May 24, 2016
Donald Trump made up the majority of his polling gap with Hillary Clinton by winning over skeptical Republicans. Donald Trump is winning over skeptical Republicans because he made up most of his polling gap with Hillary Clinton. It’s a great virtuous cycle for him.
There are many reasons why various establishment Republicans/elected officials were slow to give Trump a partial or full endorsement. There are the questions about whether he’s appropriately conservative. The big problem with him not being adequately housebroken. Questions about temperament. All of that was enough to give someone pause, but the largest issue was fear he would lose. Badly. In doing so, he would destroy down ballot candidates and hand the Senate to the Democrats.
Now it’s looking like Hillary is an equally effective anchor weight. Perhaps The Donald won’t capsize GOP hopes after all. It completely changes the calculus for several prominent Trump opponents. After speaking as badly of him as is possible, Lindsey Graham had a productive private conversation with Trump and has semi-quietly suggested to various contributors and party figures that it’s time to rally around the candidate.
Graham’s journey is instructive. He entered the race to push for an interventionist foreign policy, concentrating on the need to put boots on the ground in the Middle East to avoid having ISIS blow things up here. When his campaign failed to gain even a minimal amount of traction, he exited and shifted his allegiance to the doomed Jeb Bush.
After Jeb’s eventual demise, Graham was presented with the options of Trump and Ted Cruz. After first comparing them to two different forms of death, Graham picked Cruz as his poison, being so opposed to Trump that it was worth (very) begrudgingly supporting Cruz in an attempt to prevent having Trump as the party’s standard bearer.
Now he’s mostly on the team. When presented with Hillary as an alternative, Graham figures it’s ok to mostly throw in with the lesser of two evils. Has Trump changed his approach over the past three weeks (Indiana was only 21 days ago)? Hardly. He’s reached out to various establishment figures, both privately and publicly, but he was doing that for some time ahead of clinching the nomination.
While Trump did release a list of Supreme Court candidates, we don’t know he could pick any of them out of a police lineup or pass a pop quiz on which is which. The past couple weeks have included plenty of discussion about whether he frequently impersonated a publicist to play himself up to various reporters and Trump calling Bill Clinton a rapist.
I’m far past the point of worrying if these actions are good strategy, bad strategy, appropriate, not, whatever, but the Grahams of the world aren’t buying in to a different type of Trump, just one with more than a mild chance of winning in November.
When it appeared Trump might go down in flames, losing by 8 to 12 points, with Hillary picking up 400 electoral votes, there wasn’t much cost in being part of the principled opposition. Nobody could say their failure to get behind the candidate prevented him from winning. They could make an argument they were attempting to preserve the party and conservative movement by providing a life raft for voters and down ballot candidates who didn’t want to associate with Trump.
Some of the same logic drove discussion over a possible third party conservative entry. If it looked like Hillary was going to win anyway, why not take a chance. Perhaps, somehow, this new entry, be it the promising Ben Sasse or the familiar Mitt Romney could actually win. With two alternatives facing record unfavorable numbers, who knew? Maybe they could at least win a few states and throw the election to the House. Once there, GOP representatives could pick the alternative.
If they wound up dividing the anti-Hillary vote and ensuring a win for her, well, she’d have won anyway. It was worth the risk and the result was no different from a head-to-head race. Not anymore. While Trump isn’t ahead, and is polling fairly similarly to Romney and John McCain right after they secured their respective nominations, nobody was suggesting a renegade operation against either of them.
It appeared they had a reasonable chance of victory and the party got in line. With Trump’s numbers equal to them (even if Hillary’s inferiority to Obama has more to do with it), it’s hard not to rally. The clock is running out on any third party try. Though Bill Kristol and friends always had more time to get someone on the ballot than was commonly believed, there isn’t much runway left.
Once a given public official or GOP grandee throws in with Trump, it’s hard to reverse course, even if his polling worsens when Hillary finally clinches her nomination, or events otherwise change. What Trump statement or event from his past could make someone with a straight face say “if only I’d known he was capable of that, I wouldn’t have ever endorsed”?
Perhaps Hillary takes a step forward after June 7, when the inclusion of super delegates who have publicly announced their support for Clinton will put her over the number to win nomination. Maybe it takes her until the convention to rally enough Democrats. By then it’s too late to re-fracture the GOP.
A couple weeks of positive numbers have bought Trump all the time he needs to clamp down on dissent and move his remaining #NeverTrump opponents to the margins. At this point, they look like spoilsports who aren’t recognizing Hillary is at a minimum the greater of two evils.
Those holdouts still have a decent argument, but the burden of proof is now on them, not those who have decided to back the pending nominee. As Trump has shown time and time again, nothing works better than winning. Actual election victories are great, but he’s made polling results work better for him than any candidate in history.
At the moment, pollsters and surveys have helped him (mostly) unify the party far faster than any of us thought he could.