When it comes to picking candidates for president, summer is for dating and winter is for mating. The question is not so much why Donald Trump and other anti-establishment candidates like Ben Carson and Bernie Sanders are gaining traction this summer. Instead, the question is whether voters’ affection will stay with these candidates as the summer suns fades and the cold of the February primaries and caucuses descends.
The summer before a presidential election year is a lot like dating in your early 20s. You are unattached and care-free. You want to connect with someone passionately and fall hopelessly in love. You aren't thinking about building up a 401(k) or home equity, you are plotting romantic weekend getaways and writing over-the-top love letters.
Meanwhile, your parents want you to meet a guy like Jeb Bush. He's a nice boy from a good family. He'll be a good provider and a good father to your kids. Hillary’s such a nice girl too. And so smart! But, ugh, you don't want to get dating advice from your parents. They are so boring and so don't get you.
Donald Trump is everything your parents hate. He's loud. He's disrespectful. He probably smokes and drives a motorcycle. But, you don't care. You are young and unattached. You aren't thinking of settling down. You've got so much time. Bernie’s a ton of fun too, in a different way. He’s a dreamer and a thinker. He won’t let his “art” get corrupted by the forces of capitalism. He doesn’t care what anyone thinks of him.
But, as Danny and Sandy taught us in "Grease", summer lovin' doesn't last. Remember "it turned colder/that's where it ends"? Summer is the time of possibility and personality. Fall and winter bring accountability.
We saw something similar to this “summer swoon” in 2012. The closer we got to winter – i.e., primary and caucus season - personality and policy became less important to GOP voters and electability became more important. We don't have data from the summer of 2011, but in October of 2011, according the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 20 percent of Republicans said that having a GOP nominee who could defeat President Obama was the most important factor in their vote. Almost half (46 percent) wanted a candidate who was closest to their views, and another third (32 percent) wanted a candidate who had the “right personal style and leadership qualities.” Just three months later, voters got a bit more serious about electability, and a little less fixated on ideology and personality. In January of 2012, 32 percent of Republicans wanted a candidate who could win - a twelve point jump from October. The percentage of voters who were most concerned that a candidate aligned with them ideologically dropped seven points to 39 percent and style became less important as well - dropping five points to 27 percent.
This year, we’ve seen the importance of electability dip between spring and summer, while ideology has gained in importance. In March of 2015, nineteen percent of Republicans said the candidate with the best chance of defeating the Democratic nominee would get their vote, while 46 percent said they would support the candidate that “comes closest to your views on issues.” Another 33 percent said that “a candidate with the right personal style and strong leadership qualities” was their pick. By July, the percentage of those who picked electability as their most important factor dropped 7 points to 12 percent, while the percentage of those who picked ideology as the most important rose 8 points to 54 percent and 31 percent picked personal style.
But, everyone is starting to wonder if this summer will be different. The establishment has less credibility than ever and trying to scare voters to “settle” with the “safe” candidate will be harder than ever. Another unproductive session of Congress this fall, capped off by the potential for more shut-down drama will only further alienate voters from the establishment and drive them to outsiders like Carson, Trump and Cruz.
What this likely means is that the “summer lovin’” doesn’t fade as quickly as it has in previous elections. Earlier this year it looked as if the field would ultimately shake-out into three “slots”: Tea Party, Establishment and Social Conservative. It now looks like we need to add an extra slot for Outsider. Some candidates, like Cruz, Walker, Huckabee, Rubio and Carson can fit comfortably in two or more of these lanes, while Bush and John Kasich only fit into the establishment box. Trump, meanwhile, remains difficult to categorize at all. The NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found he was getting support from moderate/liberal GOPers (second to Bush) as well as Tea Party voters (second to Cruz and tied with Walker).
At the end of the day, what is most likely to end Trump’s run is his sheer un-electability. The latest CNN poll puts Trump’s unfavorable ratings at almost 60 percent. GOP voters may be frustrated with the status quo, but they hate the idea of Hillary Clinton as president even more. When asked if they thought Republicans had a better chance of winning the White House if Trump was the nominee or if another GOPer was the nominee, only 38 percent of GOP voters in the most recent CNN poll picked Trump, another 58 percent picked “someone else.”
Ultimately, what primary voters want is the candidate who is closest to their views ideologically and who can also win in November. That person is not Donald Trump. However, what the non-outsiders – i.e, Walker, Bush, Rubio – can learn from Trump is the importance of authenticity and plain-speak. For those not named Trump, do something “un-political,” something that people wouldn’t expect of a politician. Admit past mistakes. Get less addicted to sound-bites and talking points. Go live with a family in Iowa for a night – or two. Sleep in the guest room. Show voters you really, truly want to understand what their day-to-day lives are like from the ground up – not just from the podium down. You don’t need a helicopter to do this – just some imagination and a willingness to try something different.
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