April 10, 2016
Never Trump. It’s sort of self-explanatory, right? If you believe The Donald is an existential threat to mankind, or at least the Republican Party, then you’re up for anything and everything in order to stop him.
Perhaps you think he’d virtually guarantee losing the Senate. Maybe you’ve seen new projections that show the House is at risk too. Or you think he could actually win, but would perform so badly or dangerously in office that losing is preferable.
Regardless of the motivation, for anyone only concerned with stopping Trump, the road forward is remarkably clear. A big push over the next couple of weeks and he’s effectively neutralized. The catch is you can’t care what happens beyond stopping Trump.
This means Ted Cruz may wind up as the nominee. John Kasich could win. Perhaps Paul Ryan or some other savior parachutes in. You can’t worry about this. It’s very possible to stop Trump. Combining that with another desired outcome becomes impossibly tricky.
This is why Trump is still very much alive. For many of his opponents, stopping The Donald is an intermediate step on the way to another goal. If you’re a Cruz supporter, it’s necessary to keep Trump below 1237 delegates so Ted can take advantage of his edge once they are freed from voter induced commitments and win on a second ballot.
If you are on Team Kasich, that dream of a contested convention also requires Trump to fall short. But you also need to make sure Cruz isn’t overly strong, or you’ll never get to the third, fourth, fifth, or whatever ballot it would take to agree on the third place finisher.
For those who would prefer someone not yet in the field, it’s a step further. First stop Trump, then make sure Cruz is wounded, while preventing Kasich from strengthening, and then build up another choice. As a side note, looking at it that way shows what these forces are up against.
However, they’re also the ones with the money. Sheldon Adelson is just the most prominent of the GOP-afilliated mega contributors who remain on the sidelines pending a credible non-Trump, non-Cruz possibility.
For now, each of these three groups are still more interested in getting their outcome than stopping Trump. In part, it’s because they hope The Donald will fall short anyway, and as such can then maneuver for their preferred outcome without worrying about inadvertently helping a rival group.
Trump has made it this far because of his weakness, not his strength. If he were more popular with Independents, Latinos, or women. If most Republicans would definitely rally around him against Hillary. If he appeared to have a firm command of foreign policy details and was comfortable talking about policy in general.
If he’d cleared 50% in a single primary or caucus. If he’d barely lost Wisconsin. If any of this were the case, #NeverTrump would realize their only mission was #NeverTrump, not slow him up just enough to create a contested convention, so that they can hope for their favorite result.
In August and September, candidates didn’t unite to try to take him down because they still feared each other more than Trump. As actual elections neared, they were still more concerned with neutralizing their most immediate competition. This was equally or doubly true of the PACs supporting these candidates.
The Jeb! and Rubio affiliated PACs blanketed the airwaves attacking the other Floridian. Both thought eliminating the other would ensure a large percentage of Republicans would rally around the survivor. Beyond any personal issues, rivalries, or feelings of betrayal, or any rules about PACs or campaigns conspiring, they would have helped Cruz by going after Trump.
If Jeb, Rubio, and Cruz had teamed up, Trump may have successfully leveraged the conspiracy to make himself the only choice among voters seeking an outsider. It wasn’t going to happen. Cruz thought he could get where he needed to on his own, and may well prove it in Cleveland.
Either way, candidates spent more time tearing each other down than going after Trump. Absent a combined, concerted effort, The Donald’s near-monopoly of media attention and ability/willingness to say things beyond the pale for any other candidate gave him a crucial edge in a very asymmetric battle.
Now we’re at a third stage. One final opportunity to knock Trump down. Regardless of what team an anti-Trump player is on, as long as they’re willing to risk a different team winning, their odds of getting a favored candidate elected president increase by acting decisively now.
Sure, they can technically stop Trump at the convention. Even if he wins New York with over 50% of the vote, taking most of the delegates, and follows by sweeping all five April 26 contests, it’s still very possible to keep him to 1180 to 1210 delegates. The rules most certainly allow for another choice.
Even with a full court press from new Trump campaign czar Paul Manafort, they’ll be lucky to wind up with 600 delegates who would favor The Donald on a later ballot where they were free to vote as they chose.
But the eventual nominee would have a major task to get anywhere near unifying the party. With Cruz having limited appeal to crossover Democrats and moderate Independents, he’d need to rally most of the Trumpists. Anyone else would have an even tougher legitimacy argument.
If Trump is under 50% in New York, actually loses a contest or two on April 26, bleeds delegates in the others, and wins very rarely over the final six weeks, it’s a much easier task. A Trump at 1100ish delegates, who struggles to clear 35-40% in most three-way primaries is not a strong nominee.
That’s aside from any argument someone wants to make about general election polling, favorability numbers, down ballot effect, or whatever. The difference between Trump having a strong argument with which to pull in a few uncommitted delegates and sounding like a whiny bitch is how he does in the remaining April contests.
