Is the Tail Wagging the Dog in the Primaries?

Donald Trump continues to lead the Republican presidential nomination race (with about 30% support) despite pretty much everyone (outside his supporters) seeming to loathe the guy (and despite maintaining a relatively high unfavorability rating), including the Republican political establishment and conservative media. Many of his statements, including a proposal to (temporarily) ban all Muslims from traveling to the US,  seem to go against what most Americans believe in, and they've created a hefty backlash. 

We got curious when a reader asked, "how do so many people want Trump to be president?" The question we first sought to answer is, "how  many people want Trump to be president?"

We looked into the polling methodologies that big pollsters use. For questions about primaries, they poll registered voters who declare an intent to vote in the primary. Because most states have rules that permit only registered party voters to vote in the primaries, this means that the total number of people being polled is less than or equal to the number of people registered with the party... at least for most states

What does this mean for us? Well, let's do a bit of quick math to get a rough idea of how many people we are going to be talking about here.

So 26% of registered voters are Republicans, which is probably the lowest it's ever been since the Republicans showed up. Democrats, at 30%, are also pretty comparatively small.

So the poll for the Republican presidential primary represents at most 26% of registered voters.

Can we estimate how many people are declaring that they'll vote in the primaries? The  most recent poll we could get our hands on--by Fox News--had about 86% of registered Republicans declaring that they intended to vote in a Republican primary. This is higher than typical turnout, but it gives us a good sense of what numbers we're dealing with here.

So Trump's 30% approval comes from about 86% of Republicans, who make up 26% of the electorate. This means about 7% of registered voters are declaring that they prefer Trump as President over all others. Right now, we're assuming that registered Democrats prefer him in vanishingly small numbers (we can't find how many Independents prefer him over all other candidates). 

Of course, should he win the nomination, it's probably unlikely that wholly 93% of voters would vote for the Democratic candidate. But it gives us an idea of how many people are really excited by Trump. That 7% is a whole lot lower than the 28% of French voters that voted for Marine Le Pen's far-right "National Front" party, despite the country having a right-wing alternative in Sarkozy. 

When we did this math, we decided for the moment not to speculate on the motivations of that 7%--it would be pure speculation without us doing some polling of our own. But it raised a different question:

Is the tail wagging the dog in US politics?

Right now about 7% of voters want Trump to be their president (rather than someone else), but he is the consistent front-runner in the Republican party and could be one of the two major-party candidates in the 2016 election. 

There is a theory that Donald Trump is popular despite his feelings about women, Hispanics, and Muslims, due to his ability to signal authenticityIn short, candidates can claim they're authentic--and often do--but Trump doesn't "toe the line" of saying what the polls demand he say in order to be popular, and that on its own may be very attractive to some. 

But with respect to the "tail" theory, we also know that the most conservative or liberal voters are far more likely to vote than those who are less so. They're more likely to be registered in a party and much more likely to vote in primaries.

So ultimately, we have a very small group that is not representative of most views having a lot of power via a primary system that favors an ever-shrinking minority of the most ideologically "pure" party-affiliated voters. Thus, the tail wags the dog, and Trump gets the attention and national engagement of front-runner status despite being the preferred candidate of a very small group of Americans. 

This structure--and the perverse political incentives that it creates--is the basis for Wedged and the Greene-Fogg curve, which we think aptly describes the Trump phenomenon.

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Erik Fogg

We do politics, but we don't do the thinking for you.