  As this New York Times story notes, many institutional figures opposed or were indifferent to anti-Trump efforts for a long time.  (Some on the right have been far more prescient in understanding the rise and appeal of Trump, so this underestimation of his candidacy was far from unanimous.)

However, even if some are just now waking up to the seriousness of Trump's presidential bid, many continue to risk underestimating the forces that gave an opening to Trump and fueled his rise.  As Tucker Carlson, Reihan Salam, David Frum, Peggy Noonan, and others have noted, Trump's ascent did not happen in a vacuum.

Last summer in NRO, I argued that the failures of the governing elite have paved the way for a populist insurgency:
However, contrary to the pretensions of the anti-populists, it has been technocrats — not populists — who have had egg on their faces over the past decade. Pedigreed members of the meritocracy were the architects of the real-estate bubble and the 2008 financial crisis. Technocrats flocked to Barack Obama, sure that “No Drama Obama” with his perfectly creased pants would be the return to competence. As the rise of ISIS, the OPM hack, and the Affordable Care Act rollout demonstrate, this belief was sorely mistaken. And the establishment hasn’t exactly been the embodiment of judicious sobriety, either. Many in the cultural and economic elite drive the frenzy of the new intolerance. It’s not slack-jawed yokels who want to ban Civil War video games, suppress Latin literature, and hector transgressive comedians. The philistine demagogues of our day can, unfortunately, all too often be found in boardrooms, college classrooms, newsrooms, and seats of government. The current ruling establishment has not lived up to its own standards, which has made it harder for this establishment to ward off populist challenges.
Preaching identity politics, defending cronyism, and facilitating economic decline, the current iteration of corporatist transnationalism wages a total war on the institutions of civil society.  Growing civil alienation and economic anxiety increase public appetite for outside-the-box figures, and Trump seized the mantle of populist tribune early in the campaign.  (Whether or not he should be the vessel for these populist energies is a separate question, and other candidates can still try to harness these energies.)

Conservatives can offer solutions that respond to these anxieties, but those solutions will require policy reform.  Reforming guest-worker programs, ending Too Big to Fail, decentralizing educational policy, offering trade reform, attacking the poison of identity politics--all these things can help expand the GOP coalition and address some simmering anxieties.  Talking points won't be enough.  Sneering at the concerns of the alienated will actively detract from that enterprise of reform, as will a hazy nostalgia that uses tired assumptions to ward off rigorous thinking.  Doubling down on the Beltway's vision of anti-opportunity "comprehensive immigration reform" will almost surely increase popular anxiety.

Civic alienation and economic decay open the door to demagoguery.  If we want to defend the enterprise of the United States as a free republic, those who seek to govern must accept the responsibilities of principle, learn from experience, and realize their duties to their fellow citizens.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Less Musical Chairs--More Policy Reform

In the aftermath of Donald Trump's victory in the Nevada caucus, an addendum to my NRO piece yesterday arguing that a smaller field was no guarantee of a Trump defeat:

Some seem to think that all it takes to defeat Trump is a game of musical chairs.  It's clear why the partisans of individual candidates would like every other non-Trump to drop out.  It's also clear why defenders of the status quo might argue that a dropout sweepstakes is all the GOP needs right now; by making the Trump phenomenon be about personality rather than policy, they get to ward off a discussion of the broader forces driving Trump's rise and, implicitly, what policy steps might be taken to address these forces.  (For the record: not all proponents of winnowing the field are partisans of other candidates or fear policy reform.  In fact, many proponents of reform have been major critics of Trump.)

Winnowing the field may indeed hurt Trump, but the calculus is more complex than some winnowers might admit.  The fact that Trump reaches across many sectors of the GOP coalition makes it harder to predict exactly where supporters of various candidates will go if they do drop out.

