Ever since Republican billionaire Donald Trump announced his presidential candidacy last summer, political analysts have been asking if he will become the party’s nominee.
At first, it was a mere musing – an entertaining abstract haphazardly tossed around and “evaluated.” But that initial stage of amusement and mockery soon evolved into semi-seriousness when, within days of Trump’s announcement, he was already faring unexpectedly high in the polls – coming in second only to Jeb Bush, the initial GOP Establishment favorite. But whatever credibility Trump received from that was quickly supplemented with a large dosage of skepticism. After all, Jeb Bush was still coming in first place, and other outsiders such as retired John Hopkins neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson were polling right alongside Trump. Conservative radio talk shows and right-wing media outlets such as Fox News had been promoting far-right pundits for years, and so early signs showing spikes of candidates parroting such rhetoric was to be expected. In short, the “Trump phenomenon” was viewed as a fleeting phase that would be sure to pass.
That’s when the panic started settling in. Polls shortly thereafter began showing Trump in the first place. And not only was the mogul ahead of all his competitors, but Jeb Bush dropped down steeply. The second and third place slots began filling in with Ben Carson and Ted Cruz – candidates that were less outspoken than Mr. Trump but were considered outsiders nonetheless.
In no time at all, the first GOP Debate, hosted by Fox News, was to begin. The final cut for the main stage eligibility was determined by the average of five national polls, all of which had Trump on top. This was perhaps the beginning spark of Trump’s fire. People began talking. “Trump will actually be on that debate stage.” The concept just seemed so bizarre; no one could quite internalize it. Voters’ memories failed to recall any such occurrence in recent political history. Sure, there had always been the Rick Santorums and Mike Huckabees. There had even been anti-Establishment threats such as Ron Paul. But the thing all these past candidates had in common was something that Trump sorely lacked in: coherence. In addition, these politicians were precisely that: politicians.
However, that abstract phase and disbelief materialized into reality. Sure enough, the August 6th date arrived, and there was Trump on the stage – polished and composed amid a sea of Republican spectators, Fox News pundits, and his fellow politicians he would be competing against (if you could even call Trump a “politician” at that point). It was not an easy night for Trump. He was targeted disproportionately, particularly by soon-to-be rival Megyn Kelly. Fox News grilling him was probably twofold in intent: In the immediate sense, there was the entertainment and rating factor; everyone was looking forward to seeing Trump, after all. But on a secondary, more subtle level, there was likely an agenda to “knock him out” immediately – to “kill two birds with one stone” by highlighting that any hope Trump had been fueling via his populist rhetoric was tantamount to baseless dribble.
But that’s not what happened – at all. Instead, online polling from numerous sources indicated that viewers believed Trump was the victor of the night. Not only that, but people were flooding Fox News’ servers and Megyn Kelly’s Facebook page to protest the mistreatment of their beloved icon, with many even threatening a boycott of Kelly’s show.
Fast forward sometime later. February 1, 2016. It was the Iowa Caucus, the first voting contest of the election season. It had been some seven months since Trump had first announced his candidacy. In the time gap between then and Iowa, much had elapsed. Numerous debates had been held, many Trump attack ads had been launched, and several Trump boycotts had been announced by influential companies such as Macy’s and Univision. In addition, in what would eventually become a standard course of ritual, Mr. Trump made several controversial remarks. This began on the day of his announcement with accusations that the Mexican government was deliberately sending over their border “their worst,” some of which comprised “rapists” as well as people exporting crime and drugs. Moreover, on July 11, 2015, in Arizona, in the first major political rally of his campaign, he promised something which would eventually become a trademark point of his campaign: building a wall along the US-Mexican border and making Mexico pay for it. Other controversial and inflammatory remarks spouting from the business mogul included degrading John McCain’s Vietnam war hero status (“I like people who weren’t caught”), potentially suggesting Megyn Kelly’s grilling of his remarks regarding women was prompted by her period (“there was blood coming out of her wherever”), insulting Carly Fiorina’s looks (“look at that face!…”), kicking out protesters from his rallies, failing to critique a man at his rally for asserting the US was facing a problem of Muslims and that Barack Obama is one, mocking a New York Times disabled reporter, retweeeting several white supremacists, and suggesting American Muslims be placed on a registry and that foreign Muslims be banned temporarily from the country.
