Wednesday, February 24, 2016


In the comments to my last post, Erik C. directed my attention to Paul Waldman's warning that Donald Trump "could be tougher in general election than you think."

Waldman concedes that Trump is extremely unpopular with the overall electorate, and that he's particularly offensive to Hispanic and female voters. But he wonders whether Trump might do well in states where Republicans have struggled in recent presidential elections:
... The argument in favor of a Trump victory has two pieces to it, one about demographics and one about the kind of candidate he’d actually be in a general election. The demographic argument says that Trump has an appeal that other Republicans don’t have. We’ve seen again and again how party leaders (and his opponents) have attacked him for liberal positions he’s held in the past (like being pro-choice and saying nice things about single-payer health care), and even some heresies he’s offered in the present (like his bizarre assertion that George W. Bush was president on September 11, 2001 or his criticism of the Iraq War). Trump’s voters, it turned out, didn’t care. Ideological consistency isn’t important to them, because their affection for Trump is based on other things, like their contempt for Washington and the belief that he’s a “winner,” and if he were president he’d spread his winningness over the whole country, through some process that need not be explained.

Since these beliefs aren’t tied to conservative ideology, they could have appeal beyond Republicans. And even if Trump alienates women, his displays of chest-thumping dominance could appeal to lots and lots of white men, particularly those who are lower on the income and education scales (as Trump said after his Nevada win yesterday, “I love the poorly educated”). That could make Trump competitive in Rust Belt states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan that have been in the Democratic column in the last two elections.
I've been saying for quite a while now that the GOP already has a disturbing amount of appeal in states like the ones Waldman lists. All three states have elected GOP senators and/or governors in the Obama years, as have Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, Maine (a bastion of moderate Republicanism, but its GOP governor is a crazy, angry wingnut), Colorado, New Jersey, and Florida (another state where Charlie Crist Republicans are giving way to the likes of Marco Rubio and Rick Scott). Trump could break through in many of these states -- but so, I think, could any Republican. Would Trump have more of a breakthrough? The question is whether the people he offends will outnumber the people he thrills.

And that leads to the second part of Waldman's analysis:
It’s the second piece of the puzzle that may be less appreciated at this point. To put it simply, Donald Trump would be a completely different candidate in a general election than the one we see now. Conservatives are justified in being terrified by Trump’s ideological malleability. They look at him and see someone with no true beliefs and no commitments, who will quickly change positions if it suits him. He’s only presenting himself as a conservative Republican now -- to the degree that he’s even doing that -- because he’s running in a Republican primary.

When conservatives think that, they’re absolutely right. He will indeed transform himself once he has a different audience. We don’t have to wonder about that, because he has said so on more than one occasion. “Once you get to a certain level, it changes,” he told Greta Van Susteren a few weeks ago. “I will be changing very rapidly. I’m very capable of changing to anything I want to change to.”

On another occasion, he told voters in Iowa, “When I’m president, I’m a different person. I can do anything. I can be the most politically correct person that you’ve ever seen.” While ordinary politicians try to convince you of their consistency, Trump proudly says that he’ll turn himself into whatever the situation demands. And if it demands someone who has moderate positions, that’s what he’ll be.

Will the voters buy it? We have no way of knowing, because we haven’t seen that version of Trump yet. But we shouldn’t assume that the fact that most of them dislike the current version means they won’t like the next one.
But if Trump makes nice after winning the nomination, he's going to lose quite a bit of his base on style alone. In fact, this has already happened once, though most people missed it. At one point in the fall, Trump tried to tone down the offensiveness of his campaign, promoting his daughter as a strong woman in a position of power in his empire and feeding the press stories about other female executives who worked with him. He also set out to give out mellower interviews.

That turned out to be the moment when Ben Carson overtook Trump in the polls. Carson was hitting a lot of wingnut hot buttons at that time, and that was working for him.

Trump, as we know, went back to being a thug, and he returned to the top of the polls. But that's his problem: In all likelihood, he can't keep his lead with GOP base voters unless he's an apish brawler, and he can't win over the rest of us if he stays that way.

And I haven't even discussed policy changes. Can Trump tack leftward on immigration, or Islamophobia, or torture, or carpet-bombing, or defunding Planned Parenthood, without losing his angry base? And if he doesn't make some of these adjustments, can he win over swing voters?