If it's the case that policy concerns have in part driven the rise of Trump, non-Trumps will have to think about how to speak to those concerns for both the short and the long term.  In the short term, policy innovation could help strengthen the coalitions of various non-Trump candidates.  In the long term, policy reform might be even more important.  As Henry Olsen and James C. Capretta noted today, Republicans will need many of Trump's supporters if they hope to win in November.  Therefore, they'll have to find a way of keeping his supporters within the GOP coalition after the primary.

Now, I have argued that it's possible to accommodate populist tendencies without sacrificing key conservative principles; Olsen and Capretta's discussion seems to be suggesting something along those lines, too.  That possibility remains open to any of the Republican candidates still running.  A Republican party that reaches out to both the aspirational and the struggling could forge a workable governing majority.  But it will take policy reform to do that (whether you call it reform conservatism, populist conservatism, libertarian populism, or something else).

Trump has staked a major claim on the current insurgent populism.  This is one of the reasons why his rivals, if they want to supplant him, will have to offer more specific plans if they hope gain some of that populist energy for themselves.  In order to prove that their electoral "product" is better, the non-Trumps might need to explain how their specific policies address populist concerns.  If his opponents start getting into the weeds of policy in order to appeal to the populist insurgency, Trump himself will be forced to become more specific in his own policy message.  Such a policy-oriented discussion would likely change the trajectory of the campaign, though it's hard to say exactly how.  That change may strengthen Trump's candidacy and make him a stronger general-election contender, but it may also strengthen the standing of one or more of his rivals for both the primary and the general.

If any of the non-Trumps hope to gain traction, there are better things they can do than complain about how everyone else should drop out.  They could call for breaking up the big banks or slashing the number of H-1B visas or trade reforms that honor market principles and shore up the working class.  They could forthrightly attack the poison of identity politics and offer explicit, in-depth discussions about how their tax policies will help the average family.

Without embracing policy reform, Trump's rivals may find that, when the music ends, The Donald is the last one left with a chair.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

To Gain a Winning Coalition, Address Abiding Challenges

Over at The Weekly Standard, former Reagan advisor and erstwhile New Jersey Republican Senate nominee Jeffrey Bell argues that key to the rises of both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump has been the fact that they have both offered solutions to the economic challenges facing many Americans (even if these solutions might be mistaken at times):
Most conservatives believe Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have wrong solutions to the stagnation in wages and job creation that has marked the American economy since 2000. But Trump and Sanders have proven better vote-getters than conservative candidates because, politically speaking, having wrong answers to a real and widely felt evil is better than offering no answers at all.

The last several Republican debates have been remarkable for the virtual absence of discussion of economic policy, other than Trump’s attacks on establishment lobbyists and donors and demands for "better deals" with our trading partners. It's true that economic-related questioning by the various debate moderators has been minimal, but that doesn't explain the non-Trump candidates' failure to inject the issue on their own initiative.
Bell argues that Trump's rivals in the GOP will have to argue more forcefully how their policies can address economic turmoil and speak to the needs of voters who feel left behind.  Bell's argument that conservatives could use some imagination in order to revitalize their approach to economic policy has been echoed by other writers, including Michael Brendan Dougherty, Tucker Carlson, and Rod Dreher.

In these remarks, Bell hits on one of the key ways conservatives can channel insurgent populist energies: by offering limited-government, market-oriented policies that will encourage economic uplift for working- and middle-class Americans.  On some issues, conservatives already have policies that might do so (such as an expanded child-tax credit), but they might have to do more to put these policies front and center.

On other issues, Republicans might need to shift in favor of a more forward-thinking reform.  For instance, the approach to "comprehensive immigration reform" favored by many Beltwayers involves more guest-worker programs and policies that would encourage even more illegal immigration.  Reform-oriented Republicans could instead offer an approach to immigration reform that ends the abuse of guest-worker programs and creates a legal-immigration system that strengthens opportunity for both the native born and recent immigrants.