And all that was merely before Iowa. That trend would continue throughout the cycle. Yet, from day one until Iowa, Trump’s poll numbers would continue to rise – from a mere 17% nationally in mid-July, to an astounding 41% in the week preceding Iowa. In the jumbled rush of media polling in the time leading up to Iowa, however, Ted Cruz was making a surprising and subtle comeback. He was still behind by a respectable percentage though, so nobody really expected Trump to be usurped.
But they were wrong. At long last February 1st arrived, and Iowa caucused. The results were shocking. Ted Cruz was declared the winner – by a margin of over 3 points and over 6,000 votes. Trump came in at second place with a petty 24.3% of the vote, trailed not far behind by Marco Rubio with 23.1% of the vote. It was only the first and third place that the media focused on thereafter. Cruz’s win was seen as proof that Trump could be defeated and that all the polling and fervor backing his rise beforehand was ephemeral and moot. And Rubio’s surprise performance – leaving behind his closest competitor, Ben Carson, at about 15% below him – gave a renewed faith in an Establishment candidate, who would be quick to replace the role Jeb Bush functioned as at the beginning of the election cycle. In a nutshell, the conclusions, while argued and analyzed with nuance, seemed to at the very least be entertaining the notion that Trump’s demise would be imminent.
Again, they were mistaken. It turned out that the only fleeting political reality in the election was a Trump loss. Soon enough, the New Hampshire primary came along with Trump winning a landslide victory – more than double the votes and percentage of the runner-up, John Kasich. Kasich’s runner-up status, coupled with Rubio’s poor performance, was also a new wave of nerve wrecking for the Establishment: It highlighted that the top tier performers seemed to have the ability to unpredictably fluctuate. It also demonstrated that Rubio may not have turned out to be the performer they had hoped for (he came in fifth place with just over 10% of the vote). Yet the pundits, analysts, and elites tried to assuage their anxiety. More debates and advertisement time would come, they argued – and besides, New Hampshire was tailored for Trump: overwhelmingly white, politically largely Independent, industrial, and secular. But the polling was already showing Trump dominating in the South with the exception of Texas (Cruz’s home state), and the tension was tangible.
Sure enough, along came the South Carolina primary, which Trump swept. Not much later was the Nevada caucus, where Trump again won by large margins. He even managed to garner the same percentage points as Cruz and Rubio combined among GOP Hispanics in the state – which is a novelty if you consider that both these candidates are of Cuban descent and that Trump had been accused of for months prior of anti-Hispanic rhetoric. By now, people were already anticipating the reality the Trump was posed to become the GOP nominee. That sentiment was further cemented when Super Tuesday came along on March 1st, with Trump coming away with decisive wins in all of the eleven states with the exception of Cruz’s home state, Texas, and neighboring Oklahoma. Still, while Texas is the largest red state and a colossal prize, Cruz’s win over there was expected. Trump was still pretty much in sync with the polls and on the path to the nomination.
In the next few elections prior to the big prize election of March 15th (which had Ohio and Florida up for grabs), Trump walked away with victories in nearly all of them. The ones he lost were few and contained an insignificant number of delegates. By this time, practically everyone other than Rubio, Kasich, and Cruz had dropped out. And the pressure was already building on Rubio to drop out. Rubio persisted his tragedy hinged upon a victory in his home state, Florida – which is a winner takes all state that awards 99 delegates. However, again, the polls were predicting a Trump victory – and again Trump was in sync. March 15th came around with Trump sweeping victories in Florida and the rest of the states up for grabs, with the exception of Kasich’s home state of Ohio. Rubio, to the dismay of the Republican Establishment and its moderate base, dropped out. At that point, Cruz and Kasich desperately attempted to hang on in an attempt to prevent Trump from clinching the 1,237 pledged delegates needed to avoid a contested convention, but after the Indiana Primary on May 3rd, the math inevitably pointed to a Trump nomination. Cruz proceeded to drop out the same night, and Kasich followed suit the following day.
