A Trump Retrospective

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at the Indiana Theater Sunday, May 1, 2016, in
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at the Indiana Theater Sunday, May 1, 2016, in Terre Haute, Ind. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

Just to warn everyone up front, today's column is essentially nothing more than a "clip show." Television series use this motif whenever they get lazy, because it involves very little writing and filming, because the bulk of the episode is merely clips from previous episodes. Today, I'm offering up my own clip show as a retrospective for how we all got to where we stand today -- on the brink of Donald Trump essentially wrapping up the Republican nomination for the highest office in the land.

In asking how we got here, a crucial thing to remember is that everyone in the political and media universe has convinced themselves that the situation just kind of snuck up on them when they weren't looking. "Who could have imagined this outcome?" they all ask each other at their exclusive cocktail parties, and then they shake their heads in a bemused fashion. They are secure in the knowledge that nobody could have seen this coming, therefore everyone was wrong at the same time. This is why, they tell themselves, all the efforts to stop Trump failed -- because by the time everyone realized what was going on, it was too late to do anything about it.

This is a false narrative. The facts were out there. The poll numbers existed. Donald Trump has been the frontrunner of the Republican race since very shortly after he announced his candidacy, last June. All throughout the summer and fall of 2015, what was happening was obvious to anyone who took the time to both look at and believe the level of support Trump was showing.

What really happened, instead, was that everyone in those inside-the-Beltway cocktail parties treated Donald Trump as a joke for far longer than they should have. If the bigwigs had stopped laughing at Trump earlier and started to take him on, things might have worked out differently. Of course, they may not have, too -- the end result could have been exactly the same (it's notable that even with all the ways fellow Republicans have attacked Donald Trump, none of them have so far worked).

Personally, I began laughing at Trump along with everyone else. I wrote an article over a year ago titled "Please Run, Donald. Pretty Please?" where I begged Trump to throw his hairpiece in the ring. I began with: "May I just take a moment to speak for all of America's political pundits, celebrity-watchers, and late-night comedians, as I openly beg for such rich pastures of political amusement: 'Please run, Donald. Please?'" and then I went on to note that, serendipitously, recreational marijuana was going to become legal in D.C. that night, at midnight: "Well, not a moment too soon, since the best possible way for everyone inside the Beltway to contemplate a Trump candidacy (much less a Trump presidency) is, quite obviously, stoned out of their gourds."

Even in the midst of all this merry-making, I did make one cogent point:

America is waiting for a Trump campaign! With Sarah Palin sidelined, don't the voters deserve some sort of priceless comic relief for the next year or two? Political pundits would be enthusiastic as heck about writing "Latest Trump Gaffe" columns, I can promise you that. Not to mention "Republican Candidates Squirm While Responding To Trump Comment" -- which would indeed double the fun!

Of course, at the time, I had no idea that Trump gaffes would actually (over and over again) cause his poll numbers to rise and not collapse. In June, when Trump announced, I was almost giddy with anticipation, while (of course) dismissing the idea he could ever win even the nomination:

Could Donald Trump win the presidency? Well, the sane answer is "not in a million, billion years," of course. American voters may at times be pretty stupid, but even the most cynical wouldn't believe that they'd be stupid enough to elect Donald Trump. I don't see any pathway to victory for "The Donald," either in the general election or even in the clown parade that is known as the Republican nomination process. It just ain't going to happen, folks

Trump's candidacy is going to cause the Republican Party several problems, though. The first is that Trump will always be able to (pun definitely intended) trump every other Republican candidate in the "speaking off-the-cuff, and saying monumentally ridiculous things" category. Oh, sure, people like Newt Gingrich set the bar pretty high (or low, really) in years past, and it's undeniable that we've already got several people in the Republican race who seem to have mastered the art of "saying idiotic things" (Ben Carson immediately springs to mind), but Donald Trump is in a league of his own, really. This is going to set up a conundrum for the more serious Republican candidates: should they just ignore Trump's blathering, or should they respond when he truly goes over the edge? We'll see a partial answer to that question soon, as in his ad-libbed announcement today he has already called Mexican immigrants "rapists" and other nasty names. Will Jeb or Marco respond? We'll have to see, but this problem wouldn't even exist if Trump weren't in the running.

I ended in a particularly gleeful manner:

It's not just me, in other words. The most obvious prediction in politics is a direct result of Donald Trump's presidential entry: "There will be snark." Oh, my, will there be snark. Yes, indeedy, it will be a snarktastic experience for all. It will in fact be downright snarkadelic. Or, to put it another way, welcome to the ranks of the Republican presidential candidates, Donald Trump!

