Trump still (mostly) obeys political gravity

Yes, Donald Trump really is a unique political character who seems to get away with an amazing out of stuff that would seemingly sink an ordinary polititican (e.g., lying constantly, not disavowing the KKK, showing extraordinary ignorance about policy, being extremely crude in repeated statements, etc.).  That said, he’s not exactly a colossus astride our political system.  Yglesias on “Teflon Trump”:

But a key piece of their framing buys into one of the oddest myths of the 2016 campaign — the entirely false legend of “Teflon Trump,” who shrugs off problems that would sink a conventional candidate. They write that “key Democrats say they are growing worried that her campaign has not determined how to combat her unpredictable, often wily Republican rival, to whom criticism seldom sticks and rules of decorum seem not to apply.” …

The reality is that Donald Trump is currently viewed unfavorably by 58 percent of the population, with fewer than 40 percent saying they have a positive impression of him.

That is the conventional rules of politics at work. Trump gets criticized, and much of the criticism sticks — driving the public to a deeply negative view of him. [emphases mine]

You see the same thing at the elite level. Most elected Republicans are supporting the Republican Party’s presidential nominee. But some are not, including Paul Ryan, the speaker of the House of Representatives. Meanwhile, a number of other elected officials are taking the odd position that they support Trump but aren’t endorsing him.

This stuff all takes perhaps less of a toll on Trump than one might like. But the toll is very real. The result of saturation-level media coverage of Trump is that he is very well-known and very unpopular. The criticism sticks.

I also like this take on Clinton.  Yes, I’m strongly supporting her, but I can certainly imagine stronger candidates (though, honestly, the Democratic bench seems pretty weak these days.  Booker in 2024?)

If Democrats want an explanation for why the election isn’t a blowout, the thing they should be remarking on is not Trump’s fake immunity to criticism — it’s the unpopularity of their own nominee. Clinton’s unfavorable rating is higher than that of any other major party presidential nominee in history, with the sole exception of Trump.

Fortunately for her, the Trump-Clinton gap is actually rather large. And in her defense, there appears to be a structural rise in nominee unpopularity linked to growing political polarization.

Still, the fact remains that Democratic Party elites deliberately cleared the field in favor of a not-very-popular nominee whose limitations as a stump speaker and poor relationship with the press were well-known and widely understood at the time. The thinking was that a divisive primary would have hurt the party, but they ended up getting a divisive primary anyway.

Clinton can reasonably hope that when the primary ends, her numbers will improve, though it’s far from guaranteed that this is the case. The point, however, is that whatever challenges Clinton is facing in the general election, they have nothing to do with difficulty attacking Trump. He has been criticized from an unusually wide range of figures, and those criticisms have stuck. He is unpopular, and he is currently losing the election.

Meanwhile, Chait points out that Trump has absolutely no idea how to run a political campaign (evidence of winning the Republican Primary aside 🙂 ):

There is, however, an upside: Trump’s campaign is an absolute garbage fire. By all accounts it is the most organizationally and strategically inept campaign for a successful major-party nominee in recorded history.Ashley Parker and Maggie Haberman round up many of the details, but the basic story that emerges from their reports and others is that Trump has absolutely no idea what he’s doing.

“Trump is reliant on information he garners himself, and can be swayed by the last person he talked to,” Parker and Haberman somewhat delicately put it. His campaign staff is far too small, and yet constantly at war with itself, already having gone through multiple shakeups and coups. In keeping with his general disdain for data, Trump has eschewed any use of analytics to target voters or competitive areas. Indeed, he has fixated bizarrely on plans to compete in New York and California, two states where any Republican faces hopeless odds against an entrenched Democratic electorate. He is currently in North Dakota for reasons nobody fully understands. He attacks fellow Republicans for no apparent reason. The super-pac donors who are supposed to be raising money on his behalf are disorganized and confused about basic questions like which super-pac they’re supposed to donate to.

To the extent that running a competent campaign matters, it will hurt Trump very badly. Yes, he won the Republican primary by relying on a massive imbalance of media coverage and exploiting a divided, extremely large field that failed to coalesce against him. Yes, he tapped into deep strains of anger in the conservative base that fellow Republicans ignored. But he’s not a political savant, and he hasn’t abolished the rules of politics.

Yep.  Trump could certainly win the general election.  But it’s not because he’s a political genius to whom the rules do not apply.  But he probably won’t win.





About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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