Trust in history.
That’s been my mantra-like response to anyone who has fretted about the prospect of Donald Trump winning the White House. Trust in history, I’ve been saying. History says Trump will not be president. In fact, forget Trump winning in November; history says he will not even win the Republican nomination.
But here on the day Iowans caucus, with “the best pollster in Iowa,” as Nate Silver’s fivethirtyeight.com describes the Des Moines Register’s Ann Selzer, showing Trump leading Texas Sen. Ted Cruz 28 percent to 23 percent, perhaps it’s time to acknowledge that history is mutable. The unexpected sometimes happens.
The next several weeks will tell if Trump is the historical exception to the past several decades of Republican presidential politics. His lead in the polls certainly has proved to be more enduring than the various campaign surges we saw four years ago, when Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum all briefly topped the Republican field (Michele Bachmann rose to second place at one point in the 2012 polls but never led any of them). A general willingness to accept that Trump might be the nominee has replaced the widespread certainty of a month or so ago that he would not win the nomination — that Republicans would behave rationally when it came time to actually vote and would reject Trump.
I still think it’s possible, maybe even likely, that the Republican nominee will be one of the so-called establishment candidates, and not Trump — or Cruz, for that matter. I search for guidance in history, which interests me more than polls and political predictions — “I don’t make predictions” is another of my mantras — so while it will be unusual if Trump wins the nomination, it will not be unprecedented. He will be following, more or less, in Wendell Willkie’s footsteps.
That’s right, Trump could turn out to be 2016’s Wendell Willkie, the New York utility executive and political neophyte who made a name for himself criticizing President Franklin Roosevelt in the late 1930s and used his political celebrity to win the Republican nomination in 1940. (Three recent articles on Willkie as forerunner to Trump can be read here, here and here.) As with Trump, who apparently has never voted in a Republican primary election, Republicans were skeptical of Willkie’s party loyalty — he had been a registered Democrat until 1939. And like Trump, outsider Willkie held several views contrary to those held by his chief insider rivals, Sen. Robert Taft of Ohio, Sen. Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan and Thomas Dewey, the young, ambitious district attorney from New York (yes, that Thomas Dewey, the one who would famously lose to President Harry Truman in 1948). In the end, what Willkie won by winning the Republican nomination was the privilege of losing to FDR, who secured an unprecedented third term with 54.7 percent of the vote to Willkie’s 44.8 percent. By losing, Willkie also won almost instant obscurity.
Before there can be historical parallels, there must be real political victories. Someone will win Iowa tonight, though Iowa isn’t necessarily about winning. It’s about meeting and beating national media expectations. It’s about Trump showing he has a legitimate ground game and is running a real campaign, Cruz establishing momentum and showing he didn’t peak too soon in the polls, and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio positioning himself as the alternative to Trump and Cruz. And it’s about everyone else doing well enough to avoid the inevitable winnowing that follows Iowa and New Hampshire, which holds its primary next week.
Tonight also should be about Iowa proving that it merits the outsize attention its caucus gets. It doesn’t have a great track record picking presidential winners. Winners of the Iowa Republican caucus include George H.W. Bush in 1980 (yes, Iowa caucus-goers chose Bush over Ronald Reagan), Bob Dole in 1988 (when Bush, Reagan’s vice president at the time and the eventual president, finished third behind Dole and Pat Robertson), Mike Huckabee in 2008 and Santorum in 2012. Only three times since 1976 has the winner of a contested Iowa caucus won the Republican nomination (Gerald Ford in 1976, Dole in 1996 and George W. Bush in 2000), and only twice since 1972 has the winner of a contested Iowa caucus, either Democratic or Republican, won the White House (George W. Bush in 2000, Barack Obama in 2008).
Whatever tonight’s Iowa results bring, we at least have this certainty: We’re just a night and a day or two of post-caucus analyses away from being able to forget about Iowa again for another few years.