Trump Blame Game: His Personality or His Positions?
August is early for assigning blame for a presidential campaign defeat, but Donald Trump decided to get a head start. If not for “the disgusting and corrupt media” Trump tweeted, “I would be beating Hillary by 20%.” A couple weeks before that, Trump supporter Sean Hannity said if Trump loses, “I am pointing the finger directly at people like [House Speaker] Paul Ryan and [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell … and everybody else that made promises they're not keeping.”
Only the most rabid Trump fans will try to absolve the candidate of responsibility, though the more that do, the harder it will be for a Republican Party leadership that surely wants to put him in the rearview mirror.
But pinning the blame on Trump is not, by itself, sufficient for the GOP to turn the page. The bigger debate facing Republicans post-election is not whether Trump deserves the blame. It is whether the anticipated loss should be blamed on his personality or his positions. Was it because Trump was an exceptionally incorrigible dispenser of insults? Or was it because any campaign premised on deporting immigrants and banning Muslims was a guaranteed loser in today’s robustly multicultural America? How the Republican Party answers will determine it’s future.
The Republican National Committee tried to answer a similar question after Mitt Romney’s 2012 defeat, to no avail. The party’s official “autopsy” concluded that the election proved it was necessary to “expand and diversify the base of the Republican Party” and in particular, “we must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform. If we do not, our Party’s appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only.”
But most congressional Republicans refused to embrace that conclusion – a mere 14 of 46 Senate Republicans helped pass an immigration reform bill in 2013, only to watch the GOP-led House refuse to vote on it. In 2014, the House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was ousted in a primary in part because, despite opposing the comprehensive Senate bill, he supported a path to citizenship for undocumented children. Then, in 2016, 70 percent of Republican primary voters cast ballots for candidates – Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz -- who supported building a border wall and deporting all undocumented immigrants.
As current polls show Trump winning only among white men and non-college graduate white women, the autopsy’s prediction of the Republican Party shrinking to its “core constituencies only” would appear prescient. Those Republicans who see an embrace of diversity, led by support of immigration reform, as necessary to political survival will have a strong hand to play.
But the fervently anti-immigration majority of the Republican base is unlikely to eagerly concede the point. These voters could point to Trump’s brief post-convention bounce – catapulting him to a three-point lead in the CNN poll – as evidence that his relentless focus on illegal immigration and his broader “law and order” message had potential.
They could further reason that it was only Trump’s reckless decision to attack the Gold Star parents of a Muslim-American soldier that vaporized his bounce, or that his rotating cast of campaign managers hobbled his ability to run a strong fall campaign. Under such logic, a more disciplined anti-immigration candidate – such as Cruz or Sen. Tom Cotton – coupled with an unsatisfying first term from President Hillary Clinton, could pull off a 2020 victory.
The difficulty in adjudicating the blame game between Trump’s insults and Trump’s policies is that the two have been intermingled for so long. But there is a way to untangle them.
Trump blasted into the presidential race in mid-June 2015 by putting illegal immigration front and center: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. … They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. … I would build a great wall, and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me. … And I will have Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.”
The next month of the campaign was dominated by his immigration message. He didn’t break the taboo barrier until July 18, when he said Sen. John McCain is “not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.” (“Donald Trump may have finally crossed the line” reported Politico at the time.)
So we have a month-long window, prior to July 18, 2015, when Trump’s standing can be assessed primarily on the basis of his signature policies.
General election trial heats taken during his campaign’s early days wouldn’t be a fair guidepost; too many voters still weren’t expecting Trump to make it that far. But there are two polls that have gauged Trump’s “favorable” and “unfavorable” rating from the beginning of the campaign.
The ABC/Washington Post poll asked respondents for their feelings about Trump one week before the McCain swipe, and 61 percent already had an “unfavorable” opinion. That number today? Exactly the same: 61 percent. And it hasn’t moved much over the course of the year, never going below 57 percent.
The Economist/YouGov poll shows a bit more movement, but still starting from a terrible place of 60 percent in late June 2015 before hitting 66 percent today. The unfavorable number actually dipped into the 50s after the McCain insults, reaching 53 in September before crossing 60 again in March 2016.
Both polls suggest that Trump’s initial focus on an immigration crackdown was devastatingly unpopular from the start; you can’t win a presidential election with a 60 percent unfavorable rating.
His subsequent shenanigans may be the difference between a modest defeat and a landslide loss. But there’s little reason to believe that Trump, let alone Ted Cruz, would have outperformed Romney by running farther to the right on immigration. The whole reason for the 2012 “autopsy” was that Romney’s embrace of “self-deportation” led to his 44-point deficit with Latinos, en route to a four-point loss in the total popular vote.
After the Democrats lost three consecutive presidential elections in the 1980s, indicating that Ronald Reagan had successfully moved the country to the right, many in the liberal base were prepared to sacrifice some deeply held beliefs in order to win. By 1992, the left helped nominate Bill Clinton despite his support for the death penalty and for linking work requirements to welfare benefits.
After a third Republican loss in a row, there will be calls for conservatives to recognize how the country has shifted since Barack Obama, and allow the GOP to adapt in order to survive. But if there is a sizable camp of Republicans who insist on blaming everybody but Trump, along with another faction trying to narrowly blame Trump’s antics while keeping with his positions, then the party may not be able to grow beyond its “core constituencies.”