POLITICS

2 Reasons New Hampshire Should Make You Take Donald Trump Seriously

He's already thinking ahead to the general election.

There were two important developments in the candidacy of Donald Trump on Tuesday. And if you don’t like the idea of Trump as president of the United States, then you’re not going to like either one of them.

The first development was the one you've heard about. Trump won the New Hampshire primary. The real estate mogul had been leading in the polls for months. But, until Tuesday, there was no way to know if the surveys were overstating his support.

Maybe the pollsters weren’t getting honest answers, or maybe Trump's supporters weren’t going to turn out on Election Day. In last week’s Iowa caucus, where Trump also led in the polls, he finished in a distant second place and barely ahead of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). It was easy to think that, in future contests, he’d continue to perform below expectations.

In New Hampshire, quite obviously, that didn’t happen. The networks quickly declared him the winner and it appears he will win by a comfortable margin. The victory gives him a publicity boost and, perhaps more importantly, it suggests that his lead in other polls -- state and national -- is also real.  

In other words, Trump could actually win the Republican presidential nomination. That’s a seriously big deal.

A Hint Of The Campaign To Come

Tuesday’s other development was much more subtle. But it may say a lot about how Trump intends to act from in the future -- and why he could be a more formidable general election candidate than many observers expect.

It happened during an interview with NBC’s Lester Holt, while Trump was discussing some controversial comments he made at a rally Monday night. When a woman in the audience used a female anatomical epithet to describe Sen. Ted Cruz, Trump repeated it, and then gently reprimanded her in a way clearly designed to show he didn’t mind the epithet at all.

By now, Trump saying outrageous things isn't news. And that’s what made his interview so interesting. Trump didn’t exactly apologize for the comment. But he didn’t exactly double down on it, either. Here’s how the conversation went:

Holt: Would you say that as president of the United States --

Trump: No, they’re different things --

Holt: -- with that seal on the podium --

Trump: -- much different, much different.

Holt: So are you going to be a different -- to be a different guy as president as we see out here?

Trump: I went to one of the best schools. I was a good student. I have an uncle who was one of the top professors at MIT. It's a good gene pool right there. I have to do what I have to do.

Holt: So is this all an act?

Trump: No, it’s not an act. Last night we had thousands of people, we had a great time, and it wasn’t my word, it was a word a woman was shouting … and the place was wild.

Holt: But that doesn’t mean it was in good taste.

Trump: No, but I tell you what. If you are president or about to be president you would act differently.

Trump has gotten this far by being as outrageous and offensive as possible -- using controversy to drive the news cycle and remain the focus of attention. The problem for Trump is that such an approach is unlikely to carry the day in a general election. It may work in the Republican Party, with its preponderance of angry white voters, but it’s got little shot of working in the nation as a whole. It turns off too many people.

In that interview with Holt, particularly at the end, Trump seemed to signal that he understands the limits of his current appeal -- as both a political strategy and a way of conducting business. Trump, unique in American politics, telegraphs his moves clearly and directly. In the past when he’s been asked if he would moderate his tone and message in the general election, he has said that he would. His conversation with Holt would seem to underscore how serious he is about that.

You don't want to read too much into a few stray quotes, obviously. But it's easy to imagine Trump toning it down as the campaign proceeds and enters the general election phase, in an effort to win over suspicious voters who wouldn’t trust the Trump they see on stage right now.

Trump would still be the guy who claimed that Mexico was sending rapists across the border, who called for banning Muslims from entering the country, and (not to be forgotten) called for tax cuts that would bankrupt the government while fattening the bank accounts of the wealthiest Americans. And maybe memories of those statements will keep Trump unpopular with the general population as he is today. But voters have been known to develop amnesia. If they do, he might have a better shot of winning than the conventional wisdom suggests.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misidentified Holt as an MSNBC correspondent. In fact, he is with NBC.

Editor's note: Donald Trump is a serial liarrampant xenophoberacistmisogynist, birther and bully who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims -- 1.6 billion members of an entire religion -- from entering the U.S.

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