If you're skeptical about Donald Trump's chances of winning the GOP presidential nomination, you have good reason to be.
Despite a set of new polls showing the celebrity mogul in second place in the crowded GOP field — one from Iowa, two from New Hampshire, and two nationwide — Trump seems to be on the initial steps of a path that was well-trodden by fringe presidential contenders last time around.
Indeed, in 2011 and 2012 it was so common for Republican candidates to rise from political obscurity to a commanding poll position — and to quickly collapse soon afterward — that two well-known political scientists even developed a name for the phenomenon: discovery, scrutiny, and decline.
Check out this RealClearPolitics chart of national polls from that cycle to see it in action:
At various points, Rick Perry (blue), Herman Cain (red), Newt Gingrich (green), and Rick Santorum (brown) all surged to first place in RCP's average of national polls. Even earlier, a short-lived Michele Bachmann boomlet put her in second, as you can see from the black line.
And, as the Washington Post's Philip Bump reminds us, there was another contender that briefly surged to second place in 2011, though he's not included in this chart, since he didn't end up running in the end. His name was Donald Trump.
The pattern: discovery, scrutiny, and decline
In their book The Gamble, political scientists John Sides and Lynn Vavreck dubbed this pattern of short-lived poll surges "discovery, scrutiny, and decline." First the GOP electorate discovered an interesting new candidate, and then that candidate rose in the polls and was subjected to increased scrutiny as a result — scrutiny that eventually brought him or her down.
The background conditions that let this happen, Sides and Vavreck argued, were that the GOP field was "wide-open," without a strong frontrunner. (In retrospect, Romney seems to have been the inevitable pick, but his poll performance was not particularly commanding through most of 2011. This year's field is even more wide-open.) As a result, the authors wrote, "there were many undecided voters whose views could be shaped" — in the short-term — by bursts of news coverage for particular hopefuls.
So when a new and mostly unfamiliar candidate said or did something noteworthy, or gained prominence in media coverage for some reason, a surge in the polls frequently ensued. "It's a combination of being relatively unknown as a presidential candidate, and then having a massive dose of increase in the news coverage — with the content of that coverage being a little provocative," says Vavreck. That could entail controversy, or an unexpectedly strong fundraising or straw poll performance, but it has to command attention in some way.
Then, though, that very surge puts the new front-runner under a glaring spotlight. His or her record, past comments, and associations will be scrutinized. Opposition research will be shopped around. Personal scandals may come to light. Well-known figures or interest groups in the party will air their criticisms. If it's late enough, negative ads will start airing too.
And contenders less accustomed to the national spotlight can make their own problems — with gaffes, a frequent feature of the 2011-12 GOP race. Again and again, a surging candidate "said or did things that opposing candidates and reporters judged to be provocative, problematic, or simply mistaken," Sides and Vavreck wrote. "These 'gaffes' only invited further scrutiny. And so the fortunes of the candidate began to turn."
Why decline is in Trump's future
Of course, not every underdog candidate who surges in primary polls is doomed to a future decline — Barack Obama certainly wasn't. "The decline part doesn't have to happen to everybody," says Vavreck. "Maybe there are some candidates who can go through that scrutiny phase and come out unscathed."
But Trump much more closely resembles past candidates who've ended up flaming out, particularly Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann.
Like Cain, Trump has never held elected office. Like both Cain and Bachmann, Trump gets attention, and some love from the right, for saying controversial things — like his recent comment that Mexico is sending "rapists" to America, or his 2011 effort to make President Obama release his birth certificate. Also, and related to that, GOP elites think Trump is an unacceptable nominee who would be unelectable, just like Cain and Bachmann.
In a crowded field full of career politicians saying generally similar things, it's easy for the more unusual and controversial figures to stand out. Beyond his skill at courting controversy, Trump has the added benefit of already being a well-known celebrity, due to his reality television hosting and business career.
But it's far, far harder for candidates like him to appeal to party elites — who play an important role in helping determine who will win the nomination. And even beyond elites, once these shiny new candidates' weaknesses start to come out in the press, the candidates' standing in polls of ordinary voters begins to erode.
Almost certainly, that's what's ahead for Donald Trump.