March 31, 2016
Stop me if you’ve read this before. Somebody has something to say about something Donald Trump said and shouldn’t have. Since the moment he entered the presidential competition, we’ve heard from every imaginable pundit that THIS is the time he went too far.
Often those moments were followed by a jump in the polls or a key primary victory. It’s now 200 stages past the boy who cried wolf. The Donald appears completely impervious to the laws of political gravity, at least on the nomination side of the contest.
I’ve carefully waited to use my “this time Trump went too far” token. Near as I can tell, this is my first post of this nature. After waiting patiently for months, I’m going to take my turn. Here it is:
By Trump standards, it appears mild. He said this the same day he needed to walk back suggesting women face punishment for abortions. This was after spending a full 24 hours defending his campaign manager against a battery charge and questioning the honesty of his accuser on every form of media imaginable.
We know there is a motivated group of Trump loyalists. They aren’t enough to get him nominated, let alone win him a general election. For that, he needs Ted Cruz and John Kasich to divide enough of the anti-Trump vote to slip through with a strong plurality.
Failing at that, he can defeat Cruz head-to-head by being the less objectionable choice among those who doubt The Donald, but think Cruz is too conservative and doesn’t play well enough with others.
If he can accomplish that, step two is defeating Hillary Clinton by being the lesser of two significant evils. There is absolutely no way Donald J. Trump has a positive favorability rating with the overall electorate any time between now and November.
Right now he’s disliked or hated by two-thirds of the country. He can improve this a bit, but he’s not reaching level ground. The possible salvation is Hillary. Absent Trump, she’s potentially the least popular nominee in American history.
It’s hard to find accurate data, but it’s very likely neither Barry Goldwater nor George McGovern were as unpopular on the day of their landslide defeats as Hillary is today. She’s regularly minus 20 or worse.
Trump has barely begun to fight on this front. If nominated, he will unleash total war as never seen before out of the mouth of an actual candidate. We’ve had our share of brutal campaigns, but the candidate is normally at a distance. As we know, not his style.
Whether tearing down Cruz or Clinton, Trump is dependent on a percentage of possible voters thinking he’s putting on a show. Sure, The Donald is going beyond the pale, but it’s an act, a way for him to fire up his fans and manipulate the media.
As long as they believe President Trump would govern differently than Candidate Trump runs his campaign, they could well decide he’s the lesser of evils. While he stirs things up, monopolizes the news, and says inflammatory thing, a whole squadron of surrogates go around whispering soothing dog whistles to uncommitted voters.
It’s the inverse of how campaigns normally go, when surrogates say nasty things and the candidate remains clean. When voters aren’t particularly keen on the alternative, they listen for reasons to support. As toxic as Trump appears, plenty of voters have filed away various testimonials.
Seemingly sane people they’ve heard of like Rudy Giuliani or Larry Kudlow (neither of whom are official surrogates) say nice things. Plenty of establishment-certified New Yorkers say they’re friends with him, that he’s different when the cameras are off. His kids turned out well. Even his biggest detractors say nice things about them.
We know he postures for negotiation purposes. His magnum opus, The Art of the Deal, is all about that. It’s not impossible to make the case that President Trump would put together a group of strong advisors, bluff and posture with foreign leaders, but ultimately make solid choices and get at least some decent results.
When people like Bob Dole and Jimmy Carter say they would have an easier time working with Trump than Cruz, it reinforces the idea he’s not actually that scary. One hundred and forty seven FBI agents are currently investigating Hillary Clinton.
If the Ninetysomethings are sort of ok with Trump, and Hillary has her own issues, it’s possible enough voters can talk themselves into giving The Donald a try. Except for what he said today.
This wasn’t about inflaming a segment of the public or making news. It wasn’t part of an attack on Cruz, Clinton, or anyone else. Instead, Trump told an audience “always be around unsuccessful people because everybody will respect you.”
Mistake. Too far. Too revealing. And a great clip for attack ads as soon as somebody realizes how lethal this is.
It was in context. He went into additional detail, explaining unsuccessful people are more likely to want to listen to a successful person’s stories. I can’t tell you whether he said this strategically or it was some sort of Freudian slip, but he just pissed away a large amount of educated, upper income voters who were actually considering him.
His success is centered on lower-income, less-educated white voters, but is not limited to them. What’s made him lethal to GOP opponents is doing well across the entire spectrum. It may take some time for these words to get deployed against him. There’s plenty else going on at the moment.
But he’s not going to win the nomination or the election without the consent of exactly the type of voters that statement offends. Unlike the hundreds of seemingly scandalous things he’s said, it sure seems like he really meant this one.
If John Kasich has two pennies to rub together, and the stomach to put together a legit contrast ad, he needs to play this clip and compare it to the sort of people who would work in a Kasich administration.
The voters he’s fighting with Trump for are those most likely to respond. Cruz should immediately make this part of his stump speech and standard pitch when being interviewed. You have to think a few less economically successful voters might resent Trump’s view of them.
Many of the things Cruz thinks GOP voters should object to aren’t actually working that well. This will. It tears away the idea that President Trump could actually surround himself with some strong figures. Few Americans believe someone can really run the country on their own.
It may happen today. It may happen tomorrow. Maybe not until next month, or even until after the nomination is settled. At some point, these words will come back to haunt Trump. Far more than anything he’s previously said.