A few data points to consider:
- The latest national GOP poll looks very, very good for Donald Trump.
- This latest survey is another indicator that Trump has arrested his post-debate slide.
- According to Byron York, the GOP establishment is starting to panic about Trump.
The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts has been hewing to the “this too shall pass” approach to Trump’s candidacy, so it’s worth stepping back for a second and asking: Is Trump right and I’m wrong?
Nah, I don’t think so — yet. It’s still very early. Bear in mind that at this point in the 2012 cycle, Herman Cain was still leading the national polls. But I do think the past few months have suggested some modifications emendations to the way that Trump loses.
The GOP is now in the same position as the passenger waiting for his checked luggage at baggage claim. Experience has taught me that my bag never appears on the carousel until I’m absolutely, completely convinced that the airline has lost it. And because I’m the optimistic sort, it usually takes a little while before I hit that level of despair.
In essence, it won’t be until the entire GOP establishment and rank-and-file members freak out about Trump and take action that he will suffer. And if York is right, they’re staring to freak out.
The problem is that an ad accusing Trump of not being a conservative will appeal almost exclusively to GOP voters who are strongly conservative. But those voters are mostly already supporting other candidates. Trump’s base of support lies elsewhere, and might end up largely unaffected by a he’s-not-one-of-us ad campaign.
It’s true, as the people at FiveThirtyEight note, that Trump has improved as a candidate, and that his poll numbers now look more like those of a conventional moderate Republican. That said, there are two reasons I think this will work — and one reason that gives me pause.
The reasons that it will work are simple. First, what the past few months have shown is that when voters have paid attention to the campaign — i.e., the two GOP debates — Trump’s numbers suffer afterward. It’s during the fallow, Trump-fueled media cycles that his numbers rebound. A relentless barrage of negative ads in Iowa and New Hampshire and greater attention paid to the campaign as the voting actually starts are likely to affect Trump’s numbers in a bad way.
Second, although Trump the candidate has improved, his campaign still isn’t operating by normal rules, as Quartz’s Tim Fernholz reports:
He has a commanding lead in the polls, but Donald Trump is the only Republican presidential candidate who hasn’t purchased a database of voter information, which political campaigns use to target supporters and mobilize them on election day. . . .
Political operatives from both parties said they didn’t know how Trump would turn out his supporters without a voter file.
“The voter file is a foundational piece for any grassroots campaign in Iowa and New Hampshire,” Patrick Ruffini, a veteran GOP operative who founded digital agency Engage, told Quartz. “If Trump’s campaign were not using any voter file, even after being offered it by the RNC, that would be a pretty shocking statement.”
The Trump campaign has spent more on hats and T-shirts than on field staff members in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. The absence of any grass-roots organization seems particularly problematic if Trump’s voters are not your typical GOP voters. It’s those kind of voters who need an organization pushing and prodding them to the caucuses/voting booths.
If Trump collapses, it won’t be like Cain, but more like Howard Dean — someone who seems formidable right up to the moment that people voted.
This, however, leads to the one dynamic of this race that gives me pause. For Trump to fall, a more establishment candidate has to rise. And as Kraushaar notes, that’s a problem:
In assessing the wide-open, volatile Republican presidential field, the most important question isn’t whether Donald Trump’s support collapses before the Iowa caucuses. It’s whether the GOP establishment consolidates behind one electable candidate after the New Hampshire primary. And if Jeb Bush can’t turn around his sagging poll numbers before then, the answer to that consequential question will be largely under his control.
Or as FiveThirtyEight’s Micah Cohen notes, “Even without Scott Walker and Rick Perry, this is a historically huge GOP field, and that fact is underappreciated by the media.”
For Trump to fall there needs to be a GOP establishment consensus about who should get the nomination. This is Right to Rise head honcho Mike Murphy’s theory of this race when he tells Sasha Issenberg, “Oh, I’d love a two-way race with Trump at the end, yeah.”
But if there’s one virtue of Trump’s campaign for the GOP, it’s that he has exposed just how bad Jeb Bush is at campaigning. The latest dust-up over George W. Bush’s culpability over 9/11 highlights this problem. If the argument is about, as Josh Rogin puts it, “whether or not Bush’s older brother, President George W. Bush, bore some responsibility for the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon,” then Jeb Bush loses that argument. Of course George W. Bush bears some responsibility. Obviously, no sane analyst would place all the blame on Bush for the United States’ unpreparedness for 9/11. But neither would any sane analyst say that Bush, the commander in chief for eight months who received intelligence briefings on a possible attack, was completely blameless.
Why on God’s green Earth would Jeb Bush pick this fight, which once again ties him closer to his brother’s administration? My hunch is that Bush thought that defense would sell because it generated considerable applause during the second GOP debate. But applause in hermetically sealed environments is a lousy metric to choosing political tactics. It further demonstrates Bush’s bad political antenna.
The problem for the GOP establishment is that Jeb Bush looks like a bad candidate, but his super PAC has the most money. Marco Rubio has more charisma but far less money. The other “establishment” candidates — John Kasich and Chris Christie — are falling and not rising. And because each of these guys wants to be the last establishment man standing to face Trump, they’ll be bashing one another far more than they’ll be bashing Trump.
So no, I still think that Trump won’t win the GOP nomination. But for him to truly fall, there needs to be a clear alternative. And it’s not clear at all right now.