by Rod D. Martin
May 4, 2016
So can Donald Trump win in November? Throughout the campaign, “answers” to that question has been slathered in propaganda. To Trump supporters, their man can do no wrong. To Cruz supporters (and non-Cruz #NeverTrump types as well), Trump is the devil, beguiling Republicans but certain to be annihilated come fall.
Indeed, there’s been every bit as much objectivity about Trump’s chances as there was almost a year ago when he announced his campaign. You know, when the unshakeable consensus what that Trump was “a clown”, his candidacy was “a joke”, he “didn’t even really want to win”, and he’d be forced out the race before September. Of 2015.
I told you that was ludicrous then, early and often. I was right, in every particular. That was not then and is not now an endorsement. As Mark Antony might have put it, I’ve come to analyze Trump, not to praise him.
So can Trump win? Yes. But to a large degree it depends on whether he can control a factor none before him have controlled.
First, though, the polling. The #NeverTrump narrative holds that Trump cannot be elected because his negatives are too high. It fails to note that Hillary Clinton’s negatives are almost as high: Trump 65%, Clinton 56%.
Two nominees have never been so hated. For comparison, eight years ago the numbers were McCain 39%, Obama 34%. In the Game of Thrones year of 2000, it was Bush 30%, Gore 37%.
This, like so many things about this year’s race, means that traditional calculations really don’t apply. As in every campaign, a principle aim of both candidates must be to paint a vision of where they want to take America. But in a campaign where both choices are widely loathed, the greater necessity is to push your rivals negatives even higher.
Donald Trump is uniquely suited to both these tasks. From day one, he’s been championing a vision of “making American great again.” I explained the power of this approach years ago in my essay on the need for a new Republican metanarrative: Trump seems to have absorbed my article whole.
The puditocracy, steeped in globalism and interest group politics, cannot fathom that unvarnished nationalism might appeal across party and even ethnic lines. But when Trump takes his message of sticking it to China and bringing jobs home to Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Wisconsin et al., Clinton is likely to find regarding union members, native-born Hispanics and even some blacks what Cruz found regarding Evangelicals: approached correctly, they’re not as monolithic as you think.
Speculation, you say, and you may be right. But Trump won all those exact groups within the Republican Party last night (and yes, women too). Trump was underwater with every demographic within the Republican Party last June. He’d virtually flipped those numbers by September.
The second task – driving up Hillary’s negatives – is even more fertile ground. A gentleman like Ted Cruz would have struggled with this. Trump will relish it.
Hillary is a target-rich environment. In New Hampshire, 83% of the 34% of Democrats who said “honest and trustworthy” was their most important value voted against her. Trump exudes “straight shooter” even when he isn’t shooting straight. The knocks against her are endless. Normal candidates have failed in their attempts to exploit them. Trump is not normal.
The narratives Trump creates illustrate, but do not fully measure, this. I could give you a dozen examples, from “Low Energy” to “Lyin’ Ted”, that you already know. But the pattern bears consideration. More than any candidate I’ve ever seen, Trump attacks his opponents’ perceived strengths rather than their weaknesses. The effect is devastating.
Let’s take “Low Energy.” This was an attack on the central narrative of the Bush campaign: that Jeb was a seasoned statesman who could be trusted to act with thoughtfulness, intelligence, deliberation. The meme just a year ago was that Republicans wanted a Governor, that Senators and outsiders need not apply, that quiet seriousness was everything. That meme was wrong (as I said it was at the time), and Trump annihilated it in two words, not just by personalizing it but by forcing Bush to defend what he was incapable of believing needed a defense.
Likewise, look at Trump’s attacks on Cruz. A year ago, the knock on Ted was that he was too principled, that he would not compromise his beliefs, that he was an outsider in Washington. Trump turned him into “the Establishment candidate” and “Lyin’ Ted”. It was literally topsy-turvy.
But it didn’t matter. Because by questioning, nay outright denying, the attributes which made Cruz most attractive, Trump put Cruz on defense with his own natural base for the rest of the campaign.
As I never cease saying, if you’re on defense, you’re losing.
