By Erich Straub May 4, 2016
It’s only fitting that Donald Trump officially became the republican nominee for president on George F. Will’s 75th birthday. The conservative columnist and longtime trickle down advocate must be crying in his birthday cake. Perhaps sensing the impending doom, he penned a column Monday calling for the party to sabotage Trump in the general election so that Hillary Clinton, whom he probably despises more than Trump, can be the next president. I can think of nothing more festive than cutting of your nose to spite your face.
He’s asked repeated and desperately: what’s become of the Grand Old Party? The party of Lincoln, Eisenhower, Reagan, and now... Trump? The party that is supposed to be all about business and financial discipline is investing its hopes in 2016 in a junk bond that looks like a sure loser? Even though the smartest guys in the room continue to warn them - like the wise uncle who keeps warning you that the shady investment you are preparing to sink your retirement into is a Ponzi scheme - that Trump is a conman.
You can’t slap a 35% tariff on every company that opens a factory overseas, and magically bring millions of manufacturing jobs back to hollowed out cities. You can’t beat Isis by banning all Muslims, and dropping carpet bombs all over the Middle East. Nor can you win with Hispanics, blacks, and women when more than two thirds of each group dislikes you, by simply rebranding yourself and claiming that it was all an act.
But Trump supporters believe all of those things and then some. And they are willing to invest in him; no matter how many times George Will, Mitt Romney, or Bill Kristol hold interventions trying to convince them otherwise. Despite his motto that all he does is win, Donald Trump, the man who will now be king of the party, is the most despised frontrunner (and now presumptive nominee) perhaps in the history of American politics, and the NeverTrumpers won’t let us forget it.
Less than a month ago, it looked as if the Trump Train had been knocked off the track - if not totally derailed - after a series of gaffes and a humiliating loss in Wisconsin. But as always, Trump has rebounded astoundingly and won seven straight states, with a majority in each, and driven Ted Cruz into the political grave that he had been standing over for weeks. While Trump is now all but assured of being the nominee, assuming he can outlast the robust John Kasich who is still clamoring about electability to a room full of crickets, he certainly has a steep climb ahead of him if he is to make all of this worth anything for his supporters.
Although he argues that the early poll numbers are just another ruse in the rigged political system, Trump is not projecting well in November - to say the least. Even in reliably red states like Arizona, where John McCain has held his senate seat since before Trump built his first lemonade stand, Trump is losing and democrats are showing signs of seizing once unthinkable ground. Hoping that record numbers of conservatives will stay home if Trump is the nominee, even veteran stalwarts like McCain could face competitive races without excitement for the presidential nominee.
Aside from their claim that he’s not a real conservative, that’s the primary reason why the establishment is fighting Trump so hard, despite the fact that the voters have spoken. In the past, they were willing to put up a weak candidate and roll the dice, while focusing on holding or expanding their house and senate seats. With a Candidate Trump, they fear it would likely be lose-lose. Every republican’s worst nightmare would become a reality: President Hillary Clinton, a democratic senate, and a liberal leaning Supreme Court in 2017.
They know that they don’t want that, but they can’t seem to agree on a plan to prevent it. Like the democrats in 1968, the party has become perhaps irreparably fractured, and now seems to have divided into four separate factions:
1. The Trumpers – or “Trumpeters” as Sarah Palin calls them. Die-hard Trump supporters who will vote for him no matter what. They have been reliable at the ballot box, representing about 30-40% of the primary electorate, depending on the state, and will likely drive his turnout in November. They are dedicated, but won’t be a big enough group to help him against Hillary.
2. The Reluctants - moderate and somewhat conservative voters who may have not been in love with Trump at the beginning, but have resigned themselves to the fact that he will be the nominee. They probably preferred somebody like Jeb Bush and then Kasich, but will support Trump before they will allow Hillary to become president.
3. The Never-Trumpers - a mixture of party insiders and donors, neocons, and very conservative voters who will never accept Trump as their nominee no matter what. They supported Ted Cruz either outright or as the only alternative to Trump. They will either stay home on election day or vote for a third party candidate. A small number may even swallow the poison and vote for Hillary.
4. The Party Imploders - a small, but increasing, group of establishment republicans who despise Trump (and Cruz for that matter). They are planning a secret sabotage mission, aiming to see Trump lose in a landslide, so they can tell everyone “we told you so” and rebuild the party before 2020. Sort of like a drug addict who needs to go on a terrible, near death binge to realize just how far they’ve fallen and finally seek help.
Add it all up and yes, Trump is almost certain to lose in November. The NeverTrumpers keep repeating that refrain as if we don’t get it, but what they don’t mention is the fact that any republican is likely to lose in November. Trump is just being blamed for what’s a far deeper structural problem. Most experts believe the republican candidate will start off with around 190 electoral votes (assuming they hold all red states) which means they need to add 80. If she wins all of the reliably blue states that have voted for a democrat in every election since 1992, Hillary will likely start out with 242 electoral votes, meaning she needs just 28 to win.
