Stopping Trump (Again?)

You aim for intimacy and connection, not clinical detachment.

"I don't want the Republican nominee to be someone that people have to make excuses why they're voting for him," Sen. Marco Rubio said about Donald Trump on Friday, the same day Trump announced he would renege on attending the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) the next day, in favor of a major rally in Wichita (yet, Cruz handily won Kansas, as well as Maine). Then, Trump continued to Orlando, where he is challenging Rubio on his home turf -- Florida (Trump's "second home").

Rubio added: "People want a nominee we're excited about." But the reality is that Trump voters are excited. And, if their man is not nominated, and if they don't stay home in disillusionment, they would be making excuses for voting for anyone else, such as Rubio or Cruz. These two and John Kasich and Jeb Bush and the twelve other candidates, the Donor and Consultant Classes, the Beltway Lobbyists, John McCain, Bob Dole and now Mitt Romney et. al. never understood the Trump phenomenon. Maybe they do now, possibly too late.

Trump's candidacy could have been downsized last year. That's when these candidates candidates already started to spend what now amounts to more than six hundred and sixty million raised to date, and still counting. And those campaign and SuperPAC totals do not include outside groups such as, for example, trade groups and lobbyists doing their own polling.

Speaking of polls, observe that serious and competent early polling last spring, certainly last summer, would have confirmed that Trump's initial lead was not simply name identification. That's what I thought for a couple of weeks, until I spoke to diehard conservative voters supporting Trump and grasped their intensity. If I concluded anecdotally that his support was hard, why didn't The Establishment with its extensive quantitative and qualitative research so conclude, early?

Open-end questions would have provided the verbatim responses of Trump supporters who indicated their preference was based more on personal characteristics than any single-issue position. Follow-up polling would have verified voter support for Trump's key contentions, for example: porous borders must be secured, trade deals are costing American jobs, the Iraq war was a mistake, our allies should contribute more for defense. And in-depth polling would have shown the "ceiling theory" was only wishful thinking.

Competently recruited and skillfully moderated focus groups of Trump voters would have shown why the voters were drawn to him and precisely how to reach them. You would have seen that they are not for him because he is a Republican loyalist, or because he is against Obamacare or Planned Parenthood, so those deficiencies would not be your attack themes in debates. You would have probed in great depth what would move them from Trump. But instead of dialogue that resonates, we have seen months of ineffectual hits on Trump by The Establishment, attacks which even emboldened his supporters who replied, for example, that he gave money to Democrats for business reasons, and his specific positions are in flux, and change is good, and and thus Trump's evolution (or even abrupt change) doesn't matter to them. Instead, they needed to talk about the actual reasons why people support Trump and then impeach his credibility on those reasons. Besides the message, you must come up with the right messengers (not politicians).

Within weeks of Trump's announcement, it was also apparent that leaders of social conservatives had lost touch with their constituency -- evangelical voters -- who were open to the same Trump positives that focus groups of these evangelicals would have uncovered, in far greater detail, especially Trump's perceived strong leadership and supposed total independence, and his seeming willingness as an "outsider" to confront a system "rigged" against ordinary people.

Obviously (except to Jeb's Super-Rich backers and aggressive campaign vendors), there was no constituency for another Bush presidency, but Jeb ran anyway. In short order, Jeb became Exhibit One for Trump, a permanent (until his withdrawal) prop favoring Trump's narrative to uproot the status quo. Without Jeb, Trump would have had to invent him. Until recently, hardly any advertising dollars from Jeb and others went against Trump. Some of the ad-makers for the Club for Growth were so out of touch last year that their implausible ads actually helped Trump, who also demeaned the ads as Wall Street.

From the beginning, Trump maintained that The Establishment is incompetent, and its underestimation of him proved Trump right. His cost-effective campaign eloquently testified to his presumed skill as a CEO who runs a good operation (Why not let him run the country?). With absolutely no data, the bumbling CNN and Fox News pundits, few of whom ever ran a successful campaign, stubbornly clung to the ceiling myth. During all this time, Trump inoculated himself against many future attack ads by predicting the negative ads and their "lobbyists...special interest" funding. Thus, he discredited them in advance.

Now that the field is narrowing, Trump's pre-emptive strategy may have run its course. This depends partly on whether the ads come across as people-oriented or simply character assassination.

