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.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.
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.
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.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.
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.
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.