By July, however, I began to notice a disconnect between the way the pundits and the party insiders were treating Trump, and his actual support level. At the time, the insiders were speculating whether Trump would launch a third-party bid -- after (of course) losing the Republican nomination. Few realized that Trump wouldn't even have to contemplate such a thing, back then. Because in reality Trump had already hijacked the party's base:

Trump just polled in first place in his first state-level poll, in North Carolina. He's polled in second place in at least two other states. He has to, at this point, be considered one of the frontrunners for the Republican nomination. So it's not all just Trump's ego speaking -- he's getting the lion's share of attention from the media, and he's rising fast in the polls. Any of the other Republican candidates currently polling below ten percent has to be pretty envious of Trump right about now, in fact. He's even in danger of owning the "face of the Republican Party" label, much as that discomforts many Republicans.

The next day, I began calling him the "frontrunner" of the Republican race, because that's what the polling clearly showed. The rest of the media wouldn't admit he was a frontrunner until after the debates began, for the most part.

By the end of July, I had moved on to seriously considering him as the eventual Republican nominee.

It's time to think about what has previously been in the realm of the unthinkable: Donald Trump might just become the Republican nominee for president. Two months ago, that statement would have elicited nothing but a big old belly laugh from just about anyone who pays any attention to politics. Nowadays, though, nobody's laughing. The very concept has moved from the surreal to the possible. So it's time to actually think about what it would mean for the country and for the Republican Party.

Trump, we were all assured by the inside-the-Beltway media crowd, was going to be nothing more than an entertaining sideshow. His "support," such as it was, would soon collapse, after Trump said something so outrageous that it drove people away. Trump would be a flash in the pan, and then we could all go back to contemplating the Republican candidates who easily met the inside-the-Beltway crowd's measure of being "Very Serious People." Trump would quietly fade away as the real Republican race got underway.

None of that has happened. The inside-the-Beltway crowd has consistently misread Donald Trump's base support. People who support him aren't turned away by Trump saying radical things, instead that is his primary appeal to them. The more outrageous things he says, the higher his poll numbers head. His support has grown to the point where he is in first place not only in most national polls, but now even in many state-level polls (including beating Bush by six points in Florida). Even if his support does eventually begin to decline, Trump is just never going to fade quickly away. Why should he? In the first place, he certainly does seem to be having an enormous amount of fun, and in the second place, he's writing his own checks -- so he can continue his campaign for as long as he likes. Trump is not a sideshow -- he's actually now the main event.

What happens if this continues? Trump is now polling as high as the mid-20s, which could actually be enough to win the first primaries, due to the overcrowded Republican field. If he increases his support slightly, he could easily be the frontrunner in many of the early-voting states. As some of the other candidates run out of money (or out of steam), Trump could actually pick up voters from them.

This could either lead to a wide-open Republican convention, or outright to Trump taking the nomination before the convention even gets underway. I wouldn't want to predict the odds of either of these things happening, but they certainly are within the realm of possibility now. Donald Trump, Republican nominee for president -- not so unthinkable, is it?

In August, the first Republican debate was held, and Trump's polling support stayed steady (it moved from 22 to 23 percent), while other notable candidates (Jeb Bush, Scott Walker) saw their numbers sink like a stone, post-debate. Trump began not just leading the competition, but indeed crushing all others in the polls. The only one who would ever challenge his dominance was Ben Carson, whose support would later evaporate after a particularly bad debate performance.

By the end of August, the party bigwigs woke up to the power of Trump's support, but their only answer was a non-starter (keep Trump's name off the primary ballots, somehow). Once again, the party realized by the end of August what was likely to happen -- and they did nothing, for roughly the next six months (if a "NeverTrump" or "stop Trump" movement had started back then, it might have had time to get some traction). Trump's menace to the party was clear:

The Republican Party is now the party of Donald Trump. That's a pretty astounding statement, but as Trump continues to not only lead in all the primary polls but also to drive the debate for all the other contenders, it would be hard to make the case that Trump hasn't completed what might be called a hostile takeover of the Republican Party brand. This could always change, of course -- nothing is ever set in stone in a presidential race. But for the time being, Trump's not only the party frontrunner, he is actually defining the race for everyone else.

By September, Trump was approaching inevitability. The numbers didn't lie -- Trump was the favorite to win the nomination, hands down. This was months before most in the media woke up to this reality, however -- they were too busy still having fun treating Trump like the biggest joke of all time. But, when you took a look at the 2012 Republican nomination race, it was pretty obvious that Trump was approaching a point of no return:

But the big news from the old data merely confirms a theory that popped into my head at some point during the long weekend. After watching Trump's numbers improve (yet again), I picked an arbitrary number for when Trump might just become unstoppable for the Republican nomination: a solid level of 35 percent support.

. . .

