Friday, November 27, 2015

Why We Should All Take Donald Trump Seriously

When Donald Trump first announced he might be running for president, I, like the rest of the world that doesn't live in a giant tower with my name emblazoned on it in gold, thought it was a bit of a joke.  Seriously-the guy on The Apprentice whose most noted public offerings were a late night-monologue inspired haircut and a ridiculous feud with Rosie O'Donnell?  He wants to be president?  It didn't make sense.  When the initial polls came out with Trump at the top, it felt similar to 2012 when people like Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann randomly made a run to the top of the polls, and I assumed it would subside just like those two did, eventually coming down to someone like Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio, as all other Republican presidential primaries flirt with the loud-mouthed conservative but eventually rest on the more electable candidate.

Donald Trump has been leading now, though, for over four months, and it's impossible not to take him seriously anymore.  The Iowa caucuses are just weeks away, and despite the fact that Trump has openly attacked the state, he is still leading there, New Hampshire, South Carolina-every early state in fact.  The GOP keeps scoffing, keeps hoping that Trump will disappear from the race, but at this rate it clearly has demonstrated that it doesn't know how to take down Trump, a critical issue in a race that, by many traditional metrics (presidential approval ratings, foreign policy shift, 8-year fatigue) they should be able to take in the general.  In many ways, in fact, the GOP should be able to clobber Hillary Clinton, but Donald Trump is a candidate that poses a lot of risks in that regard, which is why you're seeing a last-push effort to get Trump out of the race.  Having conservatives like John Kasich, candidates who at this point have nothing to lose, attacking him more so to help someone like Marco Rubio win the nomination than to help he himself do it, or having conservatives call Trump a fascist in the news media (though considering his recent comments about American Muslims, that shoe might actually fit).

The problem is that this isn't going to take down Trump-his constituency is the portion of America that doesn't trust the government or the media or really anything other than their own common sense.  These are the people who want to build a border fence because they think it will have an impact on their own job security or that the president has secretly been hiding his Kenyan birthplace from the world.  These are people where rationality and truth are all relative, and think you can't trust anyone.  Just look at Trump's rhetoric, which long ago passed from political maneuvering around questions to boldfaced, easily provable lies (and it's worth noting that this has had an effect on the campaign-look at Ben Carson's autobiographical details and Carly Fiorina's Planned Parenthood videos).  These people aren't going to respond to attacks against Trump-to use superhero parlance, "that just makes him stronger."  The reality is that these people might be winnable if a Rubio or a Bush or even at this point a Cruz ends up in the general election (presidential candidates want everyone's votes, and Republicans can't win without these Trump supporters who were more-than-likely grumbling Romney supporters in 2012, so don't think this just goes away come the convention), but they aren't going to get them to convert away from Trump.  If anything, with Ben Carson hemorrhaging support, Trump's gaining more voters in critical early-states like Iowa.

No, there are really only two ways to get at Trump at this point, and it's not going to be on-paper like the polls.  It's either going to be some party-sacrifice or it's going to be through a ground operation.  It's worth noting, even though Trump/Carson/Cruz dominate the polls, if you were to combine Rubio/Bush/Fiorina/Christie/Kasich into one voting count, it would roughly equal Trump's support, and would create a pretty interesting juggernaut.  Were the establishment able to convince these five candidates to get behind one person, that candidate would be extraordinarily formidable in the early primary states, and might even take New Hampshire and Nevada, giving them momentum enough to swamp Trump in the Super Tuesday primaries.  This plan is one that works on-paper, though, and not in theory, as it's hard to figure out a way for four extraordinarily ambitious candidates to get behind one other candidate when it's not entirely clear which candidate should drop out.  Sure, Marco Rubio is the obvious contender, but even if he had Cabinet or VP slots lined up for all of these candidates, it's hard to imagine Jeb Bush being satisfied with anything other than the Oval Office at this point.  Plus, there's no guarantee that the people backing Carly Fiorina are going to get behind Rubio to begin with, and this is assuming Trump's numbers don't continue to grow, which (if Ben Carson continues to hemorrhage his 20% support, they almost assuredly will do).  The point where the establishment could easily coalesce around a candidate ended most likely when Jeb Bush's reign did.  Marco Rubio (or even Bush) could sneak in at the last minute, but they aren't going to do it as a unity candidate before Iowa and New Hampshire.

No, the best hope for the GOP will be a unity candidate late in the game, combined with Trump under-performing expectations.  At this point it would be considered a loss if Trump were to lose either Iowa or New Hampshire (he seems likely to takr both), and if a candidate were to beat him or come close to beating him in these states, that person would be formidable and probably someone who could claim the Trump's opponent mantle.  Trump hasn't run a campaign before, and doesn't have the operatives that Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush have, and if either of them were to be second place I suspect they would be able to get pretty much all of the major donors and party bigwigs out for them.  However, it's worth noting that Trump's campaign has never really been attempted before-running almost entirely nationally rather than in early primary states, and this could be a better GOTV option than we anticipate.  It's also worth noting that Ted Cruz, not Marco Rubio nor Jeb Bush, is the candidate who also seems to have taken off, and if Trump doesn't win, it could be he and neither of the Floridians that makes the jump into the national media.  Cruz isn't the intense wild card that Trump is, but he's not much better for the GOP, particularly the Senate GOP who has grown to hate the man, and people like Kelly Ayotte and Rob Portman, not to mention their state party chairs who need to deliver swing state voters, aren't going to look kindly on the Texas senator calling them all RINO's.

All this is to be said that Democrats can laugh a little, but know that Hillary Clinton is hardly what you'd consider a sure-thing, even against Donald Trump.  Few candidates outside of Barack Obama elicit the same sort of hatred on the Right that Sec. Clinton does, and even some Democrats get a little bit antsy when the former First Lady is brought up.  Sure, it's easy to imagine a lot of Democrats, Independents, and even moderate Republicans holding their breath and voting for Clinton, knowing she's at least competent and they'd get a shot at beating her in four years, but we have very little evidence to back that theory (there is no recent open-seat election where neither of the two candidates were particularly popular so we don't really have an example), and it's not outside-the-realm-of-possibility to assume that Trump (who polls quite decently against Clinton) could work the same sort of magic on the general election.  This is all to say that Republicans are finally taking Donald Trump very, very seriously, and soon the entire political sphere could be doing the same thing.

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