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Trump Will Be Trumped

August 1, 2015

As much as Americans are drawn to presidential candidates who run as “Washington outsiders,” we strongly prefer presidents with experience in government and public service. Of the 43 men who have served as president, all but five had prior electoral experience – two came to the presidency by way of appointive government positions (William Howard Taft and Herbert Hoover) and three came by way of military commands (Zachary Taylor, Ulysses Grant, and Dwight Eisenhower).

The nine men who came to the presidency by succession from the vice presidency obviously all brought prior electoral experience to the presidency. But vice presidents are even more likely to have prior electoral experience than presidents: 44 out of 47, excluding only Chester Arthur, Charles Dawes and Henry Wallace, all of whom held appointive federal positions before being elected vice president.

It may or may not be meaningful that four of the five presidents who had no prior electoral experience were Republicans – all but Taylor, who was a Whig. Today there are 17 Republicans running for president, counting former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore, who has announced that he will announce his candidacy this week. Three of the candidates have no prior electoral, military or other government experience: Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina.

Both Trump and Fiorina made their careers in business – he as a self-promoting entrepreneur, she as a corporate executive at AT&T, Lucent and Hewlett-Packard. Trump has made a side career as a political agitator, threatening to run for president in 1988, 2004 and 2012, and for governor of New York in 2006 and 2014. Trump did run for president briefly in 2000, as a candidate for the nomination of the Reform Party, and he actually won the California primary of the Reform Party. The nomination ultimately went to Pat Buchanan, who Trump compared to Attila the Hun.

Like Trump, Fiorina has no governmental experience, but she does have a history of public service. She served briefly on the board of the World Economic Forum, an international advocate of public-private cooperation in problem-solving, and she launched the One Woman Initiative to foster public-private empowerment initiatives in Muslim-majority countries. Fiorina served for a few years on the board of visitors of James Madison University, in Virginia. She chairs Good360, a non-profit that organizes corporate donations of excess inventory to charities. She served as chair of the CIA’s unpaid External Advisory Board under President George W. Bush.

Carson’s career was in medicine, specifically in neurosurgery. He retired on July 1, 2013, without any real demonstration of interest in politics, public policy, or government. By his own account, he didn’t even belong to a political party until November 4, 2014. Somewhere along the way, the idea hit Carson that he should be the president of the United States, but it’s not at all clear where the idea came from.

None of these three is going to succeed Barack Obama at the White House. As of now, it looks like Fiorina won’t even make it into the debates – her polling is running below one percent, down at the bottom with former New York Governor George Pataki and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal. Carson will probably get into the debates, with poll numbers around six percent, in the league of former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee and Senator Rand Paul. But Carson’s debate performance is likely to be uninspiring, at best – his television interviews to date reveal the amateur that he is.

Nor will Trump win the Republican nomination, even though he’s leading – for two reasons. First, he doesn’t want it. His campaign is a business campaign, not a political one, and his goals are financial, not electoral. Trump hasn’t got a public-spirited bone in his body. And second, for all that the Republican far-right has come to dominate Republican debate in recent years, Republicans have yet to nominate a full-on loony to run for president – although they’ve had opportunities – and I don’t think they will this time, either.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush are already standing out as the grown-ups in the room, and they are polling in second and third place behind Trump. Trump’s problem is that his unfavorable ratings are in historically high territory, which means he has a low ceiling. Trump is in first place with 17 candidates in the field, at 20 percent. As candidates drop out, the bulk of their support will go to candidates other than Trump. His 20 percent will rise less than Walker’s 14 percent and Bush’s 12 percent.

Still, Donald Trump gives us a note of suspense and intrigue. Trump doesn’t lose, he quits. So the question is, where is Trump’s off-ramp? Under what guise will Trump leave the presidential campaign?

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