Democrats have reason to be thrilled by the campaign chaos swarming the presidential campaign of Donald Trump. Three different campaign managers in two months? Poll numbers in the toilet? Reliably red states in danger of turning blue? The rending of garments and gnashing of teeth of dyed-in-the-wool Republicans as the party of Reagan sinks inexorably into the party of Trump? The schadenfreude is just too delicious.
But the shoe will be on the other foot if Democrats don’t heed the warning signs I’ve noticed in the past few days.
Hours before news of the change in campaign management was announced, Trump gave a speech in Wisconsin. His pitch to African Americans on crime and jobs was undermined not only by his history of hostility toward them but also by his delivering it in overwhelmingly white West Bend, Wis., which he repeatedly referred to as predominantly black “Milwaukee.” A city literally aflame with tension after a police-involved shooting on Aug. 13.
But as I listened to Trump, I was struck by how he delivered his teleprompter-assisted speech. Gone was the listlessness from previous days. His confidence was back. And that pitch of his had just enough footholds of credibility as it was rooted in traditional law-and-order conservatism the GOP is known for. Still, it was raw.
The headline on Ed Kilgore’s piece for New York magazine — “Trump’s Appeal to Black Voters Was Actually Directed at White Voters” — summed up exactly what I was thinking. In a great rundown of what Trump said and didn’t say, Kilgore writes, “All in all, Trump’s West Bend speech was almost certainly aimed at white voters worried (or angry) about being labeled as racists.”
The bleeding of Republican support away from Trump is testament to the fact that his racist, xenophobic, misogynistic and nativist White House bid has its limits. But what if it doesn’t? And what if Trump can do just enough to make himself “hold your nose” acceptable to a party that now finds him objectionable?
Trump’s entire campaign has been the electoral equivalent of squeezing that last bit of toothpaste out of the tube. The theory being that there are “missing” (and disaffected) white voters who sat out previous elections who would be attracted by Trump’s hard-edged populism and could be his secret to victory. Nate Cohn of the Upshot certainly thinks so.
And what if Trump’s poll plummet isn’t as steep as we have seen? What if folks are less than truthful? Last year, I wrote about a study conducted by Morning Consult’s Kyle Dropp that convincingly showed survey respondents are more honest in their preferences with online polls than with those involving a live person.
Perhaps that’s what’s at work now, especially in the swing states and traditionally red states where Hillary Clinton has no business being within striking distance of the Republican nominee. But the latest Post-ABC News poll has a few data points that should stop any Democrat from their not-so-veiled measuring of the Oval Office drapes.
The Post-ABC poll shows Clinton winning 92 percent support among self-identified Democrats. That compares with 86 percent support just before the Republican convention and is an indication that the Democratic convention helped consolidate supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) behind her candidacy. Those Sanders Democrats favor Clinton by 86 percent to 5 percent over Trump, larger than the 79 percent to 10 percent in July.
In contrast, Trump is winning 83 percent of self-identified Republicans, nearly identical to the 82 percent support he had among Republicans before his convention in Cleveland. Among those who favored candidates other than Trump in the Republican primaries, Trump leads Clinton by 74 percent to 17 percent — no improvement over the 76 percent to 12 percent before the convention.
Despite the bitter campaign with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Clinton is riding high because Democrats have coalesced around her candidacy. The same cannot be said for Trump.
But therein lies the opportunity of the Big Apple billionaire. If he gives more speeches in performance and rhetoric as he did in Wisconsin, dare I say pivot ever so slightly, Trump could give those embarrassed white Republican voters the thinnest of veils they need to vote for him. And that could be all that Trump needs.
This week, both Clinton and President Obama urged the Democratic Party faithful to not be complacent this November. “If we are not running scared until the day after the election,” Obama warned Monday at a Clinton fundraiser on Martha’s Vineyard, “we are going to be making a grave mistake.” Clinton said Tuesday in Philadelphia, “Even though we’re doing fine right now, I’m not taking anyone, anywhere, for granted.”
There’s a reason for that. As Steve Phillips argues in “Brown Is the New White: How the Demographic Revolution Has Created a New American Majority,” Clinton will win if the Obama coalition shows up at the polls. A victory that will be denied if that “new American majority” refuses to stay woke.
Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj