Trump Softens as "Winning" Theme Takes a Beating
Over decades as a public figure, Donald Trump has cultivated a celebrity status rooted in a quintessentially American idea: success.
“It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s whether you win!” proclaimed the box of his 1989 board game, Trump: The Game.
Trump has traded on this image to great effect as a candidate for president. He has promised to win so much “that you may get bored with winning, believe me.” Meanwhile, he has assured voters that Hillary Clinton “doesn't know how to win.”
But now the GOP nominee’s image faces a difficult new test. This month, his standing in public polling has nosedived, appearing to put some battleground states out of reach and putting traditionally safe Republican ones in play for Democrats. Some party members are urging triage, pushing the Republican National Committee to pull back support and focus on salvaging down-ballot races.
The man who has painstakingly cast himself as a “winner” might lose after all. And what then?
Earlier in the campaign, Trump refused to even consider that prospect. If he were to come up short, he told Fox News’ Megyn Kelly in May, “I will consider it to be a total waste of time, energy and money.”
Recently, however, Trump has shifted his tone. “If at the end of 90 days I’ve fallen short because I’m somewhat politically correct, even though I’m supposed to be the smart one, and even though I’m supposed to have a lot of good ideas, it’s OK. I go back to a very good way of life,” he told CNBC last week. “It’s not what I’m looking to do. I think we’re going to have a victory. But, we’ll see.”
In other recent remarks, Trump also seemed to begin rationalizing how he could come up short, if through no fault of his own.
“The only way we can lose, in my opinion, I really mean this, Pennsylvania, is if cheating goes on,” Trump said at a rally there last week. “I really believe it.”
There is also the matter of Trump trailing Clinton in current polling, before anyone has cast a ballot in the general election. But he has an answer for that, too.
“If the disgusting and corrupt media covered me honestly and didn’t put false meaning into the words I say, I would be beating Hillary by 20 percent,” he tweeted Sunday.
Recent surveys suggest that Trump’s polarizing rhetoric has factored into his sagging support. In a Bloomberg Politics poll published last week, 56 percent of respondents said they were bothered “a lot” by Trump’s rebuke of Khizr Khan, the father of a Muslim American soldier killed in Iraq.
Meanwhile, Trump’s campaign has not put a framework in place to amplify more favorable messages and win the support of undecided voters. It has only just begun to open a few offices in battleground states, and the campaign has yet to spend any money on television advertising during the general election.
As the forecast has turned gloomier for Trump’s prospects of winning the presidency, however, his supporters have nevertheless sounded positive notes.
“So you're saying, don't give up on him?” “Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace asked Trump’s running mate, Mike Pence, over the weekend.
“I'm saying, stay tuned,” Pence responded. “It's still early in this campaign.”
A few channels away, on ABC’s “This Week,” key Trump ally Sen. Jeff Sessions emphasized, “This campaign is not over.”
But can a campaign predicated on winning survive a losing streak? At several junctures already, the nominee’s emphasis on his winning ways has made him a ripe target when he’s stumbled politically.
“He does not handle losing very well,” Sen. Ted Cruz said in New Hampshire in February, after besting Trump in the Iowa caucuses. “He didn’t like that he lost in Iowa, and his response is to simply yell and insult and engage in profanity.”
After Trump remarked this month that “Second Amendment people” could prevent Clinton from nominating liberal judges as president, which some interpreted as an incitement of gun violence, Sen. Elizabeth Warren tweeted that Trump “makes death threats because he's a pathetic coward who can’t handle the fact that he’s losing to a girl.”
Trump typically reacts harshly to such barbs, firing off Twitter rants or mocking his rivals at rallies. Now, as Republicans are urgently pushing him to moderate his tone, it is unclear whether he will be able to do so for three months until Election Day and in the face of steeper odds.
But Trump’s supporters remain confident that he will stay engaged – and reap the benefits of doing so.
“To maintain his reputation, he will continue to work as hard as possible through the end, with the goal of winning,” said Joe Borelli, a New York City councilman. “I think he’s liable to snap back stronger when he’s poked a bit.”
As Trump has confronted dispiriting polling recently, the prospect of losing has crept in. But the theme of winning, too, has notably remained a feature in his stump speech.
“We’re going to win, we’re going to start winning again,” Trump said last week in Windham, N.H. “But I’ve won. My whole life has been about winning. I win.”