Bell notes that developing a pro-opportunity economic message will probably be important for Republicans if they hope to win in 2016, so the issue of economic anxiety is not simply a matter for the primary race, either.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

That Rubio Video

A few points on the Marco Rubio video going around, in which Senator Rubio declares that "we are all truly in this together":

Rubio's remarks show how it's possible to stress ideals of civil togetherness while also noting some of the challenges faced by various Americans and addressing the real threat of alienation.  If radical identity politics undermines the foundations of a civic republic, it's important for national leaders to offer a rhetorical and theoretical alternative to the politics of tribalism.

Many transnationalists often exacerbate identity politics, but a sober-minded republicanism can instead appeal to broader notions of civil engagement and rational discussion.  Some of the current populist insurgency has been driven by a hostility to left-wing identity politics, and a generous, balanced approach can both speak to those populist concerns and remain true to the principles of ordered liberty.

However, it's also worth noting that rhetoric isn't everything.  Republican candidates who hope to tackle the problem of civil alienation will need to offer a forthright rhetorical case against identity politics and support policies that strengthen our local civic architectures.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

How to Channel Populist Energies in a Conservative Way: Or, An Experiment in Tilting at Windmills

Some on the right view the current populist insurgency with something like horror. Criticisms of Donald Trump, who has anointed himself a populist tribune, have often included dark references to a sinister populism that necessarily threatens conservative ideas and limited government. (Of course, one can criticize Trump without criticizing populist sentiments, and many anti-Trumpers have also shown themselves more sympathetic to populism in general.)

I nurture a somewhat quixotic suspicion that a partial rapprochement of conservatism and populist tendencies is possible. At least four trends seem to have antagonized the current populist insurgency: economic decline, identity politics, elite incompetence, and ideological transnationalism. There are policy and political responses to these challenges that are within the spectrum of conservative thought.

As an attempt to explore where such a rapprochement might look like, I offer the following portfolio of policy hypotheticals. I'm not necessarily endorsing all these policy ideas, though I am sympathetic to many of them. Many of these ideas are also offered in the spirit of compromise; they might not satisfy all conservatives or all populists, but they might be at least somewhat acceptable to many in each camp.  We might denote populist-conservative fusionism as a "popucon" approach to politics. (And, yes, I know "popucon" sounds rather like "poppycock.") Many current Republican candidates already have a touch of popucon tendencies, and there are numerous intellectuals and elected officials that popucons could take inspiration from--including David Frum, Ramesh Ponnuru, and the rest of the reformocon crew, as well as Jeff Sessions, Dave Brat, and Mike Lee.

Many in Republican circles are currently seeking to crown an anti-Trump. If Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, and John Kasich really do want to supplant Trump, they may be more likely to succeed if they do not just run as an anti-Trump but co-opt some of Trump's issues. In order to win the nomination, a candidate will have to give voters something to vote for--not just a cause to vote against.

So, in the spirit of fusionism, I offer the following possible popucon strategies. Again, these are offered in the mode of possibility and the hypothetical.

Go beyond "amnesty" on immigration: Immigration has given Trump his opening. The Beltway's preferred version of immigration "reform"--instant legalization, Potemkin enforcement, and expanded guest-worker programs--manages to be both anti-conservative and utterly indifferent to popular needs. Instead of this tired orthodoxy, an evolved version of immigration reform that encourages civil integration, economic opportunity, and the rule of law could win over populists and self-identified conservatives.

Popucons might find that trumpeted opposition to "amnesty" probably won't be enough. Voters have begun to catch on that "amnesty" is a particularly slippery term in a politician's vocabulary. Instead, popucons could make specific commitments on legal immigration, guest-worker programs, enforcement, and the eventual timing of a legalization program (if there is to be such a program at all). Attacking guest-worker programs and the abuse of them would seem particularly low-hanging policy fruit. Trump and Cruz have already moved against these programs, but other candidates still have an opportunity here, too.

In tax reform, think more about Fishtown and less about Belmont: Popucons might focus their tax-reform pitch on those policies that will help voters in the middle and working classes. Capital-gains tax-cuts might be nice, but voters will need to be convinced that tax reform will work for them. Tax credits for families and low-income workers might be part of the popucon strategy.

