Has Trump Hit the Limit?

For Donald Trump, the source of his support is the limit of his support. That's typically the rule with highly divisive candidates. They say extreme and provocative things, which gets them the support of a hard-core base of enthusiasts. But it makes it difficult for them to expand their support because other voters are put off by them.

Trump's specialty is political incorrectness. He says politically incorrect things all the time. Like it's O.K. to impose religious tests for immigrants and torture suspected terrorists and punish their family members.

Today, Democrats are defined by a commitment to diversity and inclusion. In other words, political correctness. The very thing that Trump and his supporters have contempt for. Trump's core support comes from non-college educated white men. They do not contribute to diversity. And the idea of inclusion usually excludes them.

Trump supporters certainly don't feel ``privileged.'' They feel angry and resentful. First, because they lack the skills to compete in a global economy. And second, because they no longer dominate American culture. They're like frat boys at American colleges. They used to be the elite. Now they feel like scapegoats.

Political correctness rules college life today, but occasionally you see a rebellion against it. Like what happened at Yale in 2010, when some fraternity brothers marched across campus shouting, ```No' means `yes' and `yes' means `anal.''' That's called defiance, and defiance is the defining characteristic of the Trump campaign. Trump defies conventional wisdom. He defies the Republican Party establishment. He defies the press. He defies the truth.

Defiance rallies Trump's supporters. They love the fact that he doesn't talk like a typical politician. But it also limits his support. Most Americans -- particularly women and educated voters -- won't support a candidate who defies common decency. Sixty-one percent of Americans have a negative opinion of Trump (49 percent ``very negative''). Sixty-two percent says he is not qualified to be President.

The fact the Trump is seen as unqualified ought to shut down the campaign. Yet he remains competitive. One reason is that Hillary Clinton also has high unfavorables, though not as high as Trump's (39 percent `very negative').

Trump ought to be doing better because he has the ``change'' issue. Voters usually want change after a party has held the White House for two consecutive terms. Right now, more than 60 percent of Americans say the country is on ``the wrong track.'' Voters who want change are reluctant to support Hillary Clinton. She represents the status quo. She is a charter member of the Washington establishment. She was part of both the Obama Administration and her husband's Administration. Elect Clinton, most voters believe, and nothing will change.

That's where the limit of Trump's support kicks in. If Republicans had nominated Jeb Bush or John Kasich or Marco Rubio, they would probably be leading Clinton by a comfortable margin. But a lot of voters who want change are unwilling to take the risk of electing Trump. They're dissatisfied but not defiant.

Some observers look at next week's debate as an opportunity for Trump to reassure voters that he is a safe choice. That's how Ronald Reagan used his one and only debate with Jimmy Carter in 1980. After four years of Carter, an energy crisis, an inflation crisis and a hostage crisis, the demand for change was overwhelming. Nevertheless, the polls leading up to the 1980 debate showed a close race because so many voters saw Reagan as too extreme. They feared he would throw old people out in the snow or start a war.

Donald Trump is not Ronald Reagan. Reagan used all of his actor's skills in the debate to reassure voters that he would not be a dangerous choice. Reagan responded to Carter's charges not with defiance but with humor (``There you go again'').

Moreover, Reagan had served two terms as governor of the nation's largest state. Trump can't point to any experience that qualifies him. And he doesn't have the skill to reassure voters that he is a safe choice. Defiance is what got him where he is, and he is unlikely to change course now.

2016 is not 1980. President Obama's job approval rating is a fairly healthy 53 percent. In September 1980, President Carter was at 37 percent. In 1980, voters were desperate for change. Are voters so desperate this year that they are willing to elect Trump? It's not unimaginable, particularly if there is a wave of sensational terrorist attacks like the ones in Paris or Brussels. Then voters would say, ``We can't go on like this.'' That kind of desperation would cause them to lose their inhibitions about supporting an unqualified candidate.

Those inhibitions remain strong. It's not surprising is that Trump is competitive. It's surprising that he's not doing better. He seems to be hitting the limit of his support.