I'm not sure why 35 percent seems to be some sort of magic number. It only represents a little more than one-third of the Republican electorate, after all. Almost two out of three GOP voters are still backing someone else, to put it another way. But 35 percent in such a crowded field means that you've pretty much eliminated almost all of the other competition. There might be one or two candidates nipping at your heels, but the rest of the field isn't even worth bothering about. When there are 17 people running, sustaining 35 percent might be enough to assure eventual victory.

When Donald Trump hit 20 percent in the polls (reliably -- in multiple polls over a period of time), the pundits all swore up and down that he had hit his ceiling. When Trump hit 25 percent in the polls -- again, and sustained it -- the pundits all said exactly the same thing: Trump was still doomed, he simply could not go any higher. Donald Trump has now hit 30 percent in a few polls. He hasn't yet proven he can sustain this level of support, but his trendline looks pretty good. Trump now holds over double the support of his closest challenger, and triple the support of the supposed inevitable nominee, Jeb Bush. Ben Carson is now on the ascendant, while Scott Walker and Jeb Bush both seem to be crashing and burning.

I see this somewhat differently than most pundits (at least, to hear them talk about it). They are, for the most part, convinced that Trump is essentially the Rick Perry of 2012. His numbers will collapse whenever that "oops" moment happens, and then we'll all go back to watching Jeb Bush take on all comers. I think this is silly, given the numbers. If anything, Ben Carson is much more easily seen as someone who could stumble badly on the national stage and watch his numbers collapse due to some ill-advised comment or debate moment. Trump, in this scenario, is this season's Mitt Romney -- always the guy everyone else has to beat, to get anywhere in the polls.

. . .

Trump's spectacular campaign has so far convinced three-in-ten Republican voters to back him. If he not only holds on to 30 percent support but also has a great debate night next week, I could easily see his rise continue. While everyone else is waiting for the "inevitable" Trump stumble (it's just gotta be coming, right?), I'm now actually pondering a different use of the word. Because if Trump hits 35 percent support from Republican voters, and holds that level for a decent period of time, then what might just be inevitable is that he's going to be the Republican nominee for president.

Trump experienced his only real slide in the polls after the second debate, and the media all heaved a sigh of relief that Trump's comeuppance was imminent. This turned out not to be true, since even after Trump's slide happened, he was still crushing virtually everyone else in the race.

Trump's numbers soon recovered, but it wasn't really until the beginning of December that the Republicans really woke up to their party's new reality. Some began lashing out at Trump, to absolutely no avail. By this point, the end game was fully visible, before a single state had even voted.

What is most extraordinary about all this is the level of hatred and fear that this one man has inspired within his own party. When else has any sitting senator called his own party's frontrunner anything remotely as scathing as: "a xenophobic, race-baiting, religious bigot," after all? When else has the fear of the frontrunner winning the party's nomination brought forth such predictions of electoral disaster as: "we're going to get wiped out," and "you're going to do irreparable damage to our party"? If Trump wins the nomination, Hillary Clinton's team can just cherry-pick the worst of these predictions -- perhaps "an utter, complete and total disaster" or "the repercussions would be devastating" -- to use in her general election campaign ads.

Democrats, of course, can be expected to welcome the news that Trump at the top of the GOP ticket might make things a heck of a lot easier for them, down-ticket. Trump might just hand the Senate to the Democrats, in fact. It's less likely that Trump's presence on the ballot would impact the House as much (due to gerrymandering and many pro-Trump Republican districts), but even so, you normally only hear such predictions from wonky poll-watching pundits. Doom-and-gloom predictions aren't usually espoused by members of the same party as the frontrunner being denounced -- at least not this early in the process.

Which brings us precisely to where we are today. Tomorrow night, Donald Trump could win the Indiana primary, and by doing so put the race away. He's already corralled (by some estimates) over 1,000 delegates to the convention, and he could even sweep all 57 of Indiana's delegates. That would put him inside of 200 votes away from the nomination, which he can easily pick up in the remaining states that haven't voted yet.

A lot of people read the rise of Trump wrong. This is because (I firmly believe) they simply refused to see the evidence in front of their faces. Maybe it was easier for me to see Trump's rise approaching, since I live in California -- a deep-blue state which elected Arnold Schwarzenegger twice. That certainly does influence your perspective.

I'm providing this retrospective now, because we are almost on the cusp of the switch from primary season to general election season. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will almost certainly be their parties' respective nominees. But rather than just making flat assumptions about the outcome of that contest, it would indeed behoove the inside-the-Beltway crowd in the coming months to keep an eye on what is actually going on out there in the public. At this point (of course) "everyone knows" that Hillary will bury Donald in a November landslide. But just because everybody agrees with each other doesn't always mean that what they agree upon will actually happen. A cautionary note, to be sure.

 

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