Take a more critical eye to trade orthodoxy: Many conservatives take as a point of faith that defending current global trading patterns is key for conservatism because such patterns are free trade. Popucons might note that, in reality, much of what goes by the name of "free trade" is a globally-managed neomercantilism that distorts the market in order to supply cheap imports to wealthy nations. Perhaps this system ultimately benefits the average citizen, and perhaps it doesn't. But it certainly isn't the free movement of the market. When, for instance, the People's Republic of China demands that Boeing (and many other companies) open up a factory that is co-owned by a Chinese-backed corporation in order to have access to the Chinese market, that's not the organic product of the marketplace.

Popucons could meet populists halfway by expressing skepticism about expanding that system of managed trade. Even a guy like Kevin D. Williamson, no small devotee of free trade, has said that TPP is so flawed that free-market conservatives should probably oppose it. Many trade compacts have failed to live up to the promises made by their advocates, so popucons might argue that we should re-access exactly how to construct compacts that actually do advance American prosperity and reinforce American sovereignty. This skepticism might not mean blowing up current trading agreements, but it might place different priorities on trade agreements going forward.

Defend entitlements: At a time of economic disruption, many voters look to entitlements as something they can count on. Social Security remains very popular with the electorate as a whole as well as with Republicans--even conservative ones. A 2014 Pew poll found that 59% of even "consistently conservative" Republicans wanted Social Security benefits to remain the same or to be expanded. Only 12% of that group want to phase it out. Moderates--a group where populists are well represented--are even more defensive of Social Security. The funding issues for Medicare are much more dire than Social Security, but many voters want to see Medicare funding increase rather than decrease. Both plans are probably in need of reform, but, in order for that reform to take place, voters will need to be convinced that they will not be left without a safety net.

Popucons could defend entitlements in a pro-market and pro-growth way: Economic stagnation, especially the hollowing out of the middle class, makes Social Security less affordable, and a lack of market-based competition increases the price of medical care (including the cost of Medicare). A popucon economic platform can make these entitlements more fiscally sustainable. Popucons would lead not with talk of Social Security privatization but instead with efforts to rebalance payment and taxation structures. As Marco Rubio's Social Security plan suggests, there's plenty of reform that's possible without requiring privatization of Social Security.

Focus on expanding and improving health-care: In discussing the Affordable Care Act, popucons would focus on replace rather than repeal. The ACA is an unpopular bill, but some of its provisions aren't. Popucons might argue that their approach to health-care will not only improve care for those who already have health-insurance but also for those who don't. Policy wonks like Avik Roy have spent considerable time writing about how to offer market-based reforms that expand and improve coverage, so there are considerable intellectual resources for popucons to draw upon.

Speak out against the drug epidemic: As Robert VerBruggen noted earlier this year, the rate of drug-overdose deaths skyrocketed almost 150% between 1999 and 2014.*  The explosion of opioid abuse has hit economically depressed areas especially hard. Drug abuse cannot be solved simply by public policy, but policy measures can be taken to combat drug abuse. Moreover, popucon candidates lend their words to the cause of fighting against the alienation that feeds drug abuse. Donald Trump has made pledges to crack down on drugs a major theme of his stump speech, but John Kasich and (former candidate) Chris Christie have spoken out frequently on this topic as well.

Defend the institutions of law and order: The United States has made major strides in combating crime over the past 25 years, but anti-police hysteria and ill-considered policy measures risk causing the nation to backtrack. Especially in an era of unrest, many voters crave stabilizing forces, and the police can be one such force. Popucons can buttress a law-and-order message with targeted efforts at criminal-justice reform and attacking official malfeasance, but they would also keep the rhetoric of public safety at the forefront.

End Too Big to Fail: Post-Dodd-Frank, financial consolidation has continued. Advocates of libertarian populism, like Tim Carney, have called for breaking up the big banks in order to end the era of Too Big to Fail. Many voters view the federal government as defending certain players against the interest of the middle class and the principles of the free market. By taking an assertive stand on financial reform, popucons could channel popular anxiety about a rigged economic game while also advancing free-market principles.

