Political scientists like to rely on data, and there's more and more of that available these days. Still, the Trump phenomenon continues to throw this data off. After a great run in the past two Presidential elections of predicting election outcomes, 538's Nate Silver basically has been eating crow for a month or so now.
Silver offered some theories to explain Trump's rise back in January. Now that Trump is the clear front-runner -- maybe more likely than not to be the nominee, although we'll know more after Tuesday's primary results -- I have some theories as well. Coming from someone who's written a thing or two about conservative politics, here's three possible takes on what Trump means for contemporary politics:
1. Trump Signals Death of the GOP
On this view, Trump is the last hurrah of a party that is descending into the nativist populism from which it rose in the 1950s. Trump would be the bookend to Barry Goldwater, who was pushed to the 1964 GOP nomination by party activists. Although Goldwater lost badly, he signaled the coming arrival of a conservative movement that would dominate national politics for decades. Trump shows the party coming full circle - with possibly the same electoral results as 1964, and a subsequent descent into irrelevance.
The problem with this view? We've heard it before. For decades commentators have declared the end of the Republican Party, or a "conservative crack-up," and it just hasn't happened. (It helps that, as I always tell my students, Republicans are generally just better at politics than Democrats.)
2. Trump as Goldwater 2.0
Instead of a death knell, Trump's success could suggest a new way forward for the GOP. Trump could be putting together a coalition of the disaffected that could form a base for the Republican Party going forward.
This view suggests a little schadenfreude here against a GOP establishment that is trying so hard to stop Trump now. (See Eric Cantor here or, most famously, Mitt Romney here.) After years of stirring up such resentments among people, this story goes, you can't be surprised when they allow someone like Trump to flourish.
There may be something to these claims. But there's one more likely scenario:
3. Trump is Trump
Trump may just be a singular phenomenon: a perfect storm of celebrity, media coverage, Twitter journalism, and too many opponents. If the GOP had put forth a front-runner early, either a next-in-line (like Dole in '96) or consensus candidate (like Bush in '00), then Trump likely would have been frozen out early. Even if the GOP had a single seasoned candidate who might have been more appealing -- a Senator or Governor Paul Ryan, say -- then we'd probably not be talking about Trump today.
Nerd digression: Science fiction writer Isaac Asimov's Foundation books present a future where there are so many people in the galaxy, you can predict the future using a science called "psychohistory." To avoid a 30,000 year descent into chaos, mathematician Hari Seldon creates a "foundation" planet of artists and scientists that will impose order, shortening the dark ages to just a thousand years.
The only problem: a mutant is born, the Mule, with mental powers that allows him to manipulate others and change history. Psychohistory's predictions fail in the face of this unpredictable force, as the Mule usurps the Foundation and threatens the future. Only the equally formidable powers of a secret, second foundation is able to stop the Mule.
Why mention this? Because I'm a nerd, obviously. But also because 538's polling predictions remind me of Asimov's psychohistory, with Nate Silver as a less-messianic Hari Seldon. Trump is, of course, the Mule, a mutant. (This name-calling thing is contagious.)
On this view, Trump is neither the end or the beginning of anything. Win or lose, he will not dramatically change the political landscape. He's a Ross Perot or Jesse Ventura, a big figure who casts a long shadow but, in the end, leaves nothing but that shadow.
The problem, of course, is that when you're in the middle of dealing with such a figure, it's hard to know. Is Trump more like Goldwater or Perot? I think the latter is more likely, and the GOP will (like Asimov's Foundation planets) regroup and re-organize once he's gone. So remember, you heard it here first: Trump is a mutant. (Again, this seems like appropriate language for this election cycle.)