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Middlebury political scientists Matt Dickinson and Bert Johnson discuss the presidential primary.

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Professor Pundits: How We Missed Trump's Rise

March 2, 2016

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. -- With Super Tuesday behind us, the primary races are giving us strong hints of what the general election will look like. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton both had commanding victories that will be very difficult for their rivals to overcome in the coming weeks.

The ascendancy of Trump continues to trouble the Republican establishment, while baffling political scientists who failed to predict his wild success in the primary race. In this installment of Professor Pundits, Matt and Bert theorize about why so many people missed Trump's insurgent candidacy as they look ahead to the remaining primary races.

Dickinson writes the blog Presidential Power and is frequently quoted in the national news media. He often live tweets political events at @MattDickinson44. Johnson, also a regular in the national media, tweets at @bnjohns.


Once again I appreciate your candor and humility relating to the unpredicted rise of Donald Trump. While the notion of "it's the candidate" does not trouble me greatly, the notion that it is mostly or all about media management is to me discouraging. Partly about media management, okay; all about media management, well, is that what we want in our President? Charisma and strong oratory skills okay; dominant and overriding entertainment, however, misses at least my objective (I think) in selecting a leader. There have to be some implications for education here, focusing on secondary education. Just
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as we owe high school students a skill set suited for economic survival, so do we owe them a knowledge base about the fundamentals of government and the implications of our choices in leadership, considering factors that go beyond our affection for good entertainment. Having said the above, I confess to being attracted to candidates that I would welcome in my living room, or rather TV room, for the next 4 to 8 years. Perhaps the only solution is for media to constantly disavow its own importance - antithetical to its existence and far from at all likely to happen.
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by David Minot '74 (not verified)

David - This is the power of Trump. He is a ratings bonanza for a national media that is increasingly shedding viewers, and profits, to alternative social media platforms, and this is why it is extremely difficult for them to resist covering, in spades, his latest rhetorical outburst - and he knows this. You can be sure that Bert and I make this quite clear to our students when we talk about the source of his popularity. But as you suggest, in some respects it is like watching a car accident - it is gruesome, but we
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can't turn away. The one positive point I would add about Trump's candidacy, however, is that he is primarily responsible for the record turnout we've been observing in Republican contests so far. The other point I would make is that there is evidence that he is moderating his views somewhat - or at least is claiming to do so - which gives me some hope that a President Trump (if it comes to that!) would govern in a less bombastic, inflammatory manner. However, we are a long way from that scenario, of course.
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by Matt Dickinson (not verified)

David-- Thanks for the comment! I'd say that the media is a crucial part of Trump's success, but there's a lot more to it than just the media. There is fertile ground out there in the electorate for the kinds of appeals that Trump is making. Political science could have foreseen this (and in many cases did), but what we would have predicted a year ago is that these concerns would have been absorbed into the rhetoric and policy stances of the traditional crop of Republican candidates. That Trump was the one to vault to the front of the pack
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was unexpected. So I'd say that the unsettled electoral conditions were necessary but not sufficient to explain Trump without the "media skill" component.
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by Bert Johnson (not verified)

Thanks Matt - as an alumnus, it is a great privilege for me to dialogue with, and to receive a thoughtful, tailored response from, you as a precisely on topic professor. Much appreciated, and I look forward to the next eight months!

by David Minot '74 (not verified)

Thanks Bert - very important clarification/edit to my comment. Hard for the establishment to absorb anti-establishment rhetoric when what the voters are looking for starts with being not part of the establishment.

by David Minot '74 (not verified)

I just tapped in for the first time.To your credit you seem pretty objective in your discussions and comments. If you keep it that way your blog will be stimulating and provide a valuable service. One hears so much about "indoctrination" rather than "education" among college professors. I haven't heard it about Middlebury and will value your objectivity, We boast five Middlebury degrees in my household so have a strong commitment to our college. I look forward to following your discussions.

by John Milnes Bak... (not verified)