Like swatted flies, one by one, Trump’s challengers fell. Barrages of media and celebrity critique, protesters swarming events, and rebuke from GOP icon politicians such as Mitt Romney and Trump’s former challengers seemed to amount to nothing. The man’s momentum could not be stopped. If anything, the more these resistances emerged, the more Trump blossomed in some “reverse psychology” adverse reaction. What had started off as an outspoken reality TV celebrity going on Twitter tantrums criticizing Democrats and leading the Obama “birther movement” culminated in listening to his followers’ request to run, and succeeding at it. He temporarily flirted with a presidential run in 2012, but hastily opted out. At the time people thought it was just a spontaneous flaring of his ego with no genuine desire etched beneath. President Obama even roasted him for it at the White House Correspondent Dinner. But the desire was there, and it resurfaced in this election cycle – and caught fire.
So what exactly is it about Trump that is so mesmerizing? What is it that compels people to support him passionately and view him as a messianic underdog, despite the bullying, illiteracy in policy, limited vocabulary, flip-flopping, vulgarity, and indecisiveness? Well, there are a few answers.
For one, it should be noted that despite all of the aforementioned criticisms, Trump does actually have policy positions. Whether it is achievable or not is a different story, but the notion that his general political spectrum is unknown is simply untrue. There is no denying that Trump can often flip-flop within a limited scope, but there is a general fabric underlying his thought process. Trump can be described as a moderate – far right on certain limited issues, sure, but overall operating in an “in between” of traditional Republican and Democratic rhetoric. On social-religious issues, he reiterates some of the typical Republican beliefs such as marriage being between man and woman and abortion being bad. But he also isn’t all obsessive about gay marriage and seems to be passive about the issue entirely, most likely leaving it up to the Courts to leave as is if he were to become president. He has also defended Planned Parenthood in a very moderate sort of tone uncommon among even GOP-favored candidates, making mention of the majority of positive services they provide for female health care in spite of their abortion practices (which he criticized). In a recent surprise twist of events, he came out against the controversial North Carolina bathroom bill, which would coerce transexuals to use the bathroom which aligns with their gender on their birth certificate. He even said he would allow Caitlyn Jenner to use any bathroom of her choice at Trump Tower – an offer which Jenner promptly accepted and documented on Instagram.
It is this sort of quasi-liberalism on such issues – the “New York values” which Ted Cruz accused him of in the GOP Debates – which allowed Trump to tap into a broader electorate than the mainstream GOP had seen in recent political history, or indeed ever. Indeed, in heavily Independent, white states such as New Hampshire, voters were grappling with whether to support Donald Trump or far leftist and socialist candidate Bernie Sanders. Such a phenomenon would seem absurd to the casual observer, but anyone analyzing the strings of different ideas that have webbed together to form Trump’s framework would say otherwise.
And yet, despite his “New York values” and secularism, the traditional far right was still mostly able to be reigned in by Trump. One might ask how he managed to do this without being called a “RINO” (Republican In Name Only) or “traitor,” as many Republican moderates such John McCain and Lindsey Graham had been accused of. The answer lies in the several deviation points which have come to serve as the trademark of the Trump campaign. These are right-wing social values, but not religious in nature. They include an unprecedented crackdown on illegal immigration via a deportation force, fencing the border, denying Muslim refugees entrance, fighting back against NATO’s exploitation of American resources, bringing back jobs from overseas, combating the Chinese competition in the world economy, and improving relations with Russia (whom many on the right view as the “politically incorrect” savior of white culture from Islamism and neo-liberalism).
