Donald Trump may be the current GOP front-runner, but it's "doubtful in the extreme" that he will become the eventual nominee, let alone president, University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato says.
"The Summer of Trump is unlikely to turn into a Year of Trump," Sabato, who heads the university's Center for Politics, writes in a "Crystal Ball" report released Thursday,
in which he ranks the presidential candidates while putting Trump into a category of his own: "The Un-Nominatable Front-runner."
"Trump is an early season fling for many people, fun while it lasts but doomed to break up somewhere along the path to the nomination," Sabato said. And while Trump is still topping polls, Sabato believes there are some signs that his polling numbers "may have peaked," and pointed to statistics that show few people are really actually paying attention
to the race.
The "real contenders" boil down to five candidates: former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, said Sabato.
But Trump has proven to be a "stick of dynamite thrown into the presidential pond," Sabato said, and Trump's campaign will influence the race while the party pushes to court his supporters to back the eventual nominee, assuming Trump doesn't mount his own third-party run next year.
There have been several other outsider candidates over the years who have initially gotten high ratings in early state polls, including former Rep. Michele Bachmann, businessman Herman Cain and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in 2012, but "there was no way that any of the trio was going to end up as the Republican nominee for president," and the same holds true for Trump.
"If Trump is nominated, then everything we think we know about presidential nominations is wrong," Sabato said.
For one, presidential nominees need widespread backing from elites in the party, and while Trump is wealthy enough that he may not need large donors, he still comes up short with party leaders, he said.
"Not only does the Washington, D.C., crowd want nothing to do with him, but some segments of the party that typically fight the Republican establishment are staying far away," said Sabato, pointing out that the Club for Growth does not like Trump. RedState's Erick Erickson, who often opposes the party leaders, even rescinded Trump's invitation to his GOP gathering last week in Atlanta.
A potential nominee also needs a professional organization nationally and in early voting states, Sabato said, but Trump is just starting
to build his organization.
What's more, Trump has little knowledge of the "language of politics and the dangerous curves that exist all along the campaign trail" — knowledge that's essential to an eventual nominee.
"As the first debate proved beyond doubt, Trump has little knowledge of any of this, and contempt for what he calls 'politically correct' conventions," Sabato said. "As experienced pols know, you don’t win the votes of those you insult."
Meanwhile, among Sabato's "real contenders," each has the potential to rally the support they'll need to become the eventual nominee. Cruz and Kasich joined the "real" list just recently, while Bush, Walker, and Rubio have topped that list all along.
"An unlikely Cruz nomination would represent a triumph of the most conservative elements of the party, while an unlikely Kasich nomination would mean a win for the party’s least conservative voters," Sabato said. Kasich's path is more typical than Cruz's, but the party has moved more to the right, he added.
Bush and Walker, though, did not stand out in last week's debate, and Bush has been struggling in recent weeks, including coming in behind Trump in a New Hampshire poll this week.
Rubio, though, could face problems because of his past support for immigration reform, and Walker has not yet polished his national image. Many party leaders appear inclined to back Bush.
Kasich is the "media's favorite GOP underdog candidate," but could face problems after bypassing his state's GOP-controlled legislature to expand Medicaid and his backing of a legal status for undocumented immigrants.
The remaining candidates, Sabato said, are "influencers" who also do not have a "real chance of winning the nomination," even though polls are moving in the direction of former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson.
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