Donald Trump's presidential candidacy has been in the news (and, relatedly, atop the polls) for a while now — a good deal longer than most political observers expected it would be. As such, it's invited a great deal of analysis about What It Means. Do Trump's successes so far mean that voters no longer value experience? That they're pushing back against the GOP's post-2012 "political correctness"? That the party system is unraveling and Trump has tapped into a post-partisan silent majority? That it's time to start thinking about his vice presidential candidate? That the parties need to address Trump's policy stances to survive?
No. On all of the above. Here's why.
For one thing, it's just the end of summer in the year before a presidential election. It's still very early in the campaign cycle. Presidential campaigns have tended to start a bit earlier than they used to (Bill Clinton wasn't even an announced candidate by this point in the 1992 cycle), but that just means there's a lot more campaign activity going on at a time when voters simply aren't yet thinking seriously about their options and in which party insiders haven't yet aggressively sought to winnow the field.
For another thing, for all the attention he's getting, Trump still really isn't running a very serious campaign. He has pretty minimal staff and only the vaguest policy prescriptions. Yes, he's spending a lot of time in New Hampshire and Iowa, like a real presidential candidate would, but he's running as an entertainer, not a politician.
When I attended a Trump rally in New Hampshire last month, I was struck both by his tone — breezy, crude, and at least a little funny — and the audience's reaction, which contained far more laughter than applause. Trump is running the sort of campaign Don Rickles would run. He's basically running as an insult comedian. No, he's not as good at it as Rickles, or even Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, but he's not bad. There's a reason he doesn't back down after people tell him to apologize for insulting everyone from John McCain to Megyn Kelly to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar; that's his shtick. No one goes to see an insult comedian who apologizes.
They also don't vote insult comedians into office. But again, we're not there yet. This is still the entertainment portion of the show. Trump has won precisely zero elections so far. He's just topping polls and hogging attention at a time when that doesn't really mean a whole lot.
This isn't necessarily a bad thing, and it's not clear that the Republican Party needs to start cracking down on Trump or anyone else just yet. There is plenty of time left for all that to happen, and there will be plenty of opportunities for Republican activists and voters to learn about the other candidates before the first primaries and caucuses next February.
Besides, in some ways Trump is helping that process, even while his media attention drowns out discussion of other candidates. The first Republican presidential debate last month drew a record audience — in large part because of Trump — and provided viewers with substantive policy debates and opportunities to see different candidates presenting their viewpoints and challenging those of others. Next week's debate will likely do the same.
I spent much of the past week at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association in San Francisco, and of course many of us discussed Donald Trump's candidacy. I certainly can't speak for every political scientist in attendance, but I'd simply say that very few of us are worried about it. We know that early polling just isn't very predictive, and the things that are predictive, such as endorsements and other signals from party insiders, suggest Trump has no chance and that the Republican nomination will likely go to a more conventional candidate such as Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, or Marco Rubio. It's certainly possible that the entire party nomination system has changed and someone forgot to tell the political scientists, but chances are that's not what's happening.
More likely, Trump is temporarily providing some comic relief. If you find it funny, feel free to watch. If you find it awful, speak out or change the channel. But just know that our presidential nomination system is actually more sane and stable than it sometimes looks. The system is porous but has rules and regularities. Entertainers, entrepreneurs, and even crazy people are free to run, but it's the politicians who win.