How Donald Trump Could Shape the 2012 Presidential Election

A populist or outsider candidate is unlikely to win in 2012 but can shape the election.

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Donald Trump is roaming the airwaves, promoting himself as a potential presidential candidate. And even though many members of the Washington Establishment dismiss him as simply a publicity hound, it would be wrong to regard him as inconsequential. Trump is appealing to strong undercurrents of frustration and resentment in the country that could help to shape the outcome of the 2012 election.

Political scientist Bill Galston of the Brookings Institution, a former White House adviser to President Bill Clinton, says Trump’s supporters are “people blowing off steam by getting emotionally involved with the biggest blowhard in America.” But Galston adds that Trump has tapped into not only “an irritable nationalism” over international trade, rising oil prices, and other issues, but powerful resentments and anxieties about the overall direction of the country. [Read 10 things you didn't know about Donald Trump.]

Riding a wave of media coverage prompted by his provocative statements, Trump, host of the popular TV show Celebrity Apprentice, has led narrowly or been near the top in some early polls of the prospective Republican presidential field for 2012. Most GOP operatives don’t think he can win the nomination once his views and his background are dissected. But even if the Republicans don’t nominate Trump, it’s possible that the billionaire businessman could run as an independent and siphon off populist and anti-incumbent support from the eventual GOP nominee. This is despite the fact that Trump has been inconsistent and simplistic in his positions over the years and has no experience in government. But he is appealing to many because he comes across as a fighter and straight-talker, and he knows how to draw attention. Lots of it. [Vote now: Will Trump seriously run for president?]

Trump has criticized President Obama as being the worst president in history. In recent weeks, Trump raised doubts about whether Obama was born in the United States, repeating the central fable of the “birther” movement. He is now claiming credit for pressuring Obama into releasing the long-form version of his birth certificate, which shows that Obama was born in Hawaii—what the president has said all along.

White House officials say they won’t get into a daily tit-for-tat with Trump. They don’t want to dignify his arguments, but at the same time don’t want to torpedo his candidacy, which could deeply divide the Republican Party and make the more orthodox hopefuls such as former Govs. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota look pale and timid by comparison. GOP strategists see the danger. Karl Rove, former adviser to President George W. Bush, has called Trump a “joke candidate” and columnist George Will called him a “blatherskite,” someone who talks nonsense. [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the GOP 2012 candidates.]

But a senior Democratic strategist says, “Trump is saying out loud a bunch of pretty outrageous things that I suspect people inside the Republican Party are thinking,” and his fans want him to keep it up. Some Democratic strategists estimate that, more broadly, one third of the electorate is upset with the status quo and resentful or angry at the nation’s elites, whether in government, Wall Street, big business, or the society at large—interests that are seen as corrupt, inept, or harmful to the desires of everyday people. And many Americans, especially conservatives, like the way Trump confronts the “mainstream media,” as he did in feisty interviews recently on CNN, ABC, NBC, and elsewhere. 

There is a long history of populist risings in American politics. Billionaire Ross Perot ran in the presidential races in 1992 and 1996. Conservative commentator Patrick Buchanan roiled the waters in 1996 and 2000. Neither came close to victory, but they had impact.

Conditions seem ripe for another “outsider” or populist. Seventy percent of Americans say the country is on the wrong track, the highest percentage since Obama took office in January 2009, and the job approval ratings for both Obama and Congress are relatively low, according to the latest CBS News/New York Times poll. Eighty percent say the economy is in bad shape.