Editor’s Note: This post was written by Marlena Mareno and JaiCe Stinton.
Throughout the 2016 presidential primaries, Donald Trump has demanded the attention of the American people. He shocked the public when he announced his presidency in the summer of 2015 and he continues to shake the Republican party. Trump’s comments on certain policies and those in opposition to him should have had a negative effect on his presidential campaign, according to conventional political science research. However, he has overcome these obstacles, gained momentum, and has risen to become the GOP nominee. Political scientists theorize how candidates gain momentum in order to win primaries. A few methods that Larry Bartels highlights in his book are strategic voting, cue-taking, contagion, and supporting a winner. We believe these ideas are not entirely separate from one another. Instead, we believe a combination of his ideas explain Trump’s momentum thus far.
Momentum can be characterized as a continuation of support from various outlets including media attention, endorsements, and rising numbers in polls. Bartels characterizes each type of momentum as its own separate entity that explains why candidates may be surging within the party:
- Strategic voting is the idea that citizens look for the most electable and viable candidate. These voters do not want to “waste” any votes on a candidate who does not appear to be viable for the general election.
- Cue-taking requires the citizens to look at other citizens’ (either political elites or voters in states with early nomination contests) opinions regarding candidate quality and viability. Endorsements and primary results are especially critical when evaluating a candidate; however, during this cycle endorsements appear not to have influenced voters’ actions.
- Contagion is similar to cue-taking in that substance matters, but voters’ support for the candidate also matters since it increases their “feeling thermometer,” or positive feelings about the candidate. Substance can refer to the policy or personal attributes of a candidate.
- Lastly, Bartels analyzes the supporting a winner phenomenon. This type of momentum involves voters unthinkingly increasing support for a candidate without looking at policy or substance because they want to back a winner.
We believe that three of Bartels’ types of momentum apply to Trump’s success, but only in combination. Cue-taking, strategic voting, and supporting a winner best represent how Trump has gained momentum. We believe that initially Donald Trump’s rhetoric, personality, and celebrity status contributed to his success, but as the nomination contests continued, other factors added to his momentum. Cue-taking is an important aspect of Trump’s overall momentum. Early in the nomination process, he dominated in polls and won several primaries; this increased his support in later states as those voters took cues from states with earlier contests. Strategic voting is also a factor in Trump’s success. As voters viewed their fellow citizens supporting the front-runner, they may have believed that a vote for another candidate would be wasted and, therefore, made the strategic decision not to waste their vote on their preferred candidate.
Supporting a winner is another likely reason for the mass acceptance or tolerance for Trump’s campaign. A candidate who is very focused on winning will attract those individuals who believe in the same concept. Voters unthinkingly increased their support for a candidate, substantive impressions notwithstanding, because he was winning. Voters who know very little about Trump’s extravagant policies are a key factor in the continuation of Trump’s momentum and success. Trump plays on the fears and the anger of Americans, causing people to believe his words, even if some are incorrect. Instead of voters believing his policies are best for our future, it is people’s fears that have created a bandwagon effect. Reliance on early contests and polls, citizens voting in a manner they believed would not “waste” their vote, and the phenomenon of supporting the front-runner, regardless of substance, have all contributed to Trump’s enormous momentum throughout the nomination contests.
While analyzing Bartel’s theories, it becomes evident that none of the concepts rely on a candidate’s actual policies or ideas to explain his or her success. Trump’s campaign has defied and torn down all political foundations and precedents set before him. Is this the new face of politics? What does this say about the American mind? Are we uneducated when it comes to politics? Or do we just not care enough to take the time to understand a candidate fully before casting our vote? Whatever the answer, we believe there is a need for change among American voters when deciding who to cast our ballots for. Our analysis shows that right now, the types of momentum that are working in Trump’s favor have little to do with policy and more to do with the feelings of voters and how they perceive other citizens’ opinions. We should strive to make voting policy oriented. We must take back the control of our nation and decide who is best qualified to run it based on policy ideals rather than those who simply claim they will “Make America Great Again.”