We are already starting to see candidates for down-ballot races embrace Trump and his provocative rhetoric. In Florida, congressional candidate Matt Gaetz kicked off his campaign by endorsing Trump for president. Gaetz denounced illegal immigrants for “sucking us dry” and rejected political correctness in favor of “the truth.”
In Nevada, Sharron Angle, the GOP’s 2010 Senate nominee who lost to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) by nearly six percentage points in the general election, is hoping to ride Trumpmania to victory in another attempt to win the Senate seat now that Reid is retiring. In 2010, Angle made illegal immigration the centerpiece of her campaign and threatened to use “Second Amendment remedies” to deal with a wayward Congress. Now, she says Trump’s campaign is a “window of opportunity” for outsider candidates.
But Republican candidates should think twice before using Trump’s erratic campaign as a guide. Running on trickle-down Trumpism would be a mistake for three reasons.
First, Trump is the exception, not the rule. Yes, he’s succeeding with his own entirely novel version of politics, but the new rules apply only to him. Just look at what happened when Marco Rubio tried to out-Trump Trump. He crashed. Although Rubio’s loss was partly the result of deviating from an established brand, it also demonstrated that Trump isn’t a template candidates can try on willy-nilly for size. Previous election cycles have produced similar results, before Trump: From Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” to George Allen’s “macaca,” going off-script has produced deadly results.
The secret ingredient to Trump’s success is Trump: He has transformed his celebrity (which long predated his candidacy) into a larger-than-life brand that personifies winning. That he has done so in the face of so many blatant failures and bankruptcies is all the more testimony to his skill as a marketer. His outrageous insults, narcissism and flagrant disregard for facts don’t hurt him because they reinforce the blustery, unstoppable image he’s already sold people on.
In Trump, supporters find inspiration that has little to do with core conservative values. They believe a Trump presidency will bring success for America and Americans who feel spurned after eight years of the Obama administration. It is a cult of personality that begins and ends with The Donald.
That is why $9 million of anti-Trump advertising in Florida didn’t move the needle one bit. Voters who supported Trump weren’t buying into an idea or a value system. They were buying into a person.
There is political value in Trump’s economic populism, but ideology is not the secret to Trump’s wild success. Voters like him no matter what else they think about politics. Exit polling in Florida — a state Trump won handily even with hometown Sen. Marco Rubio still on the ballot — demonstrates that 55 percent of Republican primary voters supports a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Polling in multiple early states show support for Trump across conservative and moderate Republican primary voters.
Second, Trump may pay the price in the general election. For all his doting fans, there are even more Republicans who find his extreme statements and rapid-fire insults off-putting. According to a recent New York Times/CBS News poll, 60 percent of GOP primary voters are embarrassed by Trump. Worse, general election polling shows Trump with record-level unfavorable ratings. Most polls show him losing badly in November to Hillary Clinton — a damaged candidate herself — or Bernie Sanders — a self-declared socialist.
Third, even ignoring Trump’s Trumpiness, the environment surrounding his candidacy is unique, and not easily replicable in state or local races. Most candidates for Congress or state legislature are unlikely to have Trump’s deep pockets. (Trump has loaned his campaign $17.5 million and accepted $7.5 million in contribution despite claiming otherwise.) Even those who can finance most of their own bids are unlikely to enjoy the deluge of media exposure that has chased Trump.
It is rare for candidates who aren’t running for president to receive such obsessive media attention. (It’s rare even for presidential candidates.) That’s why most candidates must rely on TV and Internet ads and direct mail to talk to voters and broadcast a memorable message about why they are running.
Sure, there are some positive lessons to draw from Trump’s candidacy: Republican primary voters are fed up with Washington and career politicians. And there is a hunger more broadly for strong leadership in a time of global instability.
But embracing Trump’s message without all the associated chaos is a delicate balancing act that requires a stable and organized campaign infrastructure. Only Donald Trump can pull off being Donald Trump.