I’m done underestimating Donald Trump. After Super Tuesday with Trump taking all of the Florida delegates and making a good showing in Ohio behind Governor John Kasich, a lot of people involved at the periphery of politics are thinking the same thing. What originally seemed like a reality TV show stunt turned into a serious challenge to the Republican status quo. Trump’s status as the frontrunner and his momentum are now undeniable.
As political observers and media commentators try to make sense of it, they turn as they often do to recent political history. They have seized on making comparisons between Donald Trump’s quest for the GOP nomination for president with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s equally improbable (at the time) run for Governor of California in 2003.
Sure, there are some obvious parallels between the races 13 years apart. Both are successful celebrities with distinct public images and tremendous name ID. Neither needs to purchase advertising to introduce himself to anyone. Both are wealthy, both are first-time candidates. Neither Arnold or Donald sound like the typical politician. Neither one hesitates to use a little profanity when it suits them. No real surprise that Arnold will replace Donald next season on “The Celebrity Apprentice.”
But there are distinct differences in their approach and the specific circumstances of these races apparent to a political pollster like me, and these pieces of information tell me we shouldn’t reach for comparisons between the Schwarzenegger and Trump campaigns beyond superficial similarities.
When there are multiple candidates in a race as there has been in the GOP primary until recently, you need to generate intense support from a narrow slice of the voters, a core constituency you can count on. You want a smaller number of people to make a lot of noise. Call it passion if you like. Trump has this kind of support, and none of the other Republican candidates can truly say this. Would Jeb Bush’s supporters wait hours in line outside a local theater just to hear him speak?
Trump has done one key thing extremely well. Borrowing a phrase from sports talk show host Jim Rome, “He has this take, and it doesn’t suck.” Trump has a well-defined brand and he sticks to it. He doesn’t back off even in the face of criticism. Everyone knows what a Donald Trump candidate sounds like and how he’s going to react. Certainty is comforting to voters.
In any other situation, Donald Trump wouldn’t have any chance in a general election. He is a flawed candidate with plenty of negatives. Right now, when you capture voter sentiment across the United States, 65 percent of the country has a negative opinion of Donald Trump. Seems like a non-starter doesn’t it?
But both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton are equally flawed candidates in their own ways. Trump’s biggest saving grace is the fact Hillary Clinton has a 55 percent negative rating, and Bernie Sanders is right there too. The Democrats are in the position where they don’t have anyone they can put up against Donald Trump who could put him away. (Where are you, Joe Biden)?
If your negative number is 65 percent, the only thing you need to do to win is making your opponent’s negative number 66 percent. Turning it around is a waste of your time, and it’s not necessary.
So brace yourselves, because we are being set up for a race to the bottom. I predict right now the general election, assuming it to be a faceoff between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, will be the most brutal political race we have ever seen. I like an entertaining political brawl as much as anyone, but this will be more like a bare-knuckle underground cage fight.
What might derail this from coming to pass? If Donald Trump doesn’t carry a fairly large majority of total delegates into the Republican nominating convention, the so-called “sane” Republicans will band together to try and take him out. The arcane rules are wide open to a group that knows what it’s doing. Trump is at a disadvantage here. He either needs to hire the right wonk squad, or start wheeling and dealing fast. He can promise judgeships and ambassadorships or similar prizes in exchange for sticking with him.
Where we stand in mid-March, I still believe Trump’s odds of winning the Republican nomination are 50-50. But I had him at 10 percent when he first entered the race.