When Donald Trump said in early December that the United States should close its doors to Muslims, he was speaking from a position of strength – as the leader of the Republican pack bidding for the 2016 presidential nomination.
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Things were different during the early part of his campaign, when he described Mexican migrants to the U.S. as criminals and rapists. Pundits maintained then that such statements would disqualify Trump from winning the nomination.
Time has proved them wrong. Many still maintain that he doesn't have a hope of winning the nomination, but the tone of conviction is now absent.
Trump was initially seen as a sort of "summer romance," which would disappear before the fall. That assessment was based on the time-tested mechanism that is meant to eject unrealistic candidates from the race: A candidate's rise in the polls leads to closer scrutiny by the media and political rivals, leading to mistakes by the candidate's campaign and plummeting polls.
But it didn't work with Trump. His exceptional immunity to scandals, denunciations and attacks, together with the power he imbibes from the hatred of the party establishment, has led many Republicans to ask what exactly it will take to defeat Donald Trump. As yet, there are few answers.
Despite the constant election polling, the dominant theory in American political science today is that surveys carry limited weight before the actual start of primary voting. Much greater weight is given to a candidate's standing in internal party structures. Or, to put it another way, the party decides.
"Early endorsements are the most important cause of candidate success in the state primaries and caucuses,” Tom McCarthy wrote in the Guardian newspaper in August,
"Endorsements matter not only because they point to who insiders think will win, but also because the people who make endorsements – other elected officials – can influence the outcome of the race by strengthening a candidate’s local ground game, promoting the candidate to fellow party leaders and pitching the candidate to voters."
Larry Sabato, head of the center for politics at the University of Virginia, wrote in August that “if Trump is nominated, then everything we think we know about presidential nominations is wrong. History has shown that presidential nominations tend to follow a certain set of 'rules.'"
The prerequisites listed by Sabato for a successful candidate are widespread backing from party elites, a layered, professional organization that has been carefully constructed at the national level and a disciplined politician who knows the language of politics and the dangerous curves that exist all along the campaign trail.
If Republican Party support is a necessity to win the primaries, Trump is finished. His relations with the party resemble those between an abducted family and the kidnapper. He has received no official endorsements and his pronouncements have been met with wall-to-wall condemnation.
But it appears that the tools that are meant to assist the party in blocking Trump have disappeared from the toolbox.
Ezra Klein of Vox was one of the first media pundits to reverse his previous position that Trump shouldn't be taken seriously.
"Our previous models for understanding American politics are collapsing," he wrote. "The tools used by party actors to decide electoral results have been weakened by technological and communications changes. The models that rely on the effectiveness of these tools are biased."
Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman used even starker language to deliver his warning, when he compared today's political science to macro-economics after the 2008 crisis.
"So far in this cycle, the political scientists aren’t doing too well," he wrote in the New York Times in November. "In particular, standard models of how the nomination process works seem to be having trouble with the durability of clowns. Things don’t seem to be working the way they used to."
Krugman added that the current political situation "makes me think of the way some economic analysis went astray after 2008. In particular, I’m reminded of the way many fairly reasonable analysts underestimated the adverse effects of austerity."
History, Krugman wrote, "is just less of a guide than it used to be." Among the contributory elements he noted were deepening gulfs between the parties, the lack of faith in establishment figures and the "insanity of the hard core of Republican Party voters."
While the great bulk of political scienctists are still doubtful about Trump's chances, a new wind has begun to blow among political pundits and Republican strategists.
The New York Times reported at the beginningof December that "Irritation is giving way to panic as it becomes increasingly plausible that Mr. Trump could be the party’s standard-bearer and imperil the careers of other Republicans."
A week ago, Nate Cohen of the New York Times, who eulogize Trump's camaign of July, conceded that "Trump's chances of success are real, if not good" and mapped out the different ways that could lead him to victory.
Nate Silver and his website, fivethirtyeight.com, are in the forefront of those disparaging Trump's chances. Silver is a statistician who earned his reputation by predicting the result of the 2008 and 2012 elections. Silver argues fervently that Trump's chances of succeeding were and remain slim to none.
His analysis relies primarily on Trump's lack of official endorsements and on the argument that the polls reflect fake support, based on media coverage that is not proportional. He maintains that many of the voters aren't serious about their choice at this stage of the campaign and that many of Trump's supporters won't appear at the polling stations.
The Republican primary season begins on February 1, 2016 at 99 voting districts in the state of Ohio. If Trump plummets in the polls before then, the Republican establishment will be able to breathe easier and Nate Silver will be able to add another star to his name.
But if the polls prove correct, it will be difficult to argue that Trump's chances of being the Republican candidate in the 2016 elections are zero.