The fallacy of the “attack-Trump-at-your-peril” theory

One of the over-arching strategies of the Trump campaign is to warn other candidates about the consequences of attacking him.  Attack me, the theory goes, and your numbers will tank so badly you will be forced to drop out of the race.  After all, he will say, I am a gifted “counter-puncher,” and look at what happened to Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal, and Lindsey Graham, all of whom attacked me and then readily crashed and burned.

I have always been skeptical of this argument.  Those candidates had problems that prevented their rise in the polls that had nothing to do with attacking Donald Trump.  Even if Trump were not a candidate, I doubt Jindal and Graham, for example, would be significantly more competitive today (though Graham’s excellent performances in the undercard debates kept him afloat, and it is unfortunate that he was never invited to the main events).  Jindal and Graham were already bottom-dwellers at the time, and while their attacks on Trump did not help them, those attacks certainly did not cause the demise of their campaigns, either.  Indeed, Trump’s argument strikes me as the kind of post hoc ergo propter hoc nonsense that he spits out all of the time.  But if you want even clearer evidence of the fallacy in this strategy, look at the recent polling (compiled here at RCP).

Most obviously, there is Ted Cruz.  Senator Cruz has recently – and aggressively – attacked Trump.  In Iowa, Cruz is still either leading or within the margin or error, and that is despite a vicious series of personal attacks from Trump against Cruz.  In Georgia, Cruz has risen 7 points in a month in the Fox5 Atlanta poll.  In Florida, Cruz has risen steadily in the polling, as he has in California (where he leads Trump in the latest Field poll and has risen 19 points since October).  There is hardly a crash-and-burn problem for Cruz right now.

John Kasich has also attacked Trump in recent debates and interviews.  Governor Kasich is now rising in New Hampshire.  He is second in the RCP average, and is within 7 points of Trump in the ARG poll, which has him up 7 points from where he was in December.

Jeb Bush has also recently attacked Trump.  In the past month, Governor Bush’s numbers have risen in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida.  He is by no means a threat to Trump at the moment, but he has not faded completely from the race, and is showing signs of strength in some places.

Ben Carson, by contrast, has not made Trump the object of any attacks recently, and his numbers are plummeting.

And for good measure, to illustrate the point further, Bernie Sanders has relentlessly attacked Donald Trump.  The latest NBC News/WSJ poll (from last week) has Senator Sanders with a whopping 15-point lead over Trump in a head-to-head, general election matchup.  Quinnipiac has Sanders up over Trump by 13 points.

The point is this: there seems to be little or no causal connection between attacking Trump and a candidate’s poll numbers.  This is not to say that candidates should all of the sudden start pummeling Trump with attacks.  Attacks may be wise or unwise on their own, distinct, merits.  It is simply to say that Trump’s bullying warnings simply do not appear to have the effect that he pronounces them to have.

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