On foreign policy negotiation, Trump once more highlights his unique moderate approach. On the Iran Deal, for example, he would not “tear it up and restore sanctions” – as most on the right have touted – but instead, he would redo negotiations, be tougher, and actually plan to close surveillance compliance and crack down on any deviation. He takes a similar approach with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, asserting that he would be “neutral” and bring both sides together for an earnest solution, but that he will also not artificially pressure Israel or ever compromise on its security. Neither has he shied away from criticizing Palestinian culture of incitement, or the passive-aggressive treatment the Obama administration had shown Israel and Prime Minister Netanyahu. Another example where Trump’s foreign policy deviates from traditional GOP conventional rhetoric is in his support of maintaining relations with Cuba.
In conclusion, when all is said and done, what an analysis of Trump’s policy highlights is that a unique combination of moderation in issues which voters are not likely to care much about, coupled with a disproportionately strong emphasis on issues they do care about, creates a historically unseen electorate within the GOP. It could also be seen that Trump’s “political incorrectness” and emphasis on practical economic and security concerns of citizens, have made him of a savior of American Patriotism among white voters. This would explain why Trump manages to win many Independents and even a respectable amount of Democrats, though they are mostly white. His passive stance on religious-social issues is enough to not turn off centrists from across the political spectrum in the way that, say, Cruz would, while at the same time being benign and irrelevant enough to right wingers to ignore. Sure, right-wing southerners don’t like gay marriage or the idea of going to the bathroom alongside transexuals, but that doesn’t affect their lives much – nor is it a common occurrence. In contrast, things like the blissful hope of a prosperous economy, of the renewed prestige of the USA in the world’s eye, and a secure country free of “job stealing, marauding illegal aliens” is something people will passionately come out in historic numbers for. And those yearnings and aspirations apply even to Independents and Democrats – albeit white ones who are not personally worried about ethnic or religious persecution.
Still, it is precisely the appeal of Trump to nearly exclusively white voters which poses a major detriment to his path forward against presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Trump’s increasingly-exposed lack of coherence and resistance from the “Never Trump” movement within his own party will prove extremely challenging as well, especially if he wishes to capitalize on the white vote to come out with a victory in November.
To be sure, despite the pundits in the mainstream insisting otherwise, Donald Trump could absolutely be victorious. What the polls showcasing a double-digit lead on Clinton’s part fail to mention is both the profound effect Bernie Sanders’ outing will have on splitting the Democratic vote (nearly a third of Sanders supporters have vowed to join the #BernieOrBust movement, opting instead to either write in Sanders or vote for third-party candidate Jill Stein of the Green Party). In contrast, Trump has a devoted and enthusiastic coalition at his helm – and although libertarian Gary Johnson could be said to be the Jill Stein of Republicans, he will likely deviate fewer Republicans than Stein would Democrats. Even disenfranchised Cruz, Rubio, and Kasich supporters will, for the most part, prefer Trump to Hillary. As for the minority who will be so dissatisfied with the extent of opting to sit out, they will still not actively vote for Hillary – which is a plus for Trump.
In addition, the polls fail to reflect upon how the Electoral College works. The Electoral College has each state being a winner-take-all system. Meaning, the allotted number of delegates each state has is given once a majority of voters in the state choose a candidate. So, if say, 100% of California votes for Hillary Clinton, they would get the allotted delegate number for the state – the same if merely 51% voted Hillary Clinton. As a result, millions of voters’ votes are technically irrelevant, and thus, one can emerge victorious while still losing the popular vote. Some are predicting this will the case for Trump. It can be assumed minorities in states deemed blue will come out in historically unseen numbers to vote against Trump – but even if this is so, it will be irrelevant, since those states will go blue at any rate. The main battle ultimately becomes focused on the handful of swing states. In these areas, Trump seems to have a good fighting chance, though there is still much unpredictability. Florida, for instance – a traditional hotbed of competition, and which voted for Obama during the last election – will almost certainly go to Trump. Trump left the state with over a million votes – the most by far of any candidate, including Democrats. He also has the support of the governor, has roots in the state (his secondary home is in Palm Beach), and is more likely to perform favorably with the state’s Hispanics who are heavily Cuban as opposed to Mexican or Central American.
