June 28, 2016
Three weeks from today is Day Two of the Republican convention. Three weeks from tomorrow, Donald Trump’s vice presidential nominee will give his/her speech. Between now and then, expect to see quite a bit less Trump. It doesn’t mean he’ll be out of the news, or won’t say anything interesting. He’s not entering the Candidate Protection Program, but he will be a bit under the radar, at least by Trumpian standards.
On the morning of April 6, Trump was in trouble. Ted Cruz had just defeated him in Wisconsin. This came after losing two of three contests in the previous round of primaries on March 22 (he won Arizona, lost badly to Cruz in Idaho, and finished third in Utah.) #NeverTrump was in the ascendant.
They’d baited Trump into retweeting a very unflattering picture of Heidi Cruz, an exchange which ultimately left the front runner looking bad himself. Local conservative talk radio in Wisconsin combined with Governor Walker to rally around Ted. Pundits and analysts did the math and determined it would be virtually impossible for Trump to get to 1237 delegates before the convention.
With no primaries until April 19 in New York, one discountable due to his home field advantage, it appeared the candidate most dependent on momentum from winning would suffer from going a full month without a victory. Faced with this challenge, Trump entered a cocoon for the first time in his campaign.
He skipped going on the Sunday shows that weekend. He hired Paul Manafort to bring some adult supervision to the effort. No out-of-state campaign trips for a while, taking advantage of New York being next. For the first week, he didn’t even campaign locally. Ostensibly, he was holed up at Trump Tower taking care of some work for the Trump Organization.
By the time he emerged closer to primary day, his opponents lost momentum. #NeverTrump passed on advertising in New York and the April 26 primaries. Cruz tried his hand at campaigning in New York City. It didn’t go real well. John Kasich was no more effective than usual.
Expected to win, Trump dominated his local primary, snagging over 60% of the vote and winning almost all of the delegates. The momentum pushed him forward to 5 big victories the next week, and an Indiana win the following week, ending a contest expected to go all the way to the convention. A little less Trump went a very long way.
Had his opponents done a better job capitalizing on the opening, the story may have ended very differently. But they didn’t. Again. Now, as Trump enters another down time, he’s faced with a similar dilemma and equally ineffective opponents.
In one corner is #NeverTrump, back for another round and attempting to alter/update the convention rules (which they can do if they have the votes) to unbind delegates on the first ballot. Delegate surveys have indicated Trump would not necessarily get 1237 votes if they were able to vote as they wish. Cruz did pack the state delegations pretty well after all.
But preliminary surveys have shown the rules committee, the group of delegates who would enable such a jailbreak, is made up primarily of those who will not vote to allow that outcome. Many are actual Trump delegates, those who were chosen after pre-declaring support for him, not just bound to him on a first ballot against their preference. Others are party officials who are showing no desire to upset the apple cart.
Though recent polling has shown over half of Republican voters would prefer a non-Trump candidate, that’s different from actually settling on an alternative. Even his detractors understand choosing somebody he defeated during the primary process is a non-starter. Sure, some rules committee delegates could change their mind and become more brave once they reach Cleveland.
However, Trump would need to do worse in polling, and drag down down-ballot candidates more visibly (so far, several vulnerable senators are polling at least as well as expected), while saying and doing a few more inflammatory things. Entering the cocoon, as it seems he is, will put the entire burden on his opponents. If the past year is any indication, they will prove entirely ineffectual.
Then there’s Hillary. If she’s taken advantage of Trump’s many miscues over the past few weeks to firmly convince voters they should look forward to another Clinton Administration, the evidence isn’t in the data. She is leading. By how much depends on which survey you read. She’s not suddenly popular.
Berners are complaining about being left out of the Democrats’ platform process. The House committee released their final Benghazi report. A new tell-all book from inside the original Clinton White House is out. Last time Hillary had a few issues to deal with, Trump stepped on her trouble and diverted attention to his own. That’s not very likely this week.
While Trump has shown no ability to stay permanently muzzled, stay regularly presidential, or otherwise reassure swing voters over an extended period of time, he did manage to stay out of his own way in April. Today, the campaign announced three new hires, Michael Abboud, the new communications director, Alan Cobb, who will do outreach to interest groups, and Jason Miller, who will pitch in on the communications side.
Miller worked for Cruz, the first of Team Ted to join Trump. The other two have an extensive background will regular GOP politicians. Cobb was already part of the Trump campaign in another role. The addition of these three is the current version of the step taken to add Manafort in April. While the campaign isn’t anywhere near as built out as Clinton’s, a few more basics are being covered.
We’re also hearing the campaign has and is doing more with data than previously believed. Some is through the RNC, but the campaign is working with and evaluating other providers, including those who helped Cruz and various #NeverTrump affiliated organizations.
Trump oscillates between trying to shore up Republicans and stirring things up. Perhaps he has an internal measure, maybe it’s his seemingly wiser daughter Ivanka. Either way, he’s going back into the cocoon and it should work pretty well for him, particularly if he exits it with a decent vice presidential option and a fairly well executed convention.
He gets graded on a curve. If #NeverTrump can’t block him on the first ballot, he picks someone with decent stature (like Newt Gingrich) for his running mate, and gives a mostly coherent acceptance speech, Hillary’s general weakness as a candidate will get Trump out of the convention with a modest lead in the polls.
It doesn’t mean he can hold that advantage, nor that he’s a favorite to win in November, but beware a (comparatively) quiet Trump. He’s proven once that less of him is more.