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Trump's Shock Strategy Works, Until It Backfires

Trump's Shock Strategy Works, Until It Backfires

By    |   Thursday, 03 March 2016 11:18 AM

Many Trump followers love that he doesn’t care about being called racist, misogynist, xenophobic, etc. They’re sick of the media demanding that every Republican in the land disavow some dumb thing said by someone they’ve never heard of.

They’re happy when Trump won’t “play the game,” as they keep tweeting at me, including when Donald Trump waffled on denouncing former Klan leader David Duke on CNN this past weekend. Given his big wins two days later, on Super Tuesday, his followers are likely to see vindication that this strategy works.

But this strategy “works” only in a narrow, shortsighted sense. Such thinking is likely to cost the party the election, and saddle Trump and his supporters with costly baggage that will make it harder for them to achieve their goals in this or any other election cycle.

That starts with an observation: Politics is a long game. It’s no good just sweeping up some support, getting your guys in office, and passing some laws. What’s to stop the Other Guys from waiting until you get bored, and unpassing those same laws? There is, to be sure, some amount of stickiness in politics, but certain laws are stickier than others. In particular, laws that require active, ongoing efforts (like border enforcement) are a lot harder to keep around than things that just involve, say, telling the federal computers to send bigger checks to various program beneficiaries.

That means that politicians need to stick around. This is what game theorists call a repeat game. And the thing about repeat games is that you can’t just think about winning the next round; you have to think about what happens in the next round, and the round after that.

Trump has won the early rounds of this race. But you have to remember all the things that had to line up for this to happen: a crowded field that didn’t winnow as fast as it should have, the lack of a beloved ex-president who could rally the party around an establishment figure; Jeb Bush’s insane decision to run with his toxic last name, and then spend over $100 million of donor money attacking everyone but Trump.

Sean Trende and David Byler argue that he was effectively the only candidate in one of the four “lanes” of Republican politics, so he consolidated a lot of support while other folks were trying to claim more crowded lanes.

But he’s also had a particular, weird skill that really helped him: Trump was able to use his monopolization of media attention through outrageous statements to keep that consolidation from happening in other lanes, because no one else could get enough attention to become the obvious choice for the voter base they were pursuing. By the time the race consolidated, it was too late.

But before you start hailing his brilliance, you have to ask yourself why no other candidate has done this in living memory.

Trump is just starting to find out what other politicians have long known: being a front-runner is very different from being a loudmouth in a crowded field. As I remarked after his debate debacle, Trump is not good at debating; he’s good at getting attention, which is valuable when there are 19 people trying to get noticed.

But the way he goes about getting that attention is going to be a negative when he’s one on one, and he can no longer “win” by depriving the other candidate of media oxygen. As the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton is going to get just as much airtime as he will.

Trump's debate performance in a shrunken field was so bad that his praise of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi went nearly unnoticed because of all the other cringe-worthy moments. Next summer and fall, however, it will not. It will be running on every screen in the country, as Democrats point out that under Qaddafi, Libya accepted responsibility for the airplane bomb that killed 189 Americans.

They’ll be running that Klan clip to horrify Americans and to drive up black turnout. All of those attention-getting, outrageous statements that his supporters loved, the ones that helped him dominate the primary, are going to come back to bite him in the general. Along with all the baggage, such as Trump University, that is only now coming out for Trump, in contrast to the other viable GOP candidates, who have gone through the standard press vetting that any Senate candidate gets. Trump eluded that until now simply because no one really thought he could win.

But Trump fans want to shout at me: He is winning! Ah yes. In low-turnout elections, a very small fraction of highly motivated supporters can swing things. At the moment, Donald Trump has collected about 3.3 million votes, with about a third of the states having voted.

To win a general, he’s going to need another 55 million or so. And as I noted a few months back, the bigger the coalition you need, the more blandly inoffensive you have to be: the political equivalent of Applebee's, or Olive Garden, or TGI Fridays.

Trump is not doing that. His strategy is all primary, no general. It clearly works … for certain values of the word “work,” which would probably not include “winning a general election” or “winning re-election before the folks with pitchforks descend to chase you out of town.”

And indeed, that’s what we’re already seeing with Trump. He’s alienated a substantial chunk of the Republican base pretty badly, so badly they coalesced into the #NeverTrump swarm. That means he needs more independent voters or disaffected Democrats. Which his primary strategy makes him less likely to pick up.

To sum up: Trump looks like the Teflon candidate largely because none of the traditional political tools have yet been deployed against him. In four short days between Thursday and Tuesday, simply by attacking him loud and long, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz managed to check his momentum and deny him an expected 11-state sweep on Super Tuesday; if Kasich hadn’t been in, Rubio would have won Virginia as well. on Tuesday, before the results came in, I mentally composed a tweet to commemorate the results: “Things fall apart, the ceiling cannot hold.”

Then it held; Trump remains stuck around 35 percent, even as the field winnows (bye, Ben Carson!) and his front-runner status ought to be creating momentum.

Meanwhile, his front-runner status means that he is no longer going to be immune from those traditional attacks. His support may begin to slip in the primary, as his opponents finally start doing what they long ago would have done to any other front-runner: hammering him with every bit of oppo research, and rolling out those negative ads.

Even if they don’t, the Democrats certainly will. These ads will be devastating. Most Americans already dislike him even more than they dislike Hillary Clinton, even though most of them probably don’t yet know about the Klan gaffe or the fraud trial. By November, I guarantee that they will.

Which means that casting a vote for Trump in the primary most likely means you’re casting a vote for Hillary Clinton in the general. Trump supporters wrote to me to ask whether #NeverTrump folks understood that not backing Trump was equivalent to backing Clinton. They should start asking themselves whether backing Trump is also equivalent to backing Clinton. 

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes on economics, business and public policy. To read more of her blogs, CLICK HERE NOW.

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Many Trump followers love that he doesn't care about being called racist, misogynist, xenophobic, etc. They're sick of the media demanding that every Republican in the land disavow some dumb thing said by someone they've never heard of.
donald trump, shock, strategy, president
Thursday, 03 March 2016 11:18 AM
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