ONLINE EXCLUSIVE COLUMN BY JOHN WINGERT
As the caucuses approach, political prognosticators are wondering about the future of Donald Trump. How will his warpath through conventional wisdom continue?
At this point, his ascendance to the nomination or even the presidency is increasingly, and some might allege dangerously, likely. Trump’s path to the nomination is looking increasingly clear.
The beacon of hope throughout Trump’s rise has been Iowa. Iowa has given favorable polling figures to Ben Carson and now Ted Cruz in light of their strong presence there. Trump has maintained high poll numbers but fallen to second place by significant amounts behind those two.
That being said, Carson faded, and Cruz has seen more attacks on his closed-door positions versus his public persona. Cruz has also faced some polls in Iowa which show Trump ahead more recently. Trump is the constant, unwavering monolith.
In addition, Trump is almost unapproachable in New Hampshire polls where he is much stronger than other competitors. Kasich, Rubio, and Christie have tried to near him but remain far behind despite their establishment credibility, experience, and more moderate positioning for a general election.
The tenuous hope that some conservative pundits still hold is that Trump’s meteoric rise betrays underlying instability. However, in-depth analysis has revealed that Trump’s supporters have been inexplicably loyal and shocked focus group moderators and pollsters. Their primary consideration is not whether or not to support Trump; it is instead whether or not they will follow Trump to an independent campaign over the Republican nominee. These are not the markers of an audience capable of being swayed.
In addition, the Trump supporters that have been focus grouped are more likely to campaign, volunteer, and contribute to Trump than many other less loyal supporters. Even though Trump has bragged about a self-financed campaign, almost all of Trump’s outfit has been supported by small contributions. While Carson, Fiorina, Bush, and Walker have seen rises and falls, Trump has remained supreme for far longer.
The idea of voters getting jittery about Trump right before the caucus or primary seems to doubt the loyalty of the large majority of Trump supporters, which, on the contrary, seems indefatigable.
Others argue that party elites still control unknown corners of the primary process and will eventually exercise that influence to ensure a Rubio or Kasich nomination that will help the party win a general election and reinvigorate their tarnished image.
If party elites still had sway, they would have exercised it long ago to undermine Donald Trump. Michael Steele and Reince Priebus, RNC chairmen past and present respectively, have denounced Donald Trump or at least his policy proposals. Veteran Republican figures like Jeb Bush, Lindsey Graham, and John McCain have all attacked and been attacked by Trump. So far, the establishment has yet to utilize any of the shadow influence in smoke-filled rooms that desperate debaters argue they will.
Some argue that Trump’s lack of formal ground game including volunteer infrastructure, campaign offices, and local endorsements will cost him. Such pundits point to the rigorous Iowa caucus system and Trump’s lack of hegemony there.
It is important to recall that Carson faded under scrutiny in Iowa, and Cruz could face the same fate. Trump has had far more consistent support and emerges whenever other challengers diminish. Although there are always minute percentage shifts, most of Trump’s supporters are undyingly loyal. Paring off shavings of his cohort will be difficult. More importantly, Iowa is an aberration. Almost every other state has seen stronger Trump support, and Iowa’s delegates, while precedent-setting, are not going to overthrow a convention of Trump loyalists.
There’s also been a lot of talk about brokered conventions. If Trump does not arrive at the Republican national convention with more than 50% of the delegates, it could result in last minute deal-making to form a majority around a single candidate.
The faith in the establishment persists in the idea of a brokered convention anti-Trump coalition. However, based on current national polls, Trump would have around 40% of the delegates, assuming that other candidates do not drop out and see their supporters flock to Trump. All Trump would need to do is promise the vice presidency to some other leading candidate in exchange for their 10% of delegates to win. According to Trump, this sort of deal-making is his specialty; he did write The Art of the Deal.
So, what about the general election? “He could not possibly win,” conventionalists will say, pointing to every group he has alienated. This, of course, presupposes that convention has portended anything this election season.