A true, concerted, anti-Trump effort can make life miserable for him in the next couple of weeks. There’s now a minimum of two, possibly three centers of power in the campaign. Manafort is the new guy and a clear first among supposedly relative equals on the staff.
But he hasn’t participated in a presidential campaign for decades. We don’t know if he still has his fastball. We don’t know how well he’ll win the confidence of those who have spent the last year or so on the campaign. Corey Lewandowski is clearly marginalized now. Will he accept this. Does he go quietly into the night. Does he rebel?
Assistant campaign manager Michael Glasser is a separate power center. Does he side with Lewandowski or Manafort, or take advantage of the chaos to build himself up? I can’t answer those questions, but I can tell you a campaign in transition is not one that will do a great job responding to attacks and challenges from multiple fronts.
This isn’t the Cruz operation, which planned and scripted almost any outcome months and/or years ago. That candidate has prepared for decades. Literally. While Trump has an instinctive feel of what to say in an interview, during a speech, in a tweet to maximize impact, Ted has studied past nomination fights, spent years winning over the conservative grass roots, and like the Rubio and Kasich campaigns, long thought this could go to the convention.
Trump has plenty of practice closing real estate and other business deals, but politics is a whole different game. He now has a larger group of political operatives, including a couple of Ben Carson’s top guys. These guys have their own agendas. None have an extended history with Trump. The only politico who does is Roger Stone, who has toxicity issues and officially left the campaign over the summer, though he still lurks.
This is the time to apply pressure. His poll numbers are a little off from his peak, but still robust. If #NeverTrump lets him off the hook now, he can find his footing over the next week or two. As it is, Trump pulled back a bit over the last couple/few days, and his PAC opposition stayed relatively quiet.
When the Make America Awesome PAC did the ad in Utah, featuring a mostly naked Melania, Trump couldn’t keep himself quiet or composed. That led to the whole kerfuffle with Heidi Cruz, which likely didn’t help Trump much. If he were hit far more regularly and aggressively it would put his temperament and organization to an extreme test.
We know Trump is extremely sensitive about his business failures. Why else would he bring steaks to a victory press conference after Rubio mentioned the failure of Trump Steaks? While he has plenty of successes, there are the four bankruptcies, several branding efforts that came and went, and plenty of real estate developments with his name that went bust.
From Cabo to Florida, Trump’s brand and visage were attached to ventures that never got constructed or required bank involvement/liquidation/foreclosure after the market turned. An extended series of ads, whether on TV or just the internet, each highlighting a different failure, would force him to spend time responding and/or officiating between squabbling advisors.
Each would start with a graphic saying something like “Failure #66, Trump Ocean Resort Baja Mexico,” give a quick description of what happened, with plenty of images, and close by saying a loser won’t make America win again. They would mix casinos, real estate developments and products, using a random number for each failure.
By itself, that would make Trump incalculably angry. At the same time another series would run focusing on Trump University. Polling has shown that is the single most damaging topic. There are plenty of ex-students who would love to appear in a spot.
Same deal, an out-of-order series of victims. “Trump University Victim #121, Sean Smith,” followed by the subject telling a quick version of what they were told by Trump University, how much money they borrowed, and what the result was. The final tag mentions the trial date is after the convention.
This would keep Team Trump plenty busy. One more step. Trump is incredibly unpopular in New York. He’s going to win the primary because most New Yorkers aren’t Republicans. His numbers in New York City itself, where he’s spent most of the past seven decades, are even worse.
Simple construction here. Show a clip of the Big Apple skyline, play a clip of Trump talking about how much New Yorkers love him, with a graphic showing a recent poll result. Any poll will do. They all have him about 70% negative in his home city among the overall voting public.
“If the people who know him the best doubt him the most, why would we trust him with our country?”
Defending his business record, defending himself against fraud, defending his poll numbers. I can’t see him resisting the opportunity to do any of these. Either he plays, and winds up on the defensive for a change, caught in someone else’s feedback loop, or he lets it go (unimaginable) and runs the risk of the ads working on the less committed voters he needs to lock down the nomination.
If he can’t keep his cool and goes beyond the pale as he did with Heidi Cruz, he’ll also turn off that crucial voter group who isn’t yet part of his core but distrusts anything remotely establishment-like.
Keeping Trump busy will give Cruz and Kasich cover to fight it out. Maybe Cruz is able to win over skeptical East Coast voters. Maybe this helps Kasich. Maybe it ultimately sets the table for a convention savior. Who knows? To make this work, the anti-Trump PACs need to use their ordinance and let the battle play out however it does.
They can worry about who the alternative is once Trump is stymied. If they don’t go this far. If they continue on the current path of holding their punches and thinking they’ll deal with this at the convention, they run the risk of not getting to the convention.
My expectation is we see nothing like the opposition campaign outlined above, and as a result, Trump is able to maintain his standing in the remaining contests. If this is the case, he remains within range of locking the nomination down. It’s time for #NeverTrump to put up or concede that’s just a facade.