The map is simply more blue than it is red. In the six elections since 1992, no democrat has scored fewer than 251 electoral votes. The only two who lost - Al Gore and John Kerry scored 266 and 251 respectively - came razor close to winning. If one state flipped the other way the outcome would have been reversed. In that same time, republicans have scored fewer than 200 three times: 1992 (168), 1996 (159), and 2008 (173), and Mitt Romney managed just 206 in 2012. George W. Bush - the only Republican to win in that timeframe - scored just 271 in 2000 (the fewest by any president ever to win1) and 286 in 2004 (by far the fewest of any incumbent to win re-election).
To reach 270, the republican would need to win Florida, Ohio, Virginia, Colorado, Iowa, and North Carolina. Hillary would need to win Florida. That’s it. 242+29=271. She could concede Ohio and all the others and it wouldn’t matter. In other words, Republicans MUST win Florida - and a lot of other states where they are at a disadvantage because of changing demographics and their inability to win over hispanics and younger voters. Yes, a Paul Ryan looks bright and cheery compared to Trump, but he almost certainly doesn’t get to 270 in November either - especially with a large contingent of Trumpeters exiting the party.
While we could debate the merits of abolishing the electoral college (and Trump may try that) in short, republicans have to basically run the table in the swing states (or steal a big blue state) to have a chance of winning. To be realistic, the main alternative to Trump – Ted Cruz would not have fared much better in a general election (and some think would actually do worse). John Kasich does much better in a hypothetical match-up with Clinton than Trump or Cruz. He leads in many national polls, and also in key swing states like Ohio, but pretty much everywhere else in the primary he was either an afterthought, or part of a ruse to trip Trump up, or both.
Marco Rubio was widely touted as the party’s best prospect in what was supposed to be a deep bench, and he was rumored to be the only candidate that the Clinton campaigned was truly worried about facing. He was liked among large sections of the primary electorate, but always seemed to be their second choice and just couldn’t position himself as the clear Trump alternative. Although it seems unlikely, Trump could tap him as his VP to try to lock up Florida where he remains popular.
As Trump proclaims emphatically: “we want winners, not losers”. Like it or not, Kasich and Rubio look like losers. Trump looks like a winner, even though he’s despised by the masters of his own party. You can argue that he’s certainly not the standard bearer for the conservative movement (whatever that is these days), but he is going to finish the primary having won 35 states and over 12 million votes - more than the record set by George W. Bush when he ran away with the nomination in 2000. And he’ll have done it with the establishment, most of the conservative media, and big party donors, having fought him tooth and nail all the way. So, obviously somebody likes what he’s selling.
This election highlights not only the problems of our archaic electoral system, but with the nominating process as well: candidates have to navigate a series of primaries and caucuses spread out all over the country in no discernible pattern or organization. Try to win over conservative, evangelical voters in one area, shift to moderates in another, while wooing party elites and donors, and then lump everything together into something that looks palatable to half of the population. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
It’s a messy system, but perhaps it’s better than the alternative. In the past, the voters had virtually no say in who the party’s nominee was. Even in 1968, when democrats - furious with Johnson and the war in Vietnam - propelled Bobby Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy to huge wins in the primaries, the party insiders simply overruled them and nominated Johnson’s VP Hubert Humphrey anyway. The RNC wishes they had that power this year, so they could kick Trump to the curb. But pulling something like that would not only play right into Trump’s argument that the system is rigged, but likely result in a bloody mess like the one that unfolded in Chicago that summer.
The party insiders should resign themselves to the fact that it simply didn’t work this year. Voters are just done with everything Washington and increasingly distrustful of the candidates they continually propped up as the obvious choice. They simply were not willing to settle on another bland guy talking about policy issues, medicaid subsidies, and tax reform to balance the budget. Not when they had a torch wielding maniac ready to burn the whole system down, and replace it with a giant wall.
Trump will most likely not be the next president, but all of the experts have been wrong up to this point. He is a wildcard and who knows what tricks he still has up his sleeve. He may be going into the general election with the highest negatives of any candidate in history, but his opponent will be going in with the second highest. It’s a remarkable twist of irony in an already surreal election season. Despite what democrats (and many republicans) may think, Hillary is not invincible and Trump is going to empty the quiver. If she thinks she is going to coast into the white house, she does so at her own risk.
Regardless of what happens, you have to give Trump credit. He started out as a reality show character, displayed almost no policy knowledge (nor desire to develop any), no discernible organization, and refused to play the traditional parlor games of party politics. He didn’t win with smoke and mirrors so much as by sheer force of personality and brand name. He will likely finish as he started, which is a caricature of a candidate. But something strange happened on the way to the carnival: Trump became a major party nominee, dispatching seasoned politicians like it was child’s play, and breaking every written (and unwritten) rule along the way. And this is just the first act. As he says: “I haven’t even started yet, folks”. It figures to be one hell of a summer.
1 - since the present electoral college vote became 538 after the admittal of Alaska and Hawaii in 1959.