Trump has said that African Americans have it easier than white people in America. Republicans would ideally like to win more African American votes, but it is quixotic at best for them. Obama got around 98% of African American voters. However, it is very unlikely that any Republican candidate besides perhaps Ben Carson could motivate black voters to vote for a conservative candidate.
The greatest way in which African Americans tend to exercise sway on Democratic candidates is not whether they will vote for a Democrat, but instead whether they will vote at all. A lackluster Democratic nominee could simply keep African Americans from voting entirely and thereby aid a Republican candidate.
Trump is notoriously unpopular with Latinos, but in a general election he still has one move to play. Trump’s criticisms have been focused at Latino illegal immigrants. If he convincingly argues his criticism is focused solely on them, and not other Latinos, then Trump will have little to fear. Illegal immigrants cannot vote, and there is some evidence that naturalized citizens may resent illegal immigrants who have circumvented the entire process they took years to slog through.
And women? Trump has taken adversaries like Rosie O’Donnell and Carly Fiorina and quickly dismissed them with derisive comments about their appearance, but would that hurt his chances? For some voters, it certainly would. Other women may find his more moderate stance on abortion less abrasive than other Republican options. Trump has had to embrace his former support for abortion rights. Reproductive rights of any sort have not been a priority of his campaign and may not alienate female voters focused on such policies.
Trump’s real chances for a general election depend upon his populism. He promises reinvigorating entitlements with taxes on the wealthy which are popular across the board. Even the “Taxed Enough Already” Tea Party has demonstrated support for such taxes on the wealthy.
Trump has also benefitted from his tough rhetoric against other countries. Against ISIS, his simplistic solutions of bombing them into oblivion appeal to voters tired of calculating nuances in our foreign policy. Making China and Mexico rebuild our failing infrastructure and manufacturing may be impossible, but the rhetoric has a hypnotic, charybdian appeal of a solution wrapped up with a nice ribbon, even if the solution itself is toxic.
For voters tired of nuance and tired of being told about all of the ideas which are impossible, Trump disobeys rules and promises results no other politician, due to reason and common sense, would promise.
Not only that, but Trump’s populist appeal along with independence from big donors portrays the billionaire as a man of the people. Clinton’s strong Wall Street ties, if she becomes the nominee like polls predict, would undermine such an appeal. Not only that, but strong, concerted anti-Clinton rhetoric that has been omnipresent in Republican debates and news outlets has calcified a strong anti-Clinton segment of the population that is motivated to defeat her. Although some Republicans like Bob Dole have threatened to “oversleep” on election day if Trump is the candidate, many will still see him as the superior alternative to Obama/Clinton policies.
Further Clinton scandals and continually releasing State Department emails could further damage Clinton as she approaches November.
A Trump victory in the nomination or presidential races could be negative for the United States, but they would inevitably aid Democrats. Many assume that Trump’s nomination (not to mention an independent campaign) would ensure a Democratic presidency, because he could not possibly win a presidential election. Although there are some aforementioned holes in that theory, it could be even better for Democrats to have a Trump presidency.
However counterintuitive, Democrats have had continuing difficulties winning at local, state, and congressional levels. Democratic voters only seem to turn out for presidential elections, and it has left their ranks decimated in the House, Senate, governorships, and state congresses. If Trump’s presidency implodes with Middle Easterners resenting innocent families of terrorist associates being assassinated, trade wars with Mexico and China, a breakdown of diplomatic relations with all the countries Trump insults, and a growing deficit under Trump’s tax plan (which despite rhetoric seems to favor the wealthy), it could motivate Democratic voters and sympathizers to turn out in new elections and support liberal candidates.
Although these are only hypotheticals at this point, Trump’s shot at the presidency seems more and more likely, but like President George W. Bush ushered in a Democratic Congress, Trump could amplify this effect manifold. Only time will tell who chortles the last laugh as the nation burns.