Nevada also seems to be a likely area of Trump success, given Trump’s performance there, his anti-illegal immigration appeal in the state, and his historic and business ties there. Ohio is another big prize in the arena of the contested state. While Kasich was victorious there, Trump still received more votes than both Hillary and Bernie. The question is if the approximately one million Kasich voters will disperse to Hillary or Trump, but it is much more likely they will go in higher numbers to Trump. That’s not to even mention that Trump will nearly certainly get almost all of Cruz’s 267,000 voters, and a decent slice of Rubio and even Bernie voters. Trump will also certainly take the state is Kasich agrees to be his vice president, which is possible. Other swing states such as Colorado and especially New Hampshire seem within Trump’s grasp. Moreover, even Virginia can go to Trump if he coalesces the Rubio supporters and a chunk of Sanders supporters behind him. But, as with everything surrounding Trump, it is very uncertain and anything can happen.
It is precisely that uncertainty which can lead to Trump’s fall from grace, however.
Up until Ted Cruz lost in Indiana and dropped out, there was a decent chance for a contested convention – and a decent chance that, at that convention, delegates would choose someone other than Trump. If that were to have happened, though, it would have produced an excruciating dilemma for the GOP: Either select Trump against their conscience and forevermore tarnish the GOP’s legitimacy and down ticket favorability, or boycott Trump and effectively ensure the boycott of millions of voters come November, and potential rioting and party abandonment. To put it frankly – not a good situation to be put in. Thankfully for the GOP, though, Trump’s momentum outperformed expectation, prompting his challengers to drop out and allowing for the GOP to not have to make an active decision of compliance or opposition.
It was the GOP’s saving grace, however, which may have been the prologue to the downfall of Trump’s legacy.
Consider this: Either Trump wins, or he loses. And he could get ruined no matter which the outcome. If he wins, he may well prove to be the modern Reagan – a less polished and refined Reagan, to be sure, but an underdog conservative nonetheless who would be an achiever and improve himself during his presidency. But there’s also a very good chance that instead of acting in accordance with the occasional signs of ambition and coherence that shine from Trump, he will instead act in sync with his vulgarity, indecisiveness, illiteracy, buffoonery, and so forth. If that will be the case, there is no doubt he will only last four years (assuming he doesn’t get impeached), and that his legacy will be disastrous. The alternative to him winning, though, would be even worse. A Trump loss would regenerate the majority of the country who hold an unfavorable view of him, and he will forevermore be the brunt of mockery and scorn – perhaps becoming the male version of Sarah Palin. Irrelevancy would be sure to follow.
In contrast, a contested convention that would nominate a candidate other than Trump might have been great for Trump in the long run – and indeed what he himself may have preferred deep down. Such a move would effectively transform Trump into a political martyr. His base would defiantly stay by his side long past November, and he would be an oft-invited guest on numerous talk shows and media outlets. Even his adversaries who would gloat in his usurpation would still remember him as the man who had a colossal army behind him and had the theoretical potential to emerge from the elections victorious. Moreover, does Trump really want to become president? Sure, he does already get up early, work hard, and has experience dealing with pressure and endeavors. But very few would deny that it is the ability to be able to sprout opinions with impunity, and without having to deliver, which Trump enjoys most. The moment his words are put to the test, and he has to deal with grueling technicalities and bureaucracies, is the moment Trump may finally be honest with himself and think, “I don’t want this.” But of course, he will never tarnish his ego by preemptively suspending his campaign or quitting once in office.
The question that remains, however, is if a contested convention which threw him under the bus might have been in his interest and good for his future – and the answer is quite possibly yes.