Attack identity politics: Much of what goes by the name "political correctness" is actually a species of Marcusian identity politics, which has become so poisonous that voices across the political spectrum are rising up against it. Mike Gonzalez at the Heritage Foundation has outlined how identity politics can break apart the civic compact. Conservatives and populists can come together in attacking an ideology that fears freedom of thought and rational debate. Moreover, popucons might note that vulgarity is not the same as a rigorous challenge to the identity-politics behemoth.

Call for competence: In the current primary, Republicans have squabbled about whether the failures of the Obama administration are due to flawed ideology or incompetence. Popucons might argue that both ideology and ineptness have led to the failures of the past seven years. A government with a mistaken philosophy might fail no matter how competent its officials are, but incompetent officials can cause a government to fail to achieve even its most legitimate aims.

Support localism in education and elsewhere: Decentralizing power is a common conservative goal, and something many populists want, too. "Common core" has in part become a dirty phrase because many fear a transfer of educational power from local communities to federal bureaucrats and corporate boardrooms. The fact that the Obama administration now seeks to run the discipline programs of schools across the nation might be something popucons could talk about--as well as its efforts to federalize local zoning laws.

These are not the only possible areas where populists and conservatives could find some common ground, but they might provide a starting point for further discussion. An unchecked populism can lead to calls for an absurdly and impossibly perfect strongman, but a conservatism that addresses popular concerns could revitalize the American republic and the hopes of limited government.

*Update: The annual number of drug-overdose deaths increased 150% between 1999 and 2014.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Trump, Buchanan, and Populist Pressures

In the lead-up to Donald Trump's victory in the New Hampshire primary tonight, some pundits have drawn parallels between Trump's candidacy and other populist insurgencies, including Ross Perot in 1992 and 1996 and Pat Buchanan in the 1996 primary. However, Trump won New Hampshire by a much bigger margin than Buchanan did in 1996.

Moreover, even if Trump only does replicate the Buchanan coalition (and there's considerable evidence he'll be able to go beyond this), it would be a mistake to dismiss the Trump phenomenon with a shrug. Whether or not one agrees with the policies of Buchanan and Perot, the fact remains that the Republican party has struggled to forge a national presidential majority coalition since Perot's 1992 insurgency. The rise of Perot, Buchanan, and Trump point to deep structural risks and opportunities for the Republican presidential coalition.

Within the adult lifetime of the average American, the GOP presidential candidate has won a popular vote majority only once--in 2004--and that skin-of-your-teeth victory is likely at least partially because of a weak Democratic nominee. To note this poor performance is not to besmirch the skills of GOP political handlers, many of whom are cunning tacticians. But the structure of presidential politics--the so-called "Blue Wall"--has shifted so much against Republicans that, in order to win with the current coalition, a GOP nominee has to do everything right. Since 1992, Democrats have been able to afford losing a few major swing states; Republicans have not enjoyed that luxury. In six elections in a row, the GOP has failed to get a popular-vote victory margin of above 3 percent, an unprecedented sequence for the party; Democrats enjoyed a similar period in the desert in between the presidencies of Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush. Democrats have been able to win big, but Republicans have struggled to win at all.

Since 1992, Republicans have enjoyed much more support at the state and federal level. Part of this is perhaps because of Democratic success in presidential contests--GOP gains in 1994, 2010, and 2014 were in part reactions against Democratic presidents. These congressional and state-level victories can also be attributed to the fact that these races are diffuse. Congressional Republicans do not run on one slate of policies, but each candidate can calibrate his or her message to a local electorate. That's not been the case in presidential races, however; a presidential candidate can only run on a single set of policies.

In recent years, reformers and conservative populists have called for the party to expand its appeal to the working class and the economic middle. Economic stagnation, a weakening middle class, radical identity politics, and growing socioeconomic stratification do not bode well for the future of limited-government conservatism. With imagination and policy reform, Republicans can adapt to these challenges.

