Donald Trump has argued that seventeen candidates kept him to a plurality. But even as the field shrunk, now to three, a majority has eluded Trump. Indeed, yesterday in Wisconsin, it was Ted Cruz who won nearly half the vote.
Trump received just over one third. His numbers are declining elsewhere, and the Wisconsin results, at least for now, will reverberate in national polling for the nomination. That polling, in turn, will impact primaries in individual states. There is a negative synergy.
All this is in large part because Trump has not grown as a candidate. He has instead steadily ramped up his unfavorable rating, among Republicans, and amongthe November electorate, the latter impacting his general election polls. As Trump alienates, sentiment hardens against him. The longer that people have a negative view of Trump, the harder to disabuse them. He never understood that, and no one in his campaign explained it to him.
Trump has been very successful in life, and now in politics, he says, doing things his way. But he didn't build Trump Towers in Manhattan the way he runs his campaign. It is said that if you are your own lawyer, you have a fool for a client. If you are your own campaign strategist, you....
Remember, this is the guy who is his own foreign policy adviser. The only thing worse than that is saying so.
At the Republican National Committee last week, campaign CEO Donald Trump belatedly learned how the delegate process works. On the sidelines, we all have long wondered when he would inquire about the obvious. Faced at the meeting with reality -- the rules -- he turned to his aides and suggested they had not been doing what they needed to do. Yet, he says the campaign demonstrates his executive prowess.
But running for president, you don't wing it. Trump brilliantly perfected the tweet to control the campaign news cycle. But more recently, his tweets estrange voters. He seems impulsive and neurotic. No one on Trump's team explained to him the cumulative effect of his tantrums. That would be insubordination. Now, perhaps there is still time for Trump to get his act together.
There had been isolated progress. For example, Trump talked policy, not polls at AIPAC. Instead of spontaneous name-calling and insults, he followed a prepared text, even using a teleprompter. The reviews, even from Trump's detractors, were positive. That should have told him something. Yet, the very next day, Trump regressed, and his self-inflicted wounds continued, almost daily. Even last night, he could have stayed in Wisconsin, thanked his volunteers, and been gracious in defeat. That's the way it works.
There is no strategy for Trump, who two days ago insisted he wants John Kasich out, for the remaining primaries. But without the Ohio governor on the ballot, Ted Cruz would have done even better. Yet, Trump will blame Kasich for his loss in Wisconsin.
Here's what Trump really knows. If Kasich were gone, Kasich would not be in general election polls. Against Hillary, Cruz is -3, but Trump is -11, and Kasich is, get this, +6. Such early polls can be inconclusive. But Trump's stump speech for months was about polls, and how he could beat Hillary. Thus, the Kasich numbers remain, at best, a nuisance.
Trump brings new voters, he says, to the primaries, and likely to November. But even if Trump could unite Republicans for the general election, his antics are turning off independent voters. Trump has become his own caricature, so that his candidacy against Hillary could actually spike turnout among Democrats energized against him.
Meanwhile, Kasich complains that voters "don't know me." But that's one reason he has a low unfavorable: he has a high "no opinion." Also, Kasich's Republican opponents have barely attacked him. For anti-Hillary voters in the general election, Kasich thus remains a safe haven and accordingly polls well for November.
"I haven't even started on her yet," Trump says about Hillary. What is the pathway, then, for Donald Trump to become president-elect?Surely, it is not his obsessive bad-boy acrimony. Tweeting Hillary-photos in a few months won't do it. Will Trump then learn anything from the Wisconsin results?
The Trump spin is that the Republican Establishment pulled out all the stops. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker campaigned against him. And Ted Cruz was better organized here. And Trump had a bad week, Trump will say. He'll blame negative ads by super PACs. But for the last week especially, Trump has been his own worst enemy. Now Trump must take ownership of what happened and try for a new start.
How do you explain the magnitude of the loss, the delegate numbers, also psychological in effect? The state's Talk Radio oligarchs targeted Trump, who engaged them anyway. Actually, this is a welcome change for Trump. He twice boycotted Megyn Kelly, who intruded in his (politically correct?) safe zone. Now, thanks to Trump, the diminutive blond is, in television journalism, larger than life. Last year Scott Walker made a fool of himself. He analogized his battle with Wisconsin union thugs to confronting ISIS. Is Trump believable as commander in chief, if he keeps whining about unfair reporters, and he could not challenge Kelly?
