Donald Trump stood up the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) this weekend because the optics of a hostile reception would have been terrible for him. Instead, he went to Wichita, but he still lost Kansas to Ted Cruz.
Then he went to Florida; it's over for Sen. Marco Rubio unless "Little Marco" gets a plurality in that winner-take-all March 15 primary. But Ted Cruz will not (per Mitt Romney) lay low in the Sunshine State to give Rubio a leg up, toward Romney's objective of denying Trump a first ballot victory in Cleveland.
In Saturday's four primaries Cruz won more delegates than Trump, bringing Cruz to 302, compared to Trump's 389. The strong Cruz campaign is organized, competent, and funded. More importantly, Trump performed poorly in Thursday's Fox News debate, amidst Trump's continuing, avoidable blunders. He refuses to be briefed on basic domestic and foreign policy issues. If Trump continues this way, he will self-destruct, if not soon than later, surely eventually.
Actually, Trump's candidacy could have been downsized last year. That's when the candidates and their SuperPACs started to spend what now amounts to more than $660 million dollars raised to date, and still counting, not including what outside groups and lobbyists spent, for example on their own polling. Quantitative research last summer would have confirmed that Trump's lead was more than name identification. Open-end questions would have provided Trump supporters' verbatim responses that indicated why they favored Trump. And focus groups would have probed how to address and even co-opt his key contentions such as porous borders must be secured, trade deals are costing American jobs, the Iraq war was a mistake, our allies should contribute more for defense.
If the "vast right-wing conspiracy" headed by the Koch brothers were so all knowing and powerful, why did they squander their influence on Scott Walker? They should have provided counsel to all the Republican candidates, so they could have been more impressive in the debates and stolen Trump's raisond'etre.
Trump's The Art of the Deal outlined his likely campaign strategy and previewed his mastery of branding himself. Did any of the anti-Trump "strategists" read it? Trump intended to use free media, and he controlled most news cycles. On Twitter alone, he set the agenda. As everyone realizes after the fact, Fox News and CNN interrupted regular programming with "breaking news" of live Trump appearances where he simply gave his standard stump speech. It seems like ancient history now -- but last year 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. Early on, candidates should have protested the pro-Trump media bias.
Instead of dialogue that resonates, anti-Trump forces have pushed ineffectual hits that emboldened Trump's supporters. For example, Trump easily disposed of criticism that he had changed positions on issues like abortion. Focus groups of evangelical voters (that were never conducted) would have shown a plurality opting for Trump and also how to retrieve these Trump-tilting evangelicals for other candidates.
From the outset, Trump made a prop of Jeb as Exhibit A of The Establishment; without Jeb, Trump would have had to invent him. Only a small part of Jeb's SuperPAC ad dollars were anti-Trump. Until recently, hardly any advertising dollars from Jeb and others went against Trump. The opposition attacks now appear desperate. Even factual assertions seem like smears. Some current ads are shrill ("he's a phony"). But, at least, the timing may work in this compressed period of Trump scrutiny. Still, the real need is for "real people" to go against Trump.
Last year Beltway insiders insulted the intelligence of Trump supporters. Then came the National Review attack, which helped Trump. What was required was grassroots activism, not the intellectual highbrow. A credible ad campaign to connect intimately would have featured real and disillusioned former Trump voters. The "dark money" American Future Fund (AFF) is now running ads in Florida with people claiming they were scammed by Trump University. Expect Trump to challenge the source of AFF money. But the ads are a step above past anti-Trump advertising, because a "real victim" speaks.
The candidates last year should have preempted Trump's issues, and I don't meet immigration. They should have raised the ante of his collusion with government by pursuing Rand Paul's libertarianism and the Huckabee-Santorum populism, attacking Wall Street and supporting Main Street. All the candidates should have bashed hedge fund tax preferences and pursued Millennial issues of Uber and others related to tech and the sharing economy. Why didn't Republican candidates provide an alternative to Obama's pro-Arab/pro-Muslim tilt? They should have immediately called for Arab nations to absorb the Syrian Muslim refugees; instead this became Trump's issue.
Attacks on Trump remain unclear. Trump's use of eminent domain for private gain was not to build schools and highways. Releasing his income tax returns is not to determine his net worth. Trump's refusal should be compared to Hillary's refusal to release her Goldman Sachs speech transcript. And why not challenge Trump's attempt to redefine the First Amendment, because he would protect not just himself but the very politicians he claims to oppose? Republican "foreign policy experts" criticized Trump for popular positions, like wanting our allies to pay more for their defense or for saying Putin should take ISIS. Republican primary voters do not favor wholesale interventionism. All this plays into the hands of the bigoted Pat Buchanan who cherry-picks Trump's most appealing populist notions.
Look at the time opponents, again and again, devoted to Planned Parenthood. On this issue, Republican hardliners have threatened a "government shutdown" (rather than having Barack Obama held accountable). But Republican savers see their IRAs and 401k crash at such machinations, and they think Wall Street speculators exploit the gyrations. Ironically, Trump is seen as anti-Wall Street.
If Romney had shown the passion against Obama that he now shows against Trump, he would have been elected president in 2012. Trump had criticized Romney's campaign for months, so he inoculated against much of Romney's attack. Romney should have attacked Trump in front of young people and anti-Establishment voters and surely not from Utah. As time goes on and the field has narrowed, Romney's supposition that non-Trump voters are anti-Trump may prove true. But that naïve assumption backfired last year.
Mitt Romney started a dialogue with his wide-ranging, at times, uncharacteristically personal attack on Trump. But it helps Trump when politicians attack him. Instead, anti-Trump forces should be coordinating authenticity - get -- as I've already written -- "real people" and at various levels -- in interviews, news conferences and in advertising.
It was apparent last year that Trump could fall short of a majority in Cleveland. Allowing for this possibility, the anti-Trump folks should have celebrated letting the delegates decide in an "open" convention. Instead, they adopted the pejorative term "brokered convention" which conjures up images of a smoke-filled room of insiders. This is precisely the establishment image Trump wants to run against.
This post appeared earlier in slightly different form here.