Populist energies have transformed both the Republican and Democratic primaries this year, and, by responsibly channeling these energies, the GOP can reap major electoral dividends. Such a channeling will not mean succumbing to angry chest-beating: it will require approaching the topics inflaming populist sentiment with realism, empathy, and policy sophistication. By offering reforms on trade, immigration, health-care, taxes, and other issues, Republicans can put forward policies that could improve outcomes for many working and aspiring American families.

Dis-Trumption is a sign of tensions in the GOP coalition, but it could also be the birth-pangs of a re-energized GOP and forward-looking conservatism. If Republicans rise to the challenges of this populist insurgency, they can champion policies that offer economic uplift and social renewal. Other Republican contenders who want to supplant Trump as well as activists who want to win in November would be wise to think about how to address some of the very real challenges facing the American people.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Setting Expectations in the Granite State

In the lead-up to the New Hampshire primary tomorrow, I thought it might be helpful to lay out some thoughts on expected performance in the Granite State.

Probably needs to win first: Donald Trump.  If Trump's polling lead in New Hampshire melts to a second-place finish, Trump risks looking like a paper tiger.  Not only will the Iowa debacle be repeated, but he will have given up an even larger lead than he had in Iowa.  If Trump can't win in New Hampshire, a state with a large independent and maverick-y primary electorate, his path to the nomination narrows considerably.  Trump has shifted his strategy a bit since Iowa, but we'll see tomorrow if he shifted it enough to win.

Depends on a strong second-place finish: Marco Rubio. Even though he had been in third place in the Iowa polls for weeks, Marco Rubio's campaign was able to use a stronger-than-expected showing in Iowa to grab the Big Mo.  After Iowa, Rubio's polling numbers rocketed up in the Granite State, and, by the middle of last week, it looked like he might be on a trajectory to catch Trump.  That ascent has been interrupted, but Rubio's campaign has projected a second-place finish in New Hampshire for a while.  If Rubio finishes within 5 or so points of Trump (assuming Trump's first) and outpaces his rivals by a similar margin, he'll be better able to make the claim that he is the center-right candidate who unifies the party.  A strong second place by Rubio would put a lot of pressure on Bush, Christie, and Kasich to start inching toward the exits.  A weaker finish, though, would be an expectations loss for his candidacy.

Needs to be close to or better than Rubio: Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Chris Christie, Carly Fiorina, and John Kasich.

There are variations in the stakes of a strong performance in New Hampshire for each of the three governors.  In order to have a path forward, Christie and Kasich both probably need either to do better than Rubio in New Hampshire or to come within a few points of him.  Both have centered their campaigns around New Hampshire; according to one count, Christie has spent more days campaigning in New Hampshire than Carson, Rubio, and Trump combined.  Without getting close to or beating Rubio on Tuesday, they'll have a hard time marshaling the resources to compete in later states.  (There is a slight variant here: either Christie or Kasich could also help maintain their viability even if they come substantially behind Rubio as long as they also beat the candidates below them by a solid margin.)

Jeb Bush is in a slightly different situation.  He has a substantial campaign infrastructure and considerable financial resources.  Bush's team seems to be digging in to compete in later states no matter what, so New Hampshire might not be a do-or-die state for him.  However, a poor performance in New Hampshire would cause much of the political establishment to unleash intense pressure on Bush to drop out.  On the other hand, Bush has essentially been left for dead by much of the chattering class, so even a double-digit result could be seen as a sign of political revival.  If Bush gets close to Rubio, his campaign could argue that Bush has regained momentum.  Rubio's allies are obviously concerned about that possibility: Rubio's Super PAC has been spending big against Bush recently.

Fiorina and Carson already face significant obstacles in the GOP primary.  They can hang in the race for a while, but double-digit finishes in New Hampshire would help reinvigorate their campaigns.

Has only upside: Ted Cruz.  As the first-place finisher in Iowa, Cruz does not need New Hampshire to maintain viability.  A strong performance will help him, but a weak one probably won't hurt him.  Whatever the outcome, the big story of Tuesday night will probably not be how badly Ted Cruz performed.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Is Trump Serious about Winning?

