What Donald Trump Winning Would Look Like
My friends who don't love politics will often ask me questions when something unusual breaks through the political noise and grabs their attention.
And there may be a Canadian election underway, but the question I'm getting these days is all about The Donald. Well, the question I get most is "Can you pass me a beer?". I have well-adjusted friends, thankfully.
But when people notice politics, they are noticing that Donald Trump has led the last eleven national polls of Republicans by a margin ranging from 4 to 18 points, often showing more support than Jeb Bush and Scott Walker combined. The crazier he sounds to my craft beer-swilling Canadian leftie crowd, the better he does.
The conventional wisdom is that this is a joke. Pundits all theorize that Trump has another agenda, that he's building his brand, that he wants something from the Republican Party. And when asked, I tell my friends that most columnists are saying that.
Then I tell them that I don't buy it. He did that before, flirting with runs but backing out. I think that, in his late 60's, Donald Trump has decided that he would like to be President of the United States. And if it sounds audacious, remember that this is a man who repeatedly declares bankruptcy and gets smart people to lend him more money. Audacity has not been his enemy.
I also believe that, while Trump suffers from Rich Man's Syndrome (developed when you've been powerful enough, long enough, that you spout off opinions developed in a world where no one tells you when you're wrong), he is neither dumb or crazy. Quite the opposite, actually. I think Trump is smart and analyzes deals carefully, and I think he has developed a strategy.
In no way do I predict a Trump victory. But he sees a path to one, and I too believe it exists in the outer reaches of the plausible. His campaign behaviour may be unorthodox, but it is calculated. The best way to understand just whatever the hell Trump is going to do is to understand what he needs to do in order to win the nomination, and the presidency.
The surest sign that Trump is sane is that he pledged to appoint Sarah Palin to his cabinet. (Yes, I just typed that). To be clear, I think most people who pledge to appoint Sarah Palin to anything more advanced than a cable access talk show in Macon, Georgia would be crazy. But Trump's embrace of the Wasilla Dangling Participle is actually sensible from one perspective --one that sees getting Trump elected as the prime objective.
Allow me to explain.
Who Is The Republican Party?
Ronald Reagan cemented the coalition that Richard Nixon began assembling in the civil rights era. The traditional Republican was wealthy and wanted low taxes, limited government and a hawkish foreign policy. When the embrace of civil rights broke many working-class, southern whites away from the Democrats, Republicans added a more robust social conservatism to their coalition. Republican nominees for years had to tick three boxes -- socially conservative, fiscally conservative, and strong on defence.
In time, organizing among social conservatives and nativist groups became more essential. Groups like the Christian Coalition could provide numbers where the capitalist class provided the money. These groups gained power and soon, their litmus tests became essential for national Republican candidates. (As evidence, one could recall that George H.W. Bush was pro-choice until he rethought his position in order to join Reagan's ticket. Twenty years later, George W. Bush organized anti-gay rights referenda in swing states to drive turnout of socially conservative voters).
Of course, for every reaction there is an equal and opposite reaction. Democrats, after getting trounced by the new GOP coalition for 12 years, tried a new formula. Bill Clinton moderated the Democrats' fiscal policies in 1992 and went after working-class voters on a more modest platform aimed at making the middle class more comfortable without promising big economic structural changes that might seem risky. It worked quite well (at least in a year when Democrats were "due"), as the Democrats won two (and really, three) straight presidential elections. As the GOP became more dominated by social issues in order to create a wedge, the coalitions shifted again. Many of the voters who had been "establishment" Republicans --voters whose economic interests were with small government but whose sense of community made them social moderates --became Democrats. The working class whites who fled the Democrats in the South over social issues then drove out the upper-middle class Republicans in the Northeast. Those Democrats essentially found that they could stomach Clinton's economics more than they could the republican's culture wars.
The Obama era completed this transition. Obama largely accepted Clinton's economic centrism, even touting his support for freer trade and the use of middle-class tax cuts as a legitimate policy goal. He stole the Republican's best trick from them, organizing coalitions of younger, urbane, educated voters and mobilizing diverse communities. If the Republicans had used traditional values to drive voters to the polls, Obama would embrace the diversity of the age and make the wedge work for him.
This worked well on two fronts. It got Obama elected, twice. His nomination win over the heavily-favoured Hilary Clinton was proof of this. Traditionally, Democrat insurgents (often brainy, quirky lefties such as Hart, Bradley, Kennedy and Dean) had fallen short when challenging the establishment candidate, in no small part because working-class minority voters tended to stick with the establishment candidate, the Gores, the Mondales, the Dukakii. Obama became the first insurgent candidate to flip both blacks and Hispanics into the insurgent column. He got upper-income liberal whites and working-class blacks and Hispanics to agree based upon diversity, and they turned out in the election.
