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Republican debate: Will Donald Trump defy expectations, again?

Trump's candidacy was fueled by a news media that found his controversial, over-the-top rhetoric impossible to ignore. That still may be the case. 

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    US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump talks to members of the media before a campaign event in Atkinson, N.H. on Monday.
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It has become increasingly clear to me that, beyond the uptick he has caused in their respective audiences, political pundits are enjoying Donald Trump’s ascendancy in the polls, not least because they believe it exposes political scientists’ inability to explain the 2015-16 presidential electoral dynamics. As @JGreenDC recently tweeted, “[t]he most pleasurable part of this campaign cycle is that traditional insiders don’t have any idea what’s going on and they’re losing cachet.” By “traditional insiders” the pundits mean – as this Josh Barro tweet suggests – my arrogant political scientist colleagues! Barro tweets: “My favorite part is watching smug political scientists be dumbfounded.”  (Me? Smug? I’m sure Barro was referring to others in the profession. After all, only one pundit has blocked my twitter feed ... so far.)

However, as I discovered in an interview last week on Ari Melber’s Let’s Talk radio showa post I wrote for US News in mid-August headlined “Do the Rules Apply to Donald?” may have inadvertently contributed to the perception that political scientists are baffled by Trump’s staying power. In asking me to explain Trump’s position atop the polls, Melber pointed out that in the article I noted that the duration of Trump’s front-runner status already far exceeded that experienced by the four Republicans – Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, and Herman Cain – who spent a significant period leading the polls in the 2012 Republican race. On average, their period of discovery, scrutiny and, eventually, a polling decline lasted about two months. Trump, in contrast, has been leading polls going on four months, with no clear sign of a polling decline as yet.

As I conceded to Melber, when The Donald announced his candidacy last July, I did not anticipate that he would remain atop the polls for this long. (Nor, I suspect, did many of my colleagues). But this doesn’t mean we are clueless when it comes to understanding why he has remained the front-runner for so long. As I wrote in July soon after Trump began his meteoric rise in the polls, his candidacy was being fueled by a media that found his controversial, over-the-top rhetoric impossible to ignore.  I concluded that post by writing, “The sooner the media begins evaluating The Donald on the details of his policies and his governing expertise, rather than on his deliberately provocative comments designed to mobilize a disaffected public, the sooner The Donald’s political bubble is likely to burst. Alas, I have little confidence that most journalists, in this era of dwindling audiences and shrinking profit margins, will be able to resist taking the easy road by dismissing The Donald as a serious candidate. To date, it is a media strategy that has The Donald laughing all the way to the top of polls.”

In retrospect, where I miscalculated was in not fully believing my own prediction; clearly I underestimated the media’s willingness to resist The Donald’s ability to dictate his press coverage. It turns out that pundits have found it impossible to resist reporting on Trump’s rhetorical excesses, even as they chide themselves for doing so. As John Sides demonstrates, The Donald’s standing in the polls closely tracks the amount of media coverage he has received; as coverage goes up, so does his standing in the polls.

Note that it hardly matters whether the coverage is negative or not – as Sides indicates, it is not as if the media has refrained from criticizing The Donald for his often intemperate remarks. But that simply provides him with more free publicity, which seems to boost his polling support.

So what, if anything, will cause Trump to drop out of the top polling spot? The simple answer is that it will require someone more newsworthy to begin to eat into his media coverage.  For what it is worth, for the first time in months someone other than Trump – in this case Ben Carson – landed atop a recent national poll, although it may be too early to read much into this. This one poll notwithstanding, Trump remains in the lead based on aggregate polling.

And it would not be surprising if Trump gets a temporary polling boost based on tonight’s Republican debate due to the renewed media focus on his candidacy. Of course, that depends in part on whether the media finds someone other than Trump’s performance even more newsworthy. In this respect, tonight offers one of the few remaining opportunities for underfunded candidates, such as John Kasich or Marco Rubio, who are currently trying to break out as the alternative to Trump, to take advantage of the free media and have their Carly Fiorina debate moment. Fiorina, you will recall, saw her polling numbers blip upward after each of the first two Republican debates in which she participated, although she has found it difficult to maintain that momentum. For those like Jeb Bush who have the resources to play a long game based on winning delegates, on the other hand, tonight’s debate may be less crucial, at least in the short run. Still, he undoubtedly wants to perform well if for no other reason than to stem the spate of stories citing his recent staff cutbacks, and his consultation with “Mommy and Daddy” Bush, as evidence that his candidacy is in trouble.

I suspect the immediate media focus tonight, given recent polls, will be on Ben Carson. It will be interesting to see how much the CNBC moderators John Harwood, Becky Quick, and Carl Quintanilla focus their critical questions on the Good Doctor, given some of his recent statements equating abortion with slavery and linking gun control to the Holocaust. You will recall that Jake Tapper spent much of his time moderating the first CNN Republican debate by trying to goad the candidates into personally attacking one another, while the Fox crew focused much more on substantive policy differences. Let’s hope we don’t see a repeat of Tapper’s strategy.

As always, I’ll be live blogging the main debate, beginning shortly before it gets started at 8 p.m. EDT on CNBC. (Alas, it is not showing on any over-the-air broadcast channels.) Ten candidates will participate in the grownup event, while the remaining four – Lindsey Graham, Bobbie Jindal, George Pataki, and Rick Santorum, hold their own “kiddie” discussion at 6 p.m. I hope you can join in by posting comments at this site – it is always more fun with some audience participation. Just post in the comment box, or hit the Twitter follow button at the top of the page.

Matthew Dickinson publishes his Presidential Power blog at http://sites.middlebury.edu/presidentialpower/.

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