May 21, 2016
We can probably end the speculation about Donald Trump “changing” for the general election. He’s not and likely won’t. Events over the past couple of weeks indicate he probably shouldn’t either. He’s made up several polling points since his victory in Indiana. While that hardly guarantees him victory (at best he’s currently even with Hillary), it would suggest expectations of his demise are very premature.
Some of the polling improvement is a normal bump for securing the nomination. Though some #NeverTrumpers are determinedly holding out, other Republicans are rallying around the standard bearer. That’s normal. If Hillary gets a similar boost from Bernie’s eventual exit, it shouldn’t shock anyone.
This isn’t the first time the two combatants have found themselves roughly equal in national polling. Trump had narrow leads or very minimal deficits in early fall and January as well. Just because he’s caught up again doesn’t mean we should consider him an equally likely president. Hillary has held decent-sized leads at times, Trump has not.
However, it’s becoming clear that barring a major shift in the electorate, or a large majority of undecided voters opting for Clinton as the lesser of two considerable evils (remember, these voters don’t like either of them at all), we are headed for a very competitive election.
Those who suggest Trump should modify his behavior have a couple thoughts. Some who are planning on voting for him wish he would act more presidentially so as not to embarrass them. Others are fearful of math. How can he get elected if he combines traditional African American scorn for the Republican candidate, with Mitt Romney (or worse) support among Latinos, and a massive disapproval number with women?
Polling shows less than a third of Americans believe Trump has the temperament to serve as president. While his honesty problems are exceeded by Hillary’s, and he does better on questions about who would handle the economy and terrorism best, this is a clear problem for him. Why not try to moderate and spend the next several months convincing voters he can handle the nuclear codes?
Because it won’t work and it takes away his best weaponry. Ads are already blanketing the airwaves in swing states and Internet showing The Donald’s Greatest Hits of the past year. We’ll hear what he said about Megyn Kelly until there’s blood coming out of our ears. Hillary’s PACs will remind us Trump prefers people who weren’t captured, we’ll see him mock disabled people. We’ll hear him tell supporters to hit protestors. What’s he going to do, say he was just kidding?
Last weekend, the New York Times published a lengthy look at his relations with women over the past four decades. The Washington Post has assigned more than 20 people to dig into his past so that they can publish a book and numerous articles. A kinder, gentler Donald will lose the ability to fire back against these media institutions with total impunity.
The anti-hero, non-presidential version of Trump can single out individual reporters and attack them in TV appearances, on Twitter, however he chooses. He can declare Egypt Air 804 was a victim of terrorism before the plane hits the water. A proper candidate should wait for authorities to make a determination. Trump decided and spoke quickly. As it turns out, most now agree with him. He looked decisive.
Though even his detractors were (sometimes begrudgingly) impressed with how he dispatched 16 opponents in the primary, they and some of his supporters worry that what worked then won’t succeed in November. He was financially outgunned by Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio, but managed to dispatch them. Now consensus says he needs at least $1 billion to keep up with Hillary.
Efforts to do so are shaky. After disavowing PAC money, there are now at least 24 organizations that claim to exist to support him. They are jockeying to become the primary support and receptacle of funding. It’s still a mess. The traditional funding requirements are well in excess of Trump’s available cash.
Clinton’s data crunching team rivals the wizards put together by Cruz. Though they couldn’t get Ted nominated, they did help him outperform polling in several key states. If the general election goes down to the wire, a lack of funding, ground game, and data management could sink The Donald. He just got around to hiring an internal pollster.
How much does that money actually matter? Normally it does. Better funded candidates normally defeat poorer opponents. Since the beginning of time, the better organized, better outfitted campaign has an advantage. But if the candidate prizes the ability to shift at a second’s notice and say and do what he wants, this is an exception.
If the candidate has unlimited access to free media, what does he need $1 billion for? Pundits and historians have plenty of reference points for how ad campaigns have changed presidential races in the past. They can cite LBJ’s “Daisy Ad” against Barry Goldwater. They can mention how Bush 41’s team disembowled Michael Dukakis with Willie Horton. In 2004, the Swift Boat Veterans PAC managed to negatively define John Kerry on behalf of Bush 43.
Both Newt Gingrich and Barack Obama were able to define Mitt Romney as a rapacious capitalist tool as recently as last cycle. Ads work. Usually. We’re lacking any evidence they are working in 2016 though. Bernie Sanders has outspent Hillary Clinton. By very large margins over the past couple of months. His national polling numbers haven’t moved. He hasn’t won any major upsets since Michigan. Results were predictable by demographic information alone.
We saw how useless Jeb’s ads were. They neither propped him up, nor tore Marco Rubio down quickly enough to save the campaign. All things being equal, more ad money is probably better than less. More organization, particularly if efficient and well-run is definitely better than less.
But no other candidate in American history shared the same ability to attract attention. None had the willingness to sling mud themselves rather than have their surrogates, PACs, or other allies do so for them. None were so willing to immediately reverse themselves when necessary, with no regard for what previous audio and video may indicate.
It’s too much to expect Trump to retain the advantages of his uncoventional guerrila tactics which presenting himself as a normal candidate. He has the distinct advantage of the right competitor. Hillary is not suited to quick changes in strategy. She’s not a great speaker on her feet. She likes controlled settings for media appearances. She also has a husband who makes an excellent piñata for Trump whenever the issue of treating women well surfaces.
Like Cruz and other victims before him, Hillary faces a strategic problem. She’s attempting to pacify Berners and moderates who are afraid of Trump at the same time. If she moves leftward, the moderates get very uncomfortable. Cruz was trying to win over Kasich’s suburban moderates while also trying to peel evangelical conservatives away from Trump. As we saw, it didn’t work. Hillary has a similarly difficult to impossible project.
If he can keep her off balance, keep changing the topic from day to day, he’s got a good chance of defeating her. A semi-robotic, pre-programmed candidate like Hillary, with a large staff, plenty of research assistants, and a need to pacify voters on opposite ends of the spectrum will find themselves drowning in potential issues to cover.
Does she attack Trump on women? On failing to release his tax returns? On reacting too quickly to international events? On his Supreme Court nomination list? Where to go first, how to do so without attracting attention to Bill’s record, her speeches to Goldman Sachs, who she would put on the court, etc.?
Trump has gone further, faster, than almost anyone thought he would or could using a series of tactics he’s spent the past forty years honing. This means he can brag about being two points ahead in an Arizona poll, even if Republicans have only lost the state once since 1948.
There are plenty of reasons to wonder/worry about an actual President of the United States operating in the same manner. Perhaps he would, perhaps he wouldn’t. It’s something for voters to think very seriously about. In the meantime, he’s got a hell of a thing going. Might as well play it out to the end.