As Byron York noted yesterday, one of the major themes of Donald Trump's The Art of the Deal is the importance of flexibility--especially in the face of adversity.  Adapting to changing conditions is key for success in both business and politics.  Successful presidential campaigns take challenges in stride and modify their strategies in response to failure.  Unsuccessful ones degenerate into a circular firing squad and remain stubbornly committed to tactics that have led to failure.

So it will be interesting to see whether Trump's campaign learns from the Iowa debacle.  Iowa was a blow to Trump not just because he came in second, but because he expected to come in first.  Clearly, there was a gap between model and reality, and, if Trump can't update that model, he will likely face more defeats in the weeks ahead.

A subtheme of Trump's campaign has been the notion that he can win by growing the electorate.  Iowa suggests that there may be some merit to this strategy.  According to exit polls, he won 30% of those who had never caucused before (to 23% and 22% for Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, respectively).  However, he was blown out among those who had participated in caucuses before, getting only 19% of the vote compared to 32% for Cruz and 24% for Rubio.  Trump's appeal to voters at the margins of the Republican coalition might be an advantage in both the primary and general election, but this strategy will not work if he also radically alienates the core of the GOP.  As the field narrows, Trump will have to build his coalition if he wants to remain a viable contender.

In terms of messaging, Trump's campaign has so far relied on dominance in the news media, mega rallies, and a skillful use of social networking sites.  This three-pronged strategy has helped give Trump a substantial lead in the polls, but it might not be enough to win as the primary campaign expands.  Cruz and Rubio were able to tap on vast networks of activists in order to deliver stronger-than-expected performances in Iowa.  The ground game will continue to be important, and a sign of Trump's commitment to winning will be increased investment by his campaign in analytics, turn-out, and so forth..  The presidency is in part about management, and managing a turn-out operation is relatively simple compared to the vast machinery of the federal government.

It also remains to be seen whether Trump will buttress his polling- and personality-driven campaign with a more rigorous discussion of the issues.  It seems that many Iowa voters were not entirely comfortable with the idea of Trump as commander-in-chief, and a more in-depth discussion of the issues could help quell worries about his lack of experience in government.  Moreover, if Trump hopes to increase his appeal to the GOP electoral core, he will need to do more to convince them that he could responsibly implement conservative-leaning solutions to various national problems.  (Conversely, getting into petty spats with Republican candidates beloved by the grassroots is only likely to make the task of reaching out to the conservative base even more difficult.  If he hopes to get to a majority of delegates, Trump will need at least some of the supporters of Ted Cruz and others.)

In short, time will tell whether Trump can turn his celebrity brand into a presidential one.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Trump l'oeil

Donald Trump started today with the bright sheen of the frontrunner in Iowa.  Now, he's struggling to get a second-place finish.  Obviously, Iowa isn't everything (just ask Rick Santorum), but the sharp divergence between Trump's poll numbers a few days ago and his performance in the caucuses tonight is nevertheless striking.

So what are some possible reasons why Trump has fallen?

The conservative media assault has left a mark: Over the past couple weeks, many conservative organs--including National Review and The Weekly Standard--have taken a howitzer to Trump.  In the aftermath of this assault, Trump's numbers have dropped.

So has the battle with Ted Cruz: Cruz and Trump entered a titanic struggle in the weeks leading up to the caucuses.  This battle drove up Trump's negatives and drew fire from conservative talk radio.  While Cruz and Trump tangled, Rubio kept his distance and was able to pick up voters.

The ground game matters: Ted Cruz's ground game was reputed to be very formidable--and it looks like it lived up to its reputation.  Cruz and Rubio both tapped into networks of Iowa activists.  Retail politics still counts a lot.

The celebrity brand is a double-edged sword: Trump's brand as a pugnacious celebrity has helped draw attention to his campaign.  However, in the voting booth, that same branding might alienate some on-the-fence voters.