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We Won’t Have Donald Trump to Kick Around Anymore

If I were back at the “old” FiveThirtyEight, I’d have put up a post entitled “The Electoral Consequences of Donald Trump Deciding Not to Run for President”. And then left the body text blank. Get it?

It had become clear to me and to most sane people several weeks ago that Mr. Trump’s chances of winning the Republican nomination, already slim, were rapidly moving toward zero — the more-or-less inevitable consequence of a gimmicky campaign, a history of flip-flops, and extremely low personal favorability ratings.

The more interesting question, perhaps, is why Mr. Trump was able to surge in the polls in the first place — no other Republican candidate has done something comparable so far. As I wrote when this was happening, it was a sign that a sizable number of Republican voters have little inherent interest in the “serious” candidates — Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, Mitch Daniels — who have the approval of the Republican establishment, instead preferring somebody with a more populist flavor.

So let’s suppose that you’re an establishment Republican who is mostly concerned with nominating somebody who can defeat Barack Obama. Are you pleased or displeased that Mr. Trump isn’t running?

There is a better alignment now, by the way, between the candidates whom Republican elites take most seriously (what I’ve sometimes called the “Fairfax Five”) and those who — in my view — would have the best chance of winning an election against Mr. Obama. The candidates who I thought broke the paradigm were Haley Barbour — who was taken very seriously in Beltway circles but who had all sorts of manifest flaws as a general election candidate — and Mike Huckabee, who wasn’t taken seriously but had by far the best favorability ratings among the broader electorate. But Mr. Barbour and Mr. Huckabee are not running.

The answer depends on whether you think of the anti-establishment voters as a constituency — and if so, how sizable you think that constituency is. Say that one-third of Republican voters are not going to vote for any member of the “Fairfax Five.” They might vote for Mr. Trump, or Sarah Palin, or Michele Bachmann, or Newt Gingrich, or Ron Paul, or Herman Cain — or they might not vote at all. But they’re not going to vote for someone whom they perceive to be a stuffed suit — Mr. Romney, say, or Mr. Pawlenty — if they can possibly help it.

If that’s the case, you’d rather that more anti-establishment candidates run than fewer, since there’s more chance that they’ll split the vote. If 33 percent of the electorate were divided between Mr. Trump, Ms. Palin and several other candidates, none of the individual candidates would be terribly threatening. But if most or all of those votes go to just one candidate, they could win, depending on several other contingencies.

I think there’s absolutely something to this theory. And I think it’s more valid in Mr. Trump’s case than most others precisely because he couldn’t win: his main function would be taking away votes from candidates like Ms. Palin who stood a plausible chance to gain the nomination, but who would have a difficult time in the general election.

But I wouldn’t get too carried away with it. Politics, especially in primary elections, aren’t so unidimensional as pundits like to characterize them. Yes, there is probably a conservative-moderate axis, and an establishment-outsider axis. But there are also various types of geographic axes and demographic axes. There are many different varieties of conservatism. Voters weigh electability by different amounts — and have differing perceptions about who could win an election against Mr. Obama. They consume different types of media, which shape their views about politics in different ways. Some have highly idiosyncratic personal preferences — what boil down to “taste” — just as we all like different types of foods or find different types of people attractive. They might rank the candidates in virtually any order, some of which might not seem logical to you or me.

It’s a bit like trying to predict the movement of one particular billiard ball when there are still 15 of them on the table. Sure, everything may be obeying the laws of physics — but given the imprecision we face in our measurements, the system is still closer to being chaotic than orderly for practical purposes.

For the time being, then, I’m inclined to stick by the Occam’s Razor view: when an electable candidate like Mr. Huckabee decides not to run, it’s bad news for Republicans, and when an unelectable candidate like Mr. Trump decides not to run, it’s good news for the party.

As the field gets winnowed down further — as billiard balls get taken off the table — then I think we can begin to get a bit more precise with our shots. In my coverage of the Republican campaign over the next month or two, you’ll probably see me oscillate back and forth between more macroscopic perspectives like this one and more detail-oriented approaches like the one I posted on Iowa this morning. That’s deliberate; I think both views are about equally valid given the stage of the campaign that we now find ourselves in.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.