Trump is not in the business of politics. But more than the Consultant Class, he understood and understands - intuitively - that the longer people support him, the more difficult to dislodge that support. And when the opposition saved attacks until later in the game, they looked like what they are - desperate. Even factual assertions seem like smears, especially if they are perceived as sponsored by the Party Elite.

Trump's The Art of the Deal outlined his likely campaign strategy. Did any of the anti-Trump "strategists" read it? Trump, far more competent than the flacks working for his opponents, controlled most news cycles. Even in the current four-way race, he still seems in control, though not as much as before.

Since he started the campaign. Trump -- on Twitter alone, has set the agenda more effectively than the mountain of news releases from the opposition. Even better for Trump, Fox News joined CNN in interrupting regular programming with "breaking news" of a live Trump appearance where he simply gave his standard stump speech. Sunday television news repeatedly interviewed him by telephone, as if he were on the radio. And right wing Talk Radio patronized Trump with as many interviews as possible, often with softball questions. Candidates should have protested the pro-Trump media bias.

The only candidates who took Trump on were the weakest candidates, while Ted Cruz curiously began praising "Donald," and now Trump is a force to be reckoned with. Fortunately for Cruz, Trump's bombast has actually made Cruz seem more moderate.

Bernie Sanders scorns the Billionaire Class. But if the "vast right-wing conspiracy" headed by the Koch brothers were so all knowing and powerful, why didn't they try to help all the Republican candidates acquit themselves better in the initial debates? That action last year would have helped the beleaguered Republican brand and also helped each candidate to speak out in favor of the same issues for which Trump was given exclusivity. Instead, they squandered their influence and even bet their chips on Scott Walker.

Trump quietly realized the Donor Class is clueless. A master of branding, Trump knew that his dominance of the free, earned media and the debates would profoundly shape voter attitudes, because voters view paid advertising as far less credible.

And throughout all this, Trump gained time. His support kept increasing through successive "ceilings" while "strategists" -- with no evidence or data to the contrary -- kept predicting his imminent collapse. Who attacked Trump? The Establishment that he predicted - symbolized by 92-year-old Bob Dole. When Jeb brought out his mother Barbara, and his brother -- President George W. Bush, Jeb made Trump look even stronger.

For months last year Beltway insiders belittled Trump supporters, hardly a way to woo them. Then came the National Review attack, which had no effect or actually helped Trump. Obviously (to me and experienced strategists), what was required was grassroots activism, not the intellectual highbrow. And the ad campaigns should have featured real Trump voters who had become disillusioned, and they would have explained why. They would carry far more credibility than politicians or computer-generated hit (and run) ads. You aim for intimacy and connection, not clinical detachment. Such ads require work. The "dark money" American Future Fund (AFF) is now running ads in Florida with real people claiming they were scammed by Trump University. Expect Trump to challenge the source of AFF money.

If the candidates had understood Trump's appeal, they could have preempted Trump's issues, and I don't meet immigration. They could have attacked Wall Street in favor of Main Street. All 17 candidates should have taken on Wall Street; but Trump's right, that's not the current Republican party. They should have bashed Hedge Fund tax preference and defined the New Age politics of high tech, Uber, and the shared economy and pushed for radical change -- charter schools, school choice, reform of state licensure laws, anything that smacks of taking on The Establishment. The candidates should have shown toughness, for example, calling for the Arab nations to absorb the Syrian refugees and, yes, saying the U.S. cannot absorb refugees, many of whom are unlike an earlier generation of American Muslims, because they are open to abusing women, assaulting homosexuals, and wanting to impose Sharia law. Instead, Ted Cruz said the election in 2016 is a referendum on the U.S. Supreme Court. Surely he was not talking to some of the independents and Democrats crossing over, in states so permitting, to the Republican primaries to vote for Trump?

And on Saturday night, Trump even stole the Supreme Court issue from Cruz by placing it in a different context. If dissident Republicans formed a third party to defeat him as the party's nominee, Trump argued, they would elect a Democrat who would appoint several new justices. This is Trump's technique: pre-empt and discredit an anti-Trump maneuver, while at the same time he pledges loyalty to whoever the nominee is.

