January 23, 2016
Donald Trump doesn’t regularly compare himself to President Obama unless it’s to explain how much better he would do, but in one important way he’s very similar to Candidate Obama.
Let’s go back to early 2008. Mr. Obama had just completed his third year in the U.S. Senate after spending a few years in the Illinois Legislature. Much of 2007 was spent preparing for and beginning his presidential campaign. Beyond that, he’d spent a few years as a community organizer and done some lecturing at the University of Chicago Law School.
His opponents, beyond the experienced Hillary Clinton and 2004 VP nominee John Edwards, included long-time pols Joe Biden, Christopher Dodd and Bill Richardson. Obama was the pup in the field. He was aiming to become the least seasoned major party nominee in generations.
He got his chance because he sounded good. Obama’s 2004 Democratic Convention keynote address made him a star. That alone was not going to convince the party establishment to get behind him instead of Hillary.He got some endorsements in the fall of 2007, but after he won Iowa in January 2008, the floodgates opened. As time went by, some super delegates previously committed to Hillary changed their tune.
While at one time it was believed she might be able to piece enough of them together to win the nomination even if Obama won more delegates from open voting, he wound up doing better in both measures. What got so many to buy in?
Sure, Obama sounded great, particularly to Democratic ears. Sure, he was a great way to appeal to independents, younger voters, anyone already burned out on Clintons. Sure, nominating an African-American candidate was enticing. All of those things helped make him viable.
The tiebreaker was his campaign, specifically the quality of it. For someone with zero executive experience and no legislative track record, there were few ways to measure how Obama might be able to lead the federal government. Hillary was not afraid to remind voters and party figures she was more experienced and tested.
When asked about his executive qualifications, Obama actually mentioned his campaign. This isn’t and wasn’t absurd. Keep in mind, the tested Hillary Clinton, wife of a two-term president, twice elected statewide in New York, ran a ragged 2008 campaign. The GOP candidates weren’t distinguishing themselves either.
In the one thing he was doing that his competitors were also attempting, Obama did better. Much better. This wasn’t just a matter of winding up the next great orator and getting him on the stump. His campaign didn’t leak, it resolutely stayed on message. They both managed to inspire a bunch of volunteers and keep them effectively organized.
Particularly in terms of delegate counting and acquisition, they were miles ahead of Clinton, taking all 50 states seriously and having a plan to grab as many delegates as possible, even when he lost the top line vote.
As we saw again in 2012, it wasn’t a fluke. Obama and the people he hires are expert in running presidential campaigns. You wouldn’t want to bet against him in 2016 if he was eligible.
Much of the above is beginning to apply to Trump. We’ve heard more and more rumblings that establishment figures, some audible like Bob Dole and Trent Lott, others more quietly and not for attribution, are saying The Donald is the lesser of two evils compared to Ted Cruz.
This doesn’t mean they’ve decided on supporting him yet. Lott is John Kasich’s guy in Mississippi. Presumably, he’s at least waiting to see what happens in New Hampshire. They are indicating he’s not their primary nightmare.
Many have correctly suggested this has something to do with Cruz being the most hated man in Washington. That’s probably not an exaggeration, and he’s doubling down on it, highlighting this new wary embrace of Trump as evidence he’s the only guy Iowans can trust to blow things up in D.C.
Elected officials would prefer to avoid having someone constantly running against them, but Trump constantly talks about the idiots in the government and he doesn’t only mean the president. The reason they give in public is concern about down-ballot races, the ones they are on.
Apparently, at the moment, many GOP insiders are more concerned about a Cruz ticket than a Trump one. Given Ted has successfully won elective office and is running a strong primary campaign, this is interesting.
While you can’t put too much on surveys this far out, when voters are asked Trump-Clinton, Trump-Sanders, Cruz-Clinton, Cruz-Sanders, Ted does a little better. He also has better national favorability numbers, at least for now.
They are assuming Trump will wear better over time with Independents, moderate Democrats, various cross-over voters than Cruz. This isn’t based on current data. It’s based on Trump’s ability to control the narrative and manipulate the media. Combined with a campaign that looks very effective so far, with little dissention, no leaks and great flexibility, they think it’s a better bet.
Again, this is in comparison to a plenty strong Cruz campaign. But over the past couple of weeks, the time where the bromance ended and the two candidates have fired daily verbal missiles at each other, Trump has done better. He closed the gap in Iowa without losing ground nationally.
He’s further ahead in multiple New Hampshire polls than he was a couple weeks ago. A candidate who can take on his closest competitor, while simultaneously improving in both key early states, locations that tend to respond very differently to candidates, is impressive.
Regular Americans pay more attention to campaigns than presidencies. We tune in now, but won’t after someone is inaugurated. I’m guilty of this too. I pay way more attention to the contest, which is full of daily, measurable developments, than the governing, which takes years of study and perspective to evaluate. Ask me in 2030 what I think of how the Obama years turned out.
That means how someone campaigns is at least as important to many observers than the particulars of someone’s record. This applies to voters, influencers, elected officials, all sorts of people. The National Review does not care how well Trump campaigns.
If they do care, it’s concern that he’s a good enough candidate that he could actually get elected. NR, of which I’m a regular reader, has an ideological position to uphold. Trump’s argument is not based on ideology. Not only should they not come around on him, his success should result in a push-back.
It’s rightly important to the signers of the anti-Trump manifesto that he show some degree of conservative consistency. Unfortunately, neither the Washington GOP establishment, nor many grass roots voters care. You can say National Review is part of the conservative intellectual establishment, along with the Heritage Foundation, Cato Institute, et al.
Ronald Reagan was a conduit between this group and mainstream Middle American voters. If Marco Rubio ever gets himself untracked, this link, extended to a new, more multiethnic group of voters, may get reattached. At this exact second, many don’t have the patience to wait. They want to at least have a contingency plan in case Trump and Cruz are the only choices.
Politicians have practice getting elected. They recognize talent when they see it. Ted Cruz is a very good politician, who is hard to deal with and hasn’t proven he can appeal to non-conservatives. Donald Trump is a revelation. At this exact second, The Donald’s campaign competency is breaking the tie in his favor.
Obama’s example shows a good primary candidate is often a good general election candidate. Especially when you run at least partially on a cult of personality, it’s easier to transition to the fall campaign, than for someone who needs to moderate strongly conservative or liberal views and is liked for their ideology, not personality.
It doesn’t show that someone who can dominate the narrative during an election can control things as well while in office. With Obama, the campaign skills to get himself elected did not translate to mid-term elections or his normal approval rating.
Even if these Republicans are correct, and Trump can deliver in November 2016, it doesn’t mean they’ll survive November 2018, or enjoy the two years in between. Being a great presidential candidate only guarantees you’re a great presidential candidate. Nothing more.