That was the first benefit. The second was that his success drove a huge chunk of the Republican base absolutely batshit insane.
John McCain must, in his heart, wish he had just let Tim Pawlenty be his running mate. Because Sarah Palin gave voice to the nativist, less educated, Christian conservative base of the Republican Party, and they have been increasingly unwilling to give it back. And the crazier they get, the more the upper-income, educated, moderates flee to the Democratic Party, where they can now get reasonably low taxes without the crazy.
The result is a Republican Party that nominates Ted Cruz and Rand Paul and drives out Charlie Christ and Lincoln Chafee. At the state level, they've handed Senate seats away by nominating Christine "Not A Witch" O'Donnell, Todd "Legitimate Rape" Akin, Richard Mourdock and a cast of characters brought to you by the insurgent wing of the Republican Party. Their voters rarely care about appeals to choose an electable candidate. They'd rather win 40% of the time with purity than 80% of the time with moderates.
Trump has noticed three things, I expect. First, the craziest candidate (from a socially liberal perspective like mine) wins a nomination now more often than not at the state level. Two, there are signs that the deference to the moderate, electable candidate at the presidential level may fall next.
And third, not every crazy who wins the nomination loses the general. You sometimes win if you get the nomination. You never win if you don't. And so, a smart man would say, the first thing to do is win the nomination.
The National GOP Nomination May Fall To An Insurgent
The pundit knows his history. When the presidency is on the line, Republicans flirt with an insurgent who gives voice to the angry, nativist side of conservatism, but then cooler heads prevail, moderate voters rally around one front runner and the moderate wins. Dole wears down Buchanan. McCain takes out Huckabee. Romney wins.
The investor knows that history holds, until it doesn't. And you want to be the first one in line when it doesn't.
And Trump likely noticed something. If you read back a few lines, you'll notice I didn't pair Romney with an ideological insurgent. Because there wasn't just one. Romney at various points trailed a variety of strange and surprising front runners, including Rick Santorum, Michelle Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry and (God help us) Herman Cain. In fact, one month the front runner was Trump himself, when he showed up yelling about birth certificates and then went away.
Really, the Republican base tried everything to avoid nominating Mitt Romney. In the past, the safe establishment choice won because that's what most of the party wanted. But what if, last time, the majority of today's Republican Party actually wanted the bombthrowers. What if the numbers were there to elect the angry, white rage-fired, stick-it-to-book-learnin' alternative but just got stuck with such clear duds that they couldn't pull the trigger? (Remember, they tried to make Rick Santorum, a punchline who lost his own Senate seat by 18 points, into their standard-bearer -- and it probably went downhill from him). Perry couldn't remember his own talking points. Gingrich had more baggage than Samsonite. Cain actually couldn't talk. And they were all broke, compared to the Romney campaign.
Maybe the votes were there for someone who wasn't broke, wasn't indicted and wasn't completely tongue-tied. And Donald Trump is NOT those things. He's the opposite of those three things. Not tongue-tied, thanks to natural talent. Not broke thanks to birthright. And not indicted by the grace of God.
I think Trump sees a stock about to rise. He sees a Republican Party that wants, deep in its soul, to reject an establishment candidate. And if he can be the alternative to the guy the establishment wants, he might just get to 51%.
So, if he's smart, he asks --how do I assemble a coalition just a bit bigger than the Anyone-But-Romney coalition.
How Trump Wins --and Why Palin Matters
Step by step, here is what Trump would have to do to win the nomination. Essentially, he has to win the hidden primary --the contest to emerge as the leading anti-establishment option. The contest can be seen as a race among two groups, each wanting to be the last option standing for either the establishment or the insurgents.
The establishment primary involves Bush and Walker, with Christie, Kasich, Fiorina, Pataki and Graham trying to get an opening.
The clear insurgents are Trump along with Cruz, Rand Paul, Carson, Jindal, Santorum and Huckabee.
Two contestants stand out for their potential to appeal to both camps. Rubio was a Tea Party insurgent when he won the primary for his Florida Senate seat, but has shown some ability to appeal to moderates in his rhetoric and in substance on immigration. Rick Perry, if he can regain the form that briefly made him formidable in 2012, can play both sides.
