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What would we learn if Trump won?

Political scientists don't think Donald Trump will be the nominee, but we learn a lot when things don't go according to plan.

Donald Trump could offer some lessons, albeit indirectly.
Donald Trump could offer some lessons, albeit indirectly.
Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Almost no one serious thinks that Donald Trump is ever going to be president. But as the calendar moves forward, it is getting increasingly late for the party to decide on an alternative. I still don’t think Trump will be the nominee, but what if he is? What would we learn?

Seth Masket has earlier argued that we haven’t learned anything from Trump yet. But that’s because Masket, like the rest of us, doesn’t expect a Trump victory. Generally speaking, political science wins when things go haywire, because we rarely get to observe the counterfactuals that we base so much of our reasoning on. It’s hard to learn much from a single observation, but it’s not impossible. Here is what we might learn from a Trump victory.

The party would not have decided

One very legitimate criticism of the argument in The Party Decides is that it is hard to test. Because we argue that the party is broader than the mainstream establishment officeholders, even cases in which unlikely candidates win can fit the theory, as with Ronald Reagan in 1980 or even Barack Obama in 2008. It’s not that we want the theory to be unfalsifiable. We just think that parties always face potential internal cleavages. At the convention, these fights were won sometimes by the old guard and sometimes by an established alternative. That fight has moved out into the street, but it’s still the party fighting and deciding.

But there is no way the party can claim credit for Trump. No party leaders want him, moderate or conservative. If he wins, it will be because he imposed himself, which we say is not how it works.

Trump’s not like earlier extremists, either. Conservative activists wanted to draft Barry Goldwater in 1960. He told them to hold back if they couldn’t win. So they held back, and then figured out how to send enough people to the convention to nominate him in 1964. Goldwater was a party story, albeit a party faction story. That is not Trump’s story. Trump’s story begins and ends with Trump.

This doesn’t mean The Party Decides was wrong about the period from approximately 1980 to 2000. And it doesn’t necessarily mean we are wrong about the larger argument, which is that party leaders have always had an incentive to coordinate and they rarely fail to do so. We noted several periods in history, notably 1972 and 1976, when the party took a while to adapt to changes in the system. But if Trump wins, we would have to be in another such period, and I know I didn’t see it coming.

The campaign might really, really matter

Most political scientists think political campaigns "matter," but we generally think the day-to-day minutiae does not matter as much as the state of the economy and other fundamentals. Winning the news cycle is not what it takes to win elections.

But part of the reason it’s hard to detect major campaign effects is that both parties tend to run pretty good campaigns. Trump, by contrast, is not running a traditional "good campaign." Maybe running as an insult comic is actually a more effective strategy than what any campaign consultant would recommend. But I doubt it.

What exactly we learn depends a little on the state of the fundamentals a year from now. But if the state of the economy predicts a Republican victory and Trump blows it, then maybe a candidate’s antics really can hurt. And if the fundamentals favor a Democrat and Trump wins, maybe all the candidates should up their antics. Either way, by running a particularly, ahem, unusual campaign, Trump might show what the traditional campaign is worth.

Now that I write this, I’m almost disappointed that I think Trump will fade. We could stand to learn some more.