Meanwhile, the late-in-coming attacks on Trump have not been clear and surgical, certainly not unrelenting. To this day, many voters believe the critique of Trump's use of eminent domain for private gain was an attack on eminent domain, per se, that is, an attack on building schools and highways. Now, opponents ask for his income tax returns and Trump responds they won't show his net worth, but the issue is disclosure, not net worth. Trump's opponents don't know how to follow-up and keep a vulnerability alive. When Trump declines to release his New York Times immigration transcript, they should have compared it to Hillary's refusal to release her Goldman Sachs speech transcript. Trump calls for changing defamation law which would not only inhibit political discourse and favor the political correctness Trump supposedly faults, but make Trump himself liable for damages for challenging establishment politicians. But Trump gets a free ride, giving him time to master the First Amendment, maybe even the U.S. Constitution, so he soon can say, like Ted Cruz, that he is a "constitutional conservative" (to get the YOU-GE Federalist Society vote).

Again and again, Trump was attacked for points that voters like. For example, the conservative and Republican "foreign policy experts" actually criticized Trump for wanting out allies to pay more for their defense. They even attacked him for his popular suggestion that we let Putin take out ISIS. That's how out of touch these eggheads are with the Republican grassroots. Last week an "expert" on CNN said Trump "would not have our team," and another "expert" endorsed Hillary. Who wants their team? There is little appetite among Republican primary voters for unlimited, wholesale interventionism or re-litigating the Iraq war. Trump gets it. His statement Friday on not giving illegal orders to the military shows he now has some adults on his national security team. Trump's opponents allowed him to set the bar so low, for so long, that now he may finally get briefed and "grow as a candidate." They should have been attacking him early and often.

Look at the time opponents again and again devoted to Planned Parenthood, as if Mark Levin's audience is the Republican electorate. Often Republicans stupidly threaten a "government shutdown" (rather than having Barack Obama held accountable). Republican voters then see their IRA or 401K tank in value, and - in their view - Wall Street speculators make a killing on the bounce. Put another way, attacking Trump as not a conservative or not a Republican did not work because neither brand is secure against average people, especially savers who feel politicians are in the pocket of Wall Street.

Trump's repeated attacks on Mitt Romney probably were a factor in arousing the 2012 standard bearer to unload the proverbial "everything but the kitchen sink." But Trump's criticism of Romney's ineffectual 2012 campaign also had another effect: it further impaired (in advance) Romney's credibility. And instead of picking the optimum audience- young articulate people to engage with in a dialogue-Romney spoke from, you guessed it, Utah. Most observers agreed that if Romney had that passion against Obama, Romney would now be president.

For a long time pundits like Fox's Charles Krauthammer and CNN's Jeffrey Toobin said the Republican field must "consolidate" (behind one candidate) against Trump. Krauthammer is a brilliant columnist, and Toobin is a legal analyst. Neither man has run a winning political campaign. Perhaps the most stupid assumption, for so long, was that Trump would not get some portion of the undecided, and, worse, that any voter not for Trump was anti-Trump. We would not say, if Rubio has 15%, that the other 85% is the anti-Rubio vote.

Of course at some point, as the race narrow, the assumptions that proved off last year might finally be right. Eventually, in a two-way race, the backers of the other candidate may be indeed by anti-Trump.

The Republican National Committee originally created the Super Delegates and the escalating primaries (from proportional to winner-take-all) to favor an Establishment candidate. Faced now with Trump, their hope -- using their rules -- is to prevent a Trump majority, on the first ballot. Belatedly, and against the "consolidation" theory, Romney wants a Marco Rubio plurality in winner-take-all Florida and a John Kasich plurality in winner-take-all Ohio to help deprive Trump of a first ballot victory. It benefits Trump for Establishment Romney to be the guy who sponsors this approach. Anyway, Cruz won't cooperate: he will campaign in Florida, thus increasing the likelihood that Trump could win all of Florida's delegates on March 15. On Saturday, Trump won Louisiana and Kentucky, which keeps his momentum, for at least a substantial plurality in Cleveland.

Mitt Romney started a dialogue. But attacks from him or current or former opponents or other politicians will not take down Trump. Instead, any effective campaign must involve "real people" in interviews, news conferences and in advertising. And you attack Trump where it hurts - refuting why voters support Trump... their reasons for supporting Trump, not what you think their reasons are

Even last year it was clear that Trump could do well, yet still come to Cleveland without a majority of delegates. At that point delegates are only bound on the first ballot. Thus, Trump opponents last year should have talked up an "open" convention to "let the people decide." Instead they hurt themselves, and still do, with promiscuous reference to the pejorative "brokered convention" that smacks of the smoke filled room of party bosses. The widely touted "Stop Trump Movement" should stop talking about itself, but the people who let Trump gain traction last year are still running the show.

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