Donald Trump looks to be doing quite well in his young presidential campaign. Just a few weeks after his announcement, his support among Republican voters, according to a recent CNN poll, has quadrupled, and he appears to be in second place for the nomination behind Jeb Bush. We know he's doing well, but we also know what this looks like by next spring, with Trump tens or hundreds of millions of dollars poorer than he is today, departing the presidential race with approximately zero delegates to his name. The question is how we get from here to there.
Why won't he get the nomination, despite his vast resources? As I described here, the main problem Trump faces is that basically the entire Republican establishment despises him. And you actually need substantial party insider support to get the nomination. They think he's an embarrassing clown, and money can't buy you love.
But how exactly does this play out? Below, I offer a few models based on failed Republican presidential candidacies from 2012. Trump will likely follow one of these paths:
MODEL 1: THE TRUMP 2012
Lest we forget, Donald Trump at least flirted with running for president four years ago, and at this point in that cycle, Trump was actually leading the nascent Republican field. As Dan Drezner and Jonathan Bernstein have noted, Trump's popularity then, as now, was illusory, sustained largely by his celebrity-level name recognition in a crowded field that was not yet well known among Republican voters. As active Republicans in the early primary and caucus states get to know the candidates and hear elite conversation about the field, they will come to find a favorite with a stronger history within the party who makes for a more credible candidate.
As this Vox article reminds us, pretty much every Republican candidate in 2012 was a frontrunner at some point. That didn't make any of them a likely nominee. By this model, Trump's path in 2016 will look very similar to his path from four years earlier. As voters get to know the other candidates and learn more about Trump's actual policy stances, his prospects will fade.
MODEL 2: THE PERRY GAFFE
If Trump manages to remain moderately popular into the late summer and early fall, he will be among the elite tier of candidates who get to participate in the televised candidate debates. He is virtually guaranteed to say something foolish at one of these events, probably at all of them. With reporters hanging on his every word, they'll be looking for just this sort of event, and it will be re-played over and over again, perhaps causing people to question their support for him.
This is similar to what happened to Rick Perry in late 2011, although with two important exceptions. First, Perry saying "oops" was actually him admitting he'd made a mistake; Trump would never make such an admission. But he could say something embarrassing nonetheless. Second, Perry's gaffe was damaging because it caused GOP elites to question whether they could support him. GOP elites already know they won't support Trump. That said, among that 12 percent of Republican primary voters already supporting him, such an error may prove costly.
MODEL 3: THE GINGRICH BEATDOWN
Finally, if Trump manages to survive the debates and remain in the race after the first few primaries and caucuses, sustained largely by his own campaign spending, that's when party insiders will feel compelled to actively organize against him. That's what happened to Newt Gingrich after he survived the early Republican contests in 2012 with the help of Sheldon Adelson's funding. In the last week of January 2012, numerous former members of Congress who had served under Speaker Gingrich took to the nation's op/ed sections to decry Gingrich's leadership abilities and ethical commitments and to pledge their support for Mitt Romney. Other party elites, from David Frum to Bob Dole, dumped steady piles of trash on Gingrich's campaign.
It's certainly not the campaign most party insiders would like to run. Generally, they've become quite skilled at pressuring people to get out of presidential races by simply depriving them of the endorsements and funds they need to compete. But it's possible Trump won't get the hint. So the gloves just might have to come off for this.
And in some ways, such a fight could be beneficial to the party. Republicans have become concerned in recent years about their reputation among women and Latinos—among other demographic groups—and have worked to nominate candidates who at least don't make their situation worse. Nominating a man who runs beauty pageants and refers to Mexican immigrants as drug-running rapists would not help their party reach across those lines, and they know that. But publicly destroying a man who does such things just might help.
At any rate, the destruction of Trump's candidacy is a foregone conclusion. The precise method of that destruction remains a bit of a mystery, but it will undoubtedly make for good television.
What Makes Us Politic? is Seth Masket’s weekly column on politics and policy.