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Trump and GOP in Crisis
2016 Overview – The last few weeks have been remarkably bad ones for Donald Trump. His erratic performance has pushed his poll numbers down. Voices of dissent in his own party have grown louder, and stories about a renewed effort to replace him at the Convention have resumed with vigor. His campaign organization and fundraising are in a shambles, and so behind at this point it is not clear he can mount a traditional campaign at all this cycle. Even a domestic terrorist attack did nothing to aid his standing or wound the Democrats. And while all this is happening, the Clinton campaign has become confident and sure footed, her public performances as good as they’ve been all cycle, and her capable campaign team is executing a long awaited game plan with intensity and purpose. Republicans are right to be panicking about the fall.
Some numbers: the basic structure of the race hasn’t changed in the last few weeks, despite Orlando. As I wrote two weeks back, the underlying dynamics of this cycle would have suggested Clinton to be up 6-8 points at this point. Today, the Huffington Post aggregate has her up 45.3 to 37.7, 7.6 points net. This is up from a 2 point average in Mid May. As you can see from the graph below, the change in the race is coming not only from Clinton gaining ground and consolidating Democrats after clinching the nomination, but also because Trump has been dropping. What is important is that all this movement has come before Bernie Sanders has officially endorsed (which will come), suggesting that Clinton has even more room to grow in the coming weeks.
Yesterday, Trump said he would not officially begin his general election campaign until after the Convention. In political Nerdistan this was a bit of a bombshell. For it means that at a moment where the race is starting to slip away from him, Trump is going to allow the Democrats a full five weeks on the air in the battleground states without a response. Traditional campaign tactics would suggest that Trump go up on the air now with a very substantial buy to blunt Clinton’s significant momentum. By not responding at all until late in the summer when vacationing voters will be harder to reach, Trump is possibly in the process of losing the general election right now.
At the core of his campaign’s historic levels of dysfunction is a big and consequential lie – that he was wealthy enough to self-fund his candidacy. You could say that this impression was an essential building block of his brand/persona – couldn’t be bought, successful businessman, no politics as usual. It was perhaps the most important part of the early Trumpian brand, but it also had the practical effect of preventing his campaign from setting up a real fundraising operation (why do it if you are a self funder?). What we are learning now is the myth of his wealth – and at this point it looks to be more myth than reality – will have prevented him from establishing even a modest campaign to take on a Democratic Presidential apparatus that has won more votes in 5 of the last 6 elections. It is just too late at this point for Trump to build even a modest campaign, and every day GOPers on the ground in the battleground states don’t see ads up on the air the greater the panic and dissent will be.
The realization that Trump’s enormous whopper about his wealth prevented him from mounting a real campaign could have an extraordinary impact with GOP insiders – those who vote at the Convention. Unless Trump dumps $100m or more into his campaign in the next week or so, I think there is a very real chance he will be replaced at the Convention. Replacing his campaign manager won't be enough.
After Orlando/Not Just Trump – While the Democratic effort to close the “terror gap” and other common sense gun safety measures after the Orlando shooting is smart politics and the right thing to do, it would be wise to couple that with a challenge to the Rs to join them in giving the President the legal authority to fight ISIS in the Middle East. As the President said last week, it is not an either/or, but a both/and. The authority the President is using to fight ISIS abroad was explicitly written to fight Al Qaeda and the Taliban in 2001. If words matter – as many Rs say – then let’s name our current adversary properly – the Islamic State – and give the President the authority he needs to fight them in the months ahead. The Congressional GOP’s refusal to give the President the authority he needs, along with the explicit political support, is one of the great abdications of responsibility we’ve seen in the past generation of American politics. They should be called on it.
This refusal to take responsibility for the world as it is today (something I wrote about extensively recently) has become a hallmark of the modern GOP. Consider Paul Ryan’s House right now – no budget, no Zika funding, no TPP, no immigration reform, no response to ISIS/home grown threats. And of course the Senate has for the first time in American history refused to act upon a Supreme Court vacancy. Today’s GOP is simply ideologically incapable of governing in a time of enormous global change that its leaders are struggling to understand.
Previous Columns – Previous editions of this weekly column can be found here.