A candidate like Trump should not throw out hecklers but wipe the floor with them. In politics, that's "performance art." You distinguish between the nerdy-nice and the violent agitators. You are strong and confident, but never appear as a bully. You are above the fray, not part of it.
In Wisconsin Trump lost partly because he was unprepared for the radio interviews. In his business, Trump is in his game. But in his campaign, he throws the dice. When Trump called into WTMJ last Friday, Milwaukee radio host Charlie Sykes asked: "Mr. Trump, before you called into my show did you know that I'm a hash tag #NeverTrump guy?"
"No, I didn't know that," a surprised Trump responded, "but I assume you're also an intelligent guy." Sykes gave Trump what could have been a softball question about Heidi Cruz, but Trump was intransigent (only now is he repentant). The interview then went badly. Later that day Trump called Sykes "a lowlife... who is not a real believer, he wants the establishment to win because it's good for his third-rate show. He's not a smart man, he's actually a dumb man. He's a dummy."
Trump will insist the Cruz super PAC did him in. What's really new is not the anti-Trump ads, but that they resonated. That's significant, because Trump's recent conduct helped do him in. Until now, Trump was Teflon, but his own blunders have made him vulnerable. It is Trump himself who each day removed some more of the Teflon.
After yesterday's defeat, Trump wants the campaign to shift into high gear. Campaign manager Corey Lewandowski is no longer the bouncer. He returns, as I predicted, to a secure, undisclosed location because, we will be told, he is too valuable to be on the road. And the new kid on the block is an adult, Paul Manafort, whose portfolio expands to consigliere. Manafort on the campaign plane could calm Trump, even edit Twitter drafts, but Manafort's focus is the delegate pathway, and arcane matters like convention rules. The Wisconsin debacle complicates Manafort's task. Further, Manafort urgently seeks a surrogate to be at the candidate's side. But Trump believes he is smarter than anyone Manafort could enlist.
Manafort must ensure (1) a first ballot victory and, failing that, (2) a subsequent victory. Donald Trump violated Ronald Reagan's eleventh commandment: "Thou shall not speak ill of any fellow Republican." Now Trump pivots to the seventh commandment: "Thou shall not steal"... the nomination. A plurality on the first ballot, he has argued, entitles a majority on the next ballot, and thus the nomination. That's a new entitlement. Last night, then, the Trump campaign issued a statement calling Ted Cruz "worse than a puppet." But without Trump saying all this, his campaign response was secondary.
As journalists focus more on the rules, Trump needs more than a conspiracy line. He needs to be, dare we say, presidential. Right now, he is -- as president -- implausible. Expectations are low. He could startle, if he talked substance. He is a very intelligent man and an accomplished performer. Imagine what he could do, how much his candidacy could advance, if he knew what he was talking about. He could still come up to speed.
Unless Trump changes his modus operandi, he is his own undoing. That's because he is effectively providing the rationale for an open convention.
That narrative is buyer's remorse. That is, they would say, even Trump's original supporters are taking a new look at him, and the general election, and who would be the best nominee. The storyline goes something like this: We are delegates from a state that Trump carried, not with a majority, but only a plurality. And Trump voters -- those who comprised that plurality -- are having second thoughts, and we are not only stewards for the Republican Party, but fiduciaries for the people of our state.
Trump's refusal not to rule out a third party run provides another rationale for delegates to jump ship. He erred in recent talk of a third party.
Remember, if Trump cannot win it on the first ballot, there are two battles in Cleveland. The first concerns rules and procedures, coordination and mechanics, numbers and delegates. The second is the storyline, needed to explain what is happening, an elaborated theme essential to unify the party for November.
Trump's counter-pitch (counter-punch?) is this: party bosses have conspired to steal the nomination. Trump is fortunate -- so far his incompetent foes have branded themselves as a "Stop Trump" movement. John Kasich has foolishly retained a Washington lobbyist as his convention guy. And Ted Cruz demeans himself as effectively an agent of "Stop Trump," rather than as a future president. At the very least, Cruz of all people is an outsider who should be co-opting Trump's populism.
There is trouble on the horizon for Trump. Even these Beltway fools will get it right, sooner than later. They will at some point celebrate an "open convention" as an exciting and profound exercise in democracy. You think ratings were high for the debates? Wait until the suspense of Cleveland.
The only fix that is in, Republicans will say, is not in Cleveland, but in Philadelphia, at the coronation of Hillary Clinton.
Appeared also in