Don’t Get Too Caught Up in the Trump and Carson ‘Panic’

by Stuart Rothenberg November 18, 2015 · 3:02 PM EST

The panic is palpable from the media and too many GOP “insiders.”

The Republican Party is going to nominate Donald Trump or Ben Carson for president, guaranteeing Barry Goldwater-style losses in the 2016 elections and threatening the Republic. Or, as The Washington Post put it on Page 1 of its Nov. 13 issue, “GOP preps panic button,” and “Party elites see doom if Trump or Carson win.”

Granted, Trump and Carson continue to do well in the polls, and Republican voters are so frustrated and angry, including with their own political leaders, that they now seem more inclined than ever to throw out the old rulebook, which places a premium on political experience, knowledge of the issues and a thoughtful, measured, mature approach if someone wants to be seen as a serious contender for president.

But before you do anything, take a deep breath. Voters have not thrown out the rulebook yet, and they may very well not do it in February or later in the nominating process.

As I have noted in the past, it’s easy to tell pollsters that you support this or that candidate in the summer or fall of an off-year. You aren’t really making a decision. You merely are telling pollsters which candidates you like at that moment — and liking what someone says or stands for six months, or even two months, before Iowa is not the same thing as deciding what you will do the night of the caucuses.

At this point in the 2008 cycle, 10 weeks before the Republican Iowa caucuses, John McCain was comfortably ahead of the GOP field according to polling back then, with Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson and a strengthening Mike Huckabee fighting it out for second place. But Giuliani, Thompson and Huckabee were all in the low double-digits, while McCain was in the mid-20s to mid-30s in polling. Huckabee ended up winning by 9 points.

Ten weeks before the 2012 Iowa GOP caucuses, Herman Cain was battling with Mitt Romney for the lead in polls. A month later, Cain was toast and Newt Gingrich had a big lead in the race. Ultimately, a candidate who was in the low single digits 10 weeks before the Iowa caucuses won them (Rick Santorum).

Yes, I find it more than a little odd that Republicans have such a favorable view of both Carson and Trump at this point in the race — Carson had a 71 percent favorable rating and Trump a 69 percent favorable rating in a Nov. 4-8 ABC News/Washington Post poll conducted by Langer Research.

But Trump’s unfavorable rating is relatively high as well (29 percent, compared to 18 percent for Carson), and most Iowans have not started to firm up their decisions about who they will support when the caucuses actually roll around on Feb. 1, still more than two months away.

Just as important, let’s remember who won the last two Iowa caucuses: Santorum in 2012 and Huckabee in 2008. So even if Carson or, less likely, Trump were to finish first in Iowa, it would not necessarily mean he was headed to Cleveland to be the GOP nominee. Remember, Ronald Reagan lost the Iowa Republican caucuses in 1980.

As we all know, 25 percent of the vote can win the Iowa caucuses, but the eventual nominee will need to rally at least half of Republicans around his or her candidacy.

Of course, this time could be different. We always say that. And, of course, it’s possible that 2016 is 1964.

But don’t get too caught up in all of the hype about Trump and Carson, as even too many in the media are doing.  Of course, the over-the-top stories in the media are understandable. After all, “GOP preps panic button” is a heck of a lot more compelling headline than “It’s still 10 weeks till Iowa,” isn’t it?

Trump’s latest eruption, at the end of last week, may have been amusing to some and solidified his reputation as a tough-talker, but it isn’t likely to help his long-term prospects in the Republican race.

As I wrote in a reassessment of Trump in early September, he has remained a factor in the Republican race. But it is still more likely than not that when Republican caucus-goers really get down to picking a candidate, Trump’s increasingly outlandish comments will make him look less presidential and less appealing.

If you think you’ve read a different version of this column, you are right. My March 24 column, “It’s Early: Why Pundits Shouldn’t Overreact” argued that all of the hand-wringing by journalists and Democrats over Hillary Rodham Clinton’s early missteps and problems were premature. Subsequent events suggest that that warning was well justified.