One would think that Trump cannot possibly continue to maintain his high rating exclusively with scandalous antics, but American politics has seen many surprises over its history.
Donald Trump’s phenomenal popularity in the 2016 presidential race is based on many factors, including the current public sentiment in the US and peculiarities of the current situation in the Republican Party.
Big businessmen have taken part in the presidential races before. For example, Ross Perot did this twice, first as an independent candidate and four years later as the nominee of the party he founded in 1995, the Reform Party. Two months before the primaries, Trump enjoys much greater popularity than the other Republican candidates. This popularity is, in part, due to internal contradictions within the Republican Party, but mostly can be attributed to Barack Obama’s left-leaning liberal policies, which have provoked the rise of a rightwing conservative core dubbed as the Tea Party movement. Of the 20 Republican candidates who joined the battle for the nomination in the absence of a clear leader, at least half of them consider themselves part of the Tea Party. None of them has so far won over the majority of the Republican electorate.
The situation in the Democratic Party is quite different, however. According to recent polls, the overwhelming majority of Democratic voters have wholeheartedly supported Hillary Clinton for the past two or three years. Her ratings have soared so high that only two Democratic candidates now remain in the race after the first rounds of election debates.
Against this backdrop, one of the most successful businessmen in modern US history, Donald Trump announced his candidacy from the Republican Party after many years of hinting at a possible run at the presidency. He never did run for political office before his latest run, but sometimes provided financial assistance to both Republican and Democratic politicians, including Hillary Clinton when she was Senator from his home state, New York. Trump pragmatically decided to run for president from the Republican Party, many speculate, because he would have quickly lost to Hillary Clinton in the Democratic camp.
Trump’s election campaign has so far been very successful. Within two months of announcing his decision, his rating jumped from 5 to 31 percent, the highest among Republican candidates. His popularity continues to grow and has reached nearly 40 percent, according to some estimates, a rating which places him in the lead for the Republican presidential nomination.
The funding of his campaign is an interesting issue. Under US legislation, presidential candidates can accept practically limitless donations for their campaigns, provided they report the sources of contributions and how they were spent.
Trump has said more than once that the race for presidency makes politicians too dependent on big business, and cites this as being the major reason why he has refused to accept any campaign contributions, preferring to finance his campaign himself. While sounding noble, this simply can’t be true: Trump’s election headquarters have accumulated only $6 million a beggarly sum, especially when compared to contributions made to Jeb Bush ($130 million) or Hillary Clinton’s ($100 million) campaigns.
But this can be said: Donald Trump, the independently wealthy dark horse in the race, is spending much more of his personal wealth on his campaign than all of his rivals, from both sides of the aisle.
Another popular Republican candidate is Ben Carson, a retired American neurosurgeon who too has never been involved in big politics. The combined rating of Trump and Carson was over 50 percent of all Republican candidates. Such a high combined rating appears to signify that Americans are no longer satisfied with professional politicians as presidential candidates.
Trump is a popular and recognizable face in the US media and so he is one of the better known Republican candidates. That he is waging an unusual campaign allows him to draw additional attention to his run for the nomination. He can at times act very aggressively, allowing himself scandalous behavior and doesn’t shy away from making contradictory statements. Nevertheless, these “negative” attributes have had a highly positive effect on his popularity. His idea of making Mexicans build a wall on the southern US border has won him additional rating points, just as his scandalous call for the barring of all Muslims from entering the United States did.
Donald Trump, incidentally, is the only presidential candidate who doesn’t criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin. Trump claims that he has accumulated his wealth through his ability to make deals, and one of his numerous books is devoted to this issue. He has said he will use this ability to work well with the Russian president.
Of course, one would think that Trump cannot possibly continue to maintain his high rating exclusively with scandalous antics, but American politics has seen many surprises over its history and so Trump’s victory in the primaries and possibly even in the overall race cannot be ruled out.
If one were to assume that Trump will not withdraw his candidacy at any rate, there are at least three possible outcomes of his run for the Oval Office.
First, if Trump loses the battle for the Republican nomination, he will likely continue fighting as an independent candidate. The Republican leaders have tried to prevent this possibility by introducing a new requirement, under which each Republican candidate, including Trump, is obliged to sign a pledge to support the Republican presidential nominee and not run as a third-party candidate in the general election. However, Trump has recently said he could leave the party if its leaders treated him unfairly. But in this eventuality he is unlikely to win enough votes. This would only split the Republican electorate, letting the Democratic candidate, who will most likely be Hillary Clinton, win the presidential race.
Under a second scenario, Trump will win enough votes in the primaries and will be the Republican Party nominee for the November election. According to polls, Trump trails Clinton by 6 or 7 percentage points, but as history has shown in previous elections, the situation can change drastically over the final 10 months before the elections are held.
The primaries traditionally begin in the state of Iowa, this year’s launch falling on February 1, 2016. Texas is the only state where Trump’s rating is below that of another Republican candidate and a member of the Tea Party movement, Ted Cruz. Winning the Iowa primary is of the utmost importance: if Trump fails to defeat Cruz there, this would have a highly adverse effect on his chances in the remaining primaries. It is therefore logical that Trump is focusing his campaign on criticizing Ted Cruz’s policies.
And lastly, Donald Trump will win the 2016 presidential election. The Republican leadership, even though it has been at odds with the millionaire, will be forced to cooperate with him in order to keep Hillary Clinton out of the White House in 2016.
Pavel Sharikov, PhD in Political Science, is Director of the Applied Research Center, RAS Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.