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No, Donald Trump’s candidacy doesn’t mean that presidential nominations are completely different now

- November 23, 2015
Donald Trump and his then-wife, Ivana, pose outside the Federal Courthouse after she was sworn in as a United States citizen in May 1988. (AP)

Does the rise of “outsider” presidential candidates including Ben Carson, Bernie Sanders, Carly Fiorina and above all Donald Trump signal fundamental change in the nominating process? That’s what a number of observers have been saying.

I noted months ago that Trump is a unique figure who poses a special challenge to the GOP and “cannot be sidelined easily” as others assumed he would be. Trump differs from other “outsiders” with whom he is lumped. Carson and Sanders have benefited greatly from recent changes. By contrast, Trump could have mounted a similar campaign decades ago.

[Why is Donald Trump declining in the polls?]

Trump’s very uniqueness makes it a mistake to assume his campaign signals systemic change. His prominence does not stem from the rise of social and partisan media, changes in campaign finance, the growing number of debates or polarization. Rather, it is a product of his unique celebrity status, the immigration issue and the GOP elite’s failure to embrace one candidate.

Yes, there have been changes to the nominating process, but they’re not the reason Trump is doing so well

The not-so-recent development that made Trump’s candidacy possible was the move to select delegates via primaries and open caucuses after 1968. Party elites have coped surprisingly well with this system, but it has always been vulnerable to disruption, a fact Trump is now highlighting. The process continues to evolve, but not in ways that are relevant for Trump.

1. Campaign finance

The Web now lets candidates raise far more from small donors than the mail or 1-800 numbers ever did. Yet this year’s small-donor favorites are Carson and Sanders, not Trump.

The other key change is the rise of SuperPACs. Since the 2010 Citizens United decision, donors have given vast sums to these nominally independent committees supporting candidates. Jeb Bush, not Trump, is the greatest beneficiary of this change.

[If you think Super PACS have changed everything about primaries, think again]

Trump has self-financed, but to a far lesser extent than past candidates such as Steve Forbes and Mitt Romney. Trump has spent very little. Ironically, the billionaire’s success is more a story of free media than campaign finance of any sort.

2. Partisan media

The rise of partisan media helps candidates who once would have been marginalized. In recent years,  Carson was a “Fox News Contributor.” Once, a figure like Carson would not have had such a platform. Trump by contrast has feuded with Fox, and made his name chiefly in the mainstream media.

3. Social media

Candidates can now organize, gain exposure and raise funds online. Sanders and Carson both benefit from this development. Trump has a huge Twitter following, but was famous before this medium existed.

4. Polarization

The striking polarization of the two parties is usually seen as an ideological phenomenon. Others see a revival of partisanship at work. Either way, that hasn’t helped Trump. He is no ideologue. Trump favors entitlement programs other GOP candidates seek to cut.

Nor is he a convincing religious conservative. And Trump does not poll especially well among the most conservative Republicans. In fact, Trump is a longtime donor to Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, who  periodically refuses to rule out an independent bid. He is, in other words, no party regular. So whether you see polarization as an ideological or partisan phenomenon, it is hard to see Trump’s rise as a product of it.

5. More debates

In 1980, GOP candidates debated only once before the Iowa Caucuses. This cycle they will do so six times. In 2012 there were 13 (!) pre-caucus GOP debates.

[Is Donald Trump finally losing his media mojo?]

The growth in debates gives underdogs an important platform. In 2012, they gave Newt Gingrich a boost. Yet Trump’s rise in the polls predates this year’s debates, and he has not dominated most of them. Other candidates, most notably Marco Rubio, appear to have gained most from the debates.

So what are the real reasons he’s ahead?

What then does account for Trump’s standing?�� His celebrity status is the best explanation, along with his stance on immigration and the slowness of the Republican elites to coalesce around another candidate.

1. Celebrity

Trump has been building his brand since the 1970s. He is better known than any other candidate except Hillary Clinton.

Trump became a reality TV star in recent years, but he was already flirting with a presidential bid in 1988 on shows like “Oprah,” back when Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz were in high school, Jeb Bush was the obscure son of a vice president and Hillary Clinton was still a lawyer married to a governor in Arkansas.

Trump has been famous long enough to appear as himself in a movie with Bo Derek and Anthony Quinn. More than 20 years ago, his fame was the subject of a New Yorker cartoon. He was parodied on “Sesame Street” when Ronald Reagan was in the White House, popped up in hip-hop lyrics by 1989 and first appeared in the New York Times during the Nixon administration.

Many voters do not remember a time when Trump was not a celebrity. He doesn’t need a small donor army or a Super PAC. He can self-fund and, what’s more important, he commands media attention like no one else. So there is every reason to believe he could have run this kind of campaign in the past.

2 & 3. Immigration and a divided party elite

The two non-structural factors aiding Trump are immigration and the GOP elite’s failure to coalesce around one candidate. These two are related.

[Donald Trump never apologizes for his controversial remarks. Here’s why he shouldn’t.]

Jeb Bush’s pro-immigration stand has alienated many Republicans. Many had assumed Bush would enjoy broad support from party elites the way his father and brother did. This has not happened. With Bush floundering, some Republicans are turning to Rubio, yet so far their numbers are limited.

Americans do not rate immigration as one of the country’s most important problems, but Republicans are more focused on it than Democrats, and there has long been a gap between the pro-reform stands of leading GOP politicians and donors, on the one hand, and grassroots sentiment, on the other. Trump has exploited this. He is not the only anti-immigration candidate, but he is the loudest.

In a huge field of relatively unknown candidates with no party favorite, Trump has had important advantages.

In other words, the system hasn’t changed

In sum, several new developments affect campaigns. The parties are polarized. Changes in campaign finance allow more candidates to get off the ground. Partisan media with star-making power has emerged. Social media helps outsider candidates organize, and the growth in debates gives them more exposure. Much of this complicates the task of party elites seeking to shape outcomes.

Yet while these changes have helped some candidates, including Carson and Sanders, they have little to do with Trump’s success to date.

Trump is definitely something different, but his rise is not a sign that the system has changed.