First, Trump has to use his talent at attracting media to take the oxygen away from other potential insurgents. Candidates like Cruz, Carson and Paul have counted on the ability to exploit hot button issues to get attention in a crowded field. Trump's bluster and willingness to speak bluntly (some say crudely) on immigration has, for now, taken this from them. They cannot get free media, and there is no room to be any more outrageous on immigration than Trump has been. Cruz and Paul especially have avoided taking shots at Trump, hoping to be able to appeal to his voters if he eventually blows himself up with intemperate comments, or survives long enough to be mangled by the formidable Bush team's attack ads. But if Trump can avoid a collapse, he may leave the other insurgents with low numbers and limited ability to raise funds, meaning they will start to drop out after Iowa or South Carolina's primaries.
Second, if Trump can starve the other insurgent campaigns, he can begin to assemble the anti-establishment vote. This is easiest if Bush is the establishment candidate, as fairly or not, his name is synonymous with the ruling class of the GOP. If Walker (or with some breaks, Christie or Perry) emerge as the establishment choice, they may be able to satisfy some voters that they are new enough to offer a safer rebellion than Trump. (The first part of the strategy helps achieve the second, by the way. Trump's monopoly on media is also helping Bush avoid the emergence of a challenger for the establishment nod).
To beat Bush, Trump needs to assemble every possible insurgent vote. Social conservatives and evangelicals will be key to this. Trump can likely get the Cruz/Paul voters with bluster and style. There is potential for him to reach evangelicals (some polls show he is leading among these voters now). Polling research shows that evangelical voters like strong, blunt, authoritarian leaders -- something Trump can deliver in spades. For voters first drawn to Huckabee, Carson or Santorum, Trump may offer a style that is appealing. And many social conservatives feel neglected by the establishment, sensing that their issues get lip service in primaries but little attention in government.
Even Trump's support for some government role in helping people get health care is strategic. Pundits instantly jumped on this as a sign that Trump was shooting from the hip, and that he would pay for this break from conservative orthodoxy. I suspect he knows his potential market. Socially conservative Republicans tend to have lower income and education levels than establishment supporters. Their economic interests don't always align with the Romney wing of the party, but they tend to put up with that because of social wedge issues that make Obama Democrats suspect. This group is socially conservative, racially homogenous, structurally populist -- and open to government handouts if they are proposed by angry, white social conservatives.
If Trump were planning this all out, and thinking down the road, he would know that his style will get him a hearing among this sector of voters, but there is a risk of him losing them on substance. Bush and Walker surely already have war rooms with thick folders on Trump's lavish lifestyle, his three marriages, his past support for abortion rights. Bush is acceptable, if not exciting, to social conservatives, and he will surely see this as an opportunity to get enough insurgent voters away from Trump to deny him a winning coalition.
So Trump needs to keep his support among white, lower-income social conservatives. And he knows he will be attacked on those grounds. He will need some endorsements from opinion leaders with credibility among those voters.
As chance would have it, there is one cohort of voters that still adores Sarah Palin. And they are exactly the group Trump will need in later contests to have any chance of winning.
Plenty of peril
Of course, much can go wrong for Trump. The debates are a risk. I tend to think that eventually someone needing a boost is going to go at him, and there are some candidates built to bring out the worst in Trump. (Chris Christie strikes me as having the right mix of prosecutorial skill, fearlessness, and improvisation abilities, and his centrist pitch will only benefit from being seen as having skewered Trump in a Jersey to Jersey shoutout). The media may move on, or issues where Trump will be weak could come to the forefront (a foreign policy crisis would be bad for him). I still believe that, as the field windows to two or three candidates, he will have a hard time getting a majority.
And of course, many of the things he is doing to win the nomination may hurt him in the general election. He may need to hope a scandal leads to the defenestration of Hillary Clinton. But he surely knows that winning the general first requires winning the nomination, and then you have one of two tickets in the ultimate political lottery (even if it is the one with lesser odds)
But we should move beyond the early analysis that said Trump knew he couldn't win and was running to cut a deal, build a brand, or feed his ego. Trump's moves have, in fact, been exactly the moves of a man who knows where his potential market is. He has grabbed an issue (immigration) others can't or won't address as bluntly, and attacks Obama in coded racial terms. He has picked fights with establishment figures like John McCain and used inflammatory words to make sure disgruntled voters notice. He has built an authoritarian brand in a party that loves them. And he has begun reaching out to the key market sectors which can build a winning coalition.
The odds are still against Trump winning. But his moves suggest that he is playing to win, and with more discipline and calculation than it first appears. Trump is ignorant on many issues, but he is not stupid.