This time, he’s gone too far. That’s what Republicans said after Donald Trump insulted John McCain over his military record, people lined up to criticize Trump and the party’s leaders hoped this ridiculous (if entertaining) political reality show could finally be wound down. But it didn’t turn out that way, and now they’re saying it all over again, after Trump sparred with Fox News’s Megyn Kelly during Thursday’s debate, then continued to throw insults at her all weekend. As The Post’s Philip Rucker and Robert Costa wrote yesterday, “Republican leaders who have watched Donald Trump’s summer surge with alarm now believe that his presidential candidacy has been contained and may begin to collapse because of his repeated attacks on a Fox News Channel star and his refusal to pledge his loyalty to the eventual GOP nominee.”
Perhaps they really believe that in their hearts. Or perhaps they hope that if they tell themselves and the rest of the world it’s true, then it will come to pass.
Trump’s campaign may be a chaotic mess, as Costa and Rucker report today, but for the moment, it doesn’t seem to matter. The only poll released since the debate is this one from NBC News, which was conducted online and uses a sample drawn from people who have taken Survey Monkey polls. While they attempt to make it as representative as possible (with a large sample and weighting for demographics), it would be a good idea to wait for confirmation from other polls before putting too much stock in it. Nevertheless, the poll showed Trump still at the top with 23 percent support among Republicans. Don’t be surprised if the other polls we see in the next few days show his support essentially unchanged. I suspect that the people who are behind him don’t care if he threatens to run as an independent or if he insults women, just like they didn’t care that he jabbed at McCain and said we ought to deport 11 million people. It’s a feature, not a bug.
If this were an ordinary Republican presidential primary campaign — one obvious front-runner, five or six other candidates taking long-shot bids, a predictable arc in which a challenger emerges to that front-runner and is eventually vanquished — the presence of a character like Trump might not make much of a difference. In a year like that, he might still have managed to get support from the same one out of five primary voters who are backing him now, but it wouldn’t have put him at the front of the pack and made him the center of the campaign. After a while, he probably would have gotten bored and dropped out.
But it’s plain that as long as Trump is ahead of the other candidates, he can convince himself he’s going to win. With 17 candidates splitting the vote and the next-highest contender managing to garner only 12 or 13 percent, that could be for quite some time.
If you’re a Republican, you may be telling yourself that this will get sorted out eventually, and your party will get itself a real nominee. And you’d be right. But by the time that happens, the party will have spent months tying itself in knots. The voters Trump represents will be only more convinced that their party is, in the words Trump himself might use, a bunch of total losers. The GOP’s image is already hurting, not only among voters in general but also among its own partisans; according to a recent Pew Research Center poll, 32 percent of Americans have a favorable view of the Republican Party, and only 68 percent of Republicans view it favorably (86 percent of Democrats have a favorable view of their party).
Keep this in mind, too: While Trump may be setting out to alienate one key demographic group after another, his opponents are doing much the same thing, albeit in slightly less vivid ways. Trump calls Mexican immigrants rapists and drug dealers, but the other Republicans are offering Hispanic voters exactly what Mitt Romney and John McCain did, i.e., not much. Trump insults women with, shall we say, colorful language. But in that same Thursday debate, Scott Walker and Marco Rubio emphatically declared their support for banning abortion even in cases of rape and incest. Their friends on Capitol Hill are trying to stop women from getting health care at Planned Parenthood, a position Barack Obama pummeled Romney for in 2012.
True to form, Trump himself is insisting that women will actually will flock to his campaign, just as he said Hispanics would. As he said on yesterday’s “Face the Nation,” “I will be phenomenal to the women.” (I was hoping he’d add, “And then, when the women hit their forties, I’ll trade them in for younger, prettier women, to whom I’ll also be phenomenal.” No such luck, though.)
While all this is going on, Hillary Clinton is waltzing toward the Democratic nomination with a bunch of popular policy proposals (today she’ll unveil a plan to make college more affordable) and a broad electoral coalition. That isn’t to say that Clinton doesn’t have her own image problems, but her eventual Republican opponent will have to slog his way through this crazy primary, offering voters reasons not to vote Republican all along the way.
So the next time Donald Trump says something outrageous or offensive (or, more likely, both) and Republican leaders say that this is finally going to be the end of his campaign, remember that you heard it before.