Trump really needs to thread the needle in a general election. I'm not convinced he can do it. I still think he's a weak general election candidate. But I could be wrong.


AllieG said...

Another strong analysis. IMO, he won't be able to help himself. It'll be all Hillary, witch murderer of Benghazi all the time. I also believe this will be effective. I think the fear/resentment/hatred many white men, not all base Republicans, either, have for Clinton is more of a handicap than Obama's race was for him in 2008.

Fiddlin Bill said...

In 1980 I thought that the idea that a B-list mostly cowboy-part actor could either win the nomination or much less, the election, was absolutely absurd. The most obvious GOP candidate in 1980 called the eventual victor's fundamental economic policies "voodoo economics." Meanwhile, Jimmy Carter, and outstanding sitting President, had been primaried by Ted Kennedy, who split his party, and deals had been made through back channels with the Iranians with the result that the Teheran hostages remained center stage (see, e.g., Ted Koppel's 11 pm "news" show).

Jude said...

His comment to Greta saying "I'm very capable of changing into anything I want to" swings both ways. We're only talking about what if he veers left, but there's still room for him to go further right. That comment is the stuff of nightmares. Add to that, our ridiculous congress has the reaction time of molasses, too worried about posturing to deal with a crisis. What kind of knee-jerk bile is Trump going spew out on his Twitter account? Will it start a war? The guy has no understanding of due process. How many laws can he break in, say, 1 week's time? My guess is as many as possible. Congress won't be able to stop him, let alone slow him down. They'll put up lawsuits and watch them ooze through the system while he moves on to the next shiny disaster.

Those repubs and their minions deserve to fry for what they are doing to this country. They created this and their uneducated sheep keep following.

Jude said...

I forget to comment on his electability. I agree with Steve that a woman is a tougher sell and disagree that Trump will be too unpopular to win. As a woman, I know damn well Hillary is scarier than the black man from 2008. Trump will shred her, his lies will stick, and a lot of closet women haters will shiv her. Add to that all the Dems who are holding their noses and voting for her, but not getting the people to the polls, and we have a problem.

petrilli said...

What Jude said.

aimai said...

I'm very worried about Trump because, although we've lost the white male vote for the last few elections, I see the possibility that Trump could take basically almost all of it. I think Trump potentially puts into play strongly blue states that have enough of a white male angry vote to make a difference.

On the other hand I think Trump can't change enough to assuage the rage that hispanics, women, and others will feel at the Republican party itself, by the time the election rolls around. Even if Trump tries to downplay (somehow) the sexism, anti woman, white supremacist, intransigent side of the party as a whole--offering himself as some kind of "above it all" libertarian candidate the Republican party of Mitch McConnell and the Senators are not going to let him do so. They are going to dither, take his side, refuse to take his side, and keep batting away at Obama, Hillary, and everyone else running on the Democratic side. So they are going to keep giving our voters a reason to turn out.

I think Trump is on a see saw--if he throws enough weight on the racist/demogogue/fuck you side of things he sews up his bro-supremacist vote but disgusts and alarms everyone else. If he starts to tip toe around what made him a sensation in the primaries, to dull it down, he might lull a few "centrist" dem s to his side (the libertarians, the people who value authenticity, people who like an iconoclast, people who are really stupid) but he will start to ose his original true belieers.

And meanwhile Obama is going to be nominating one person after another to the supreme court and the republicans are going to shoot them down. And they are going to be tempted, after a while (because they can't help themselves) of actually talking about why each candidate is no good. Right now they are keeping admirably mum on the subject. But after their fear of letting obama have his pick they are most afraid of being caught on the record saying or doing something incredibly offensive and stupid towards a particular nominee and a particular voting subset of the country. They, too, are on a see saw. Whatever weight they put on one side causes them to lose control of the other side. I don't think, given who they are and who they need to be talking to during their own re-election struggles, that they will be able to keep a lid on the racism and sexism that are their real motivations. Whoever is the nominee will be very able to run against Congress and the Senate even if Trump tries to lull voters into apathy or complacence.

aimai said...

Also: I disagree with Jude entirely.