It’s becoming more and more apparent that Donald Trump isn’t a political dimwit (you can add “anymore” after this statement if you want). Love him, hate him, or if you just enjoy watching insiders shake with existential dread, Donald Trump has proven himself to be a political heavyweight.
What do I mean here? Is this just a read on the polls and crowd size or are we talking about something more than just energizing people and dealing to common populist anxiety?
Certainly we can start with the polls. Punditry gets paid for clicks and stories so predicting the fall of Donald Trump has been an on-and-off storyline comingled with “how did we miss this Trump phenomenon” stories. The truth of the matter is, with less than three weeks until the people of Iowa go to the polls, Trump has been leading in national surveys for almost eight months. The “flavor of the month” analysis died sometime around October of 2015. We saw a Carson pop and a Fiorina pop, but nothing has had the 25-30% staying power as the New York billionaire.
The cult of personality around the real estate mogul-turned reality television star has been enough to get him around a quarter or a third of the Republican electorate. Whether this support is drawn from disaffection among Republicans with the Party’s insiders or whether it really is a positive reception of Trump’s proposals seems to be still up for debate.
What is not up for debate is the significant impact Trump has had on the shape of the race.
First was Trump’s takedown of Jeb Bush. The oft-cited pop-culture rule for establishing dominance (usually on prison-themed television shows) is to beat the biggest, baddest guy on your first day. Jeb Bush announced his Presidential bid on June 15, 2015. Donald Trump announced the day after, effectively stealing the media thunder from the presumptive establishment nominee. Jeb was supposed to coast to the nomination with mild challenges from the likes of Scott Walker and maybe Rand Paul (alas, the old days of early 2015, we were so naïve).
Tolkein-esque, the Eye of Trump turned its gaze first on Jeb Bush (yes, there were other spats with also-rans, but Trump had his sights set on the top). Immediately the criticisms of Bush began to fly. While policy and name criticisms got Trump in front of cameras, the most-repeated of Trump’s criticisms was just that Bush was “low energy.” Now, that might not seem like a big deal. In fact, as far as a Trumpian insult goes, it’s a softball. However, it was the one that stuck. Conservative media, generally discontented with the Jeb-as-Inevitable storyline, picked up every feed of a Bush townhall and showed close-ups of audience members falling asleep. Tiny attendance and disinterested “supporters” played right into Trump’s narrative. Bush, a numbers guy who has been out of governance for a decade, was taken totally aback and his campaign has been on the verge of total collapse ever since.
Was the takedown of the Bush campaign savvy politics on behalf of Trump, or was it that the conservative media decided that they had a great opportunity in the rise of Trump to decapitate the establishment’s control over the nominating process? Originally, I would have said the latter over the former. Trump’s scattershot attacks seemed like wild thrashing for attention. Especially at the outset (before his numbers took off), he seemed as a blind David with an endless supply of tiny pebbles hoping to bring down Goliath. Which, like his sighted Biblical counterpart, eventually, of course, he did. Now whether Trump becomes King is still unwritten.
As the race has progressed, Trump has used his earned media pulpit to effectively put a fire blanket over the rest of the GOP race. When candidates are interviewed, they wind up having to answer questions about Trump. Trump dominates because Trump sells clicks and brings in revenue to news sources. The regular debate of ideas present in previous campaigns likely went out the window for media sources when they saw just how large of an audience Donald Trump could bring to a Presidential debate. The candidacies of nuanced ideological candidates like Rand Paul, Lindsey Graham, and even Scott Walker, were suffocated before they could engage with voters.
Enter 2016 and the sprint to Iowa and New Hampshire. In New Hampshire, unless Rubio beats Trump in Iowa or three establishment candidates drop out, it looks like Trump has a lock on that race. In looking at the numbers, and Cruz’s potential for a win in Iowa and a big delegate haul on Super Tuesday, we know that Trump is aiming to take on Cruz. Now, will this be blindly aiming, or is there a method to the madness?
However, Trump’s attacks on Ted Cruz, who leads the billionaire in the important first contest of the primary season in Iowa, belie that Trump’s attacks may be less ad hoc than they may have otherwise appeared. Let’s focus on the main lines of Trump’s critique of Cruz: 1) Cruz was born in Canada and might not be constitutionally qualified to be President; 2) Cruz failed to report loans from investment banks when he ran for Senate; and 3) Cruz’s offhand comment about “New York values” are insulting and show he’s out of touch.
Let’s talk about each (in reverse order). Capitalizing on “New York values” may have been the single, smartest political move