Every presidential campaign has its ups and downs, its moments when everything seems to be going right and those when it looks to be hurtling toward defeat. This is one of the latter moments for Donald Trump, with him falling in the polls after a series of controversial statements (and frankly, “A Series of Controversial Statements” could be his campaign motto). Ed O’Keefe reports that panicked Republicans are waging a last-ditch effort to convince convention delegates to switch from Trump to someone or other, and they claim “that they now count several hundred delegates and alternates as part of their campaign.” The effort will almost certainly fail, but the fact that it consists of more than a few desperate people is an indication of how bad things are for Trump.
But wait — doesn’t he have plenty of time to turn this campaign around? So he trails Hillary Clinton by somewhere between 6 and 8 points in all the reputable polling averages — didn’t George H.W. Bush trail Michael Dukakis by 17 points after the Democratic convention in 1988?
Yes, Trump has time to reverse the current situation. But today’s polls aren’t meaningless, even if they don’t tell us exactly what will happen in November. The problem for Trump isn’t the size of his polling deficit (which isn’t all that large); it’s the magnitude of challenges his campaign faces.
While he could manage a stunning turnaround, at the moment Trump seems to have put together one of the worst presidential campaigns in history. Let’s take a look at all the major disadvantages Trump faces as we head toward the conventions:
A skeletal campaign staff. Trump succeeded in the primaries with a small staff whose job was to do little more than stage rallies. But running a national campaign is hugely more complex than barnstorming from one state to the next during primaries. While the Clinton campaign has built an infrastructure of hundreds of operatives performing the variety of tasks a modern presidential campaign requires, the Trump campaign “estimates it currently has about 30 paid staff on the ground across the country,” a comically small number.
Not enough money, and little inclination to raise it. Trump hasn’t raised much money yet, and he doesn’t seem inclined to do so; according to one report, after telling Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus that he’d call 20 large donors to make a pitch, he gave up after three. Fundraising is the least pleasant part of running for office, but unlike most candidates who suck it up and do what they have to, Trump may not be willing to spend the time dialing for dollars. Instead, he’s convinced that he can duplicate what he did in the primaries and run a low-budget campaign based on having rallies and doing TV interviews. As he told NBC’s Hallie Jackson, “I don’t think I need that money, frankly. I mean, look what we’re doing right now. This is like a commercial, right, except it’s tougher than a normal commercial.” It’s not like a commercial, because in interviews Trump gets challenged, and usually says something that makes him look foolish or dangerous. But he seems convinced that his ability to get limitless media coverage, no matter how critical that coverage is, will translate to an increase in support.
Outgunned on the airwaves. As a result, Democrats are pouring money into television ads attacking Trump and promoting Clinton with no answer from the other side. As Mark Murray reported yesterday, “So far in June, Clinton and the outside groups backing her have spent a total of $23.3 million on ads in the battleground states of Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia.” And how much have Trump and his allies spent on ads in those states? Zero. Nothing. Nada.
Not enough backup from his allies. There may never have been a presidential nominee with so little support from the people who are supposed to be out there persuading people to vote for him. Every day sees new stories about Trump being criticized by Republican leaders or about Republicans distancing themselves from him. And that includes the people who have endorsed him. Last week the chair of Trump’s leadership committee in the House begged reporters to stop making him defend Trump.
That lack of unity can have a large impact on how Republicans view their vote. While the rote arguments between Democrats and Republicans may seem too predictable to change many minds, when intra-partisan unanimity breaks down, it sends a signal to people that it’s okay to disagree with your party’s nominee — and even to reject him altogether.
A popular president opposing him. Every political science election model says that the view of the current president matters a great deal in determining whether voters decide to change which party controls the White House. Right now President Obama’s approval rating is over 50 percent for the first time in a long while, and he’ll be campaigning vigorously against Trump.
A demographic disadvantage. Trump is running on what is essentially an ethno-nationalist appeal to white voters, at a time when the country grows less white every year. He would have to do significantly better than recent Republican nominees among large minority groups in order to win, yet rather than court them, he has done just the opposite. In the latest Post-ABC News poll, 89 percent of Hispanics said they had an unfavorable view of Trump, an absolutely stunning figure. That’s not to mention the enormous gender gap he’s opening: 77 percent of women also viewed him unfavorably in that poll.
An electoral college disadvantage. Any Republican candidate faces a challenge in the electoral college, where Democrats start with a built-in advantage. In all of the past four elections, Democrats have won 17 states (plus D.C.) that give them 242 of the 270 electoral votes they need to win. That means that for Trump to win, he has to sweep almost every swing state. But instead of trying to do that, Trump is worried about holding on to red states such as Utah and Arizona.
A candidate with a lethal combination of dreadful strategic instincts and absolute certainty of his own brilliance. Trump’s inexperience in politics has shown itself in many ways, such as his utter ignorance about policy and how the U.S. government works. It also means that when confronted with new situations, he often does something politically foolish, as when he responded to the Orlando shooting by congratulating himself for predicting that there would one day be another terrorist attack. And while for a time we kept hearing that he was going to “pivot” to the general election, instead he seems to be running as though he’s still trying to persuade his own supporters to stay with him. Those supporters comprise a plurality of a minority of the whole electorate.
Perhaps even more importantly, unlike some neophyte candidates, Trump not only doesn’t know what he doesn’t know, but also insists that he doesn’t need to know it. Whatever deep insecurities drive his constant preening bluster, he isn’t going to let anyone tell him that he’s anything less than a genius and things aren’t going great. Which means that as the campaign goes on and his situation gets worse, he’ll be exceedingly unlikely to make the kind of changes he needs to reverse his fortunes.
Trump is no stranger to failure, but in his life as a businessman he could segregate those failures from the rest of his enterprises, at least enough to keep moving forward and find other ways to make money. He could fail at the casino business, or the steak business, or the vodka business, or the magazine business, or the airline business, or the football business, or the real estate seminar business, or the vitamin pyramid scheme business, and maintain the viability of his overall brand. But he has never been on a stage like this one before. He didn’t have hundreds of reporters on the steak beat scrutinizing every twist and turn in the decline of Trump Steaks and putting the results of their reporting on every front page in America.
But now he does, and he can’t just drop one scheme and move on to the next one. In that interview with Hallie Jackson, Trump said, “We really haven’t started. We start pretty much after the convention, during and after.” But his problem isn’t that he hasn’t started; it’s that he started a year ago — digging himself into a hole it’s going to be awfully hard to climb out of.