Trump’s already started on Hillary. His broadside that “the only thing Hillary has is the woman card” and “if she were a man she wouldn’t get 5%” is brilliant. Why? Because it’s politically incorrect (there’s that straight-shooter thing again), because it’s true, and because it forces absolutely everyone to think about that truth.
Plenty of Democrats resent Hillary for precisely this. A pretty consistent 80% of Millennial women have voted against her in the primaries, even last night. After Madeleine Albright and Gloria Steinem rebuked them for this, Hillary was booed at a Democrat debate, and Susan Sarandon famously declared that she “doesn’t vote with her vagina.” Later she even suggested that “Trump might be better for America than Hillary.”
At some point, Trump will point out that we should also be concerned about our sons. Watch for it.
But more than that, Trump’s attack is brilliant because Hillary’s “Glass Ceiling” argument has been the central rationale for her Presidency since 2007, stated openly, endlessly, dogmatically. She has simply assumed that it’s “a woman’s turn” (which is to say, her turn). But younger women assume no such thing: that is the thinking of aging Sixties feminists. It feels out of place today. And even if it didn’t, Trump is saying what everyone else was thinking: at best Hillary is only concerned about a fraction of the country. At worst, she’s only concerned about Hillary.
That will stick. It will throw her off her game. So will Trump’s questions about her “stamina.”
And of course, this remains the year of the outsider, in both parties. My #NeverTrump friends hold that Trump is the ultimate insider, but the voters obviously disagree. Sanders’ Indiana win – even after he’s effectively admitted he’s out – demonstrates that discontent remains as wide and deep among Democrats as Republicans. And Hillary looks, feels and acts like an incumbent.
All of this is already starting to show up in polling. Some dismissed this week’s Rasmussen poll, which has Trump beating Hillary 41-39, and indeed it is a bit of an outlier: the RCP average has Clinton ahead by 7, 47.4% to 40.1%.
But the well-respected Battleground Poll has the race within the margin of error, Clinton 46%, Trump 43%. And even that RCP average shows Hillary under 50%, which is very bad news indeed for the de facto incumbent. What’s more, the gap is narrowing: Trump was down double digits just weeks ago.
Oh, you say, but the #NeverTrump people will peel 25% of the base away from Trump, guaranteeing a Clinton victory. And indeed they might. But as I reported last week, recent polling has an equivalent number of Sanders supporters refusing to support Hillary. That makes it a wash. And factoring in the high unfavorables of both candidates, the intensity of Trump’s core support, plus Barack Obama’s absence from the ballot and almost certain consequent reduction in black turnout could put Trump in the catbird’s seat (assuming he can field a ground game of course).
So what is that X-factor I alluded to at the outset?
The real issue for Donald Trump, and by far the main reason he stands today as the presumptive nominee, is this:
This is a chart of television mentions by candidate. As you can see, Trump hasn’t just dominated: he has far exceeded all of the coverage for all of the other candidates combined.
To a very great degree, this represents The Donald’s mastery of the medium, his brilliance at persuasion (or at least attracting a crowd), the degree to which news divisions benefit from the ratings he delivers, and a lifetime spent building relationships in and getting the best of New York’s media.
But what the media giveth, the media can taketh away.
In 1995 and early 1996, the media’s relentless drumbeat was that of all the Republicans, only Bob Dole could win the general election. The day – the very day – Dole clinched the nomination, the media did a 180: suddenly he was the worst imaginable candidate, a total no-hoper. His coverage dried up too.
Four years later the media built up John McCain even more. Bush won, so they used his “dirty” defeat of McCain, the ostensible champion of the little guy and all that was good and right, to delegitimize him. They kept the McCain fires burning for eight years, built him up again in 2008…and like Lucy and the football, the instant he was nominated, pulled all of that out from under him.
Some believe that media companies care only for the bottom line. But there’s a reason polls consistently find that just 7% of these companies’ employees are Republicans. Now that Trump’s clinched, why would they not follow their own pattern?
If Trump can overcome this – and if anyone alive can overcome it, he can – he will probably be the next President of the United States. If he can’t, the last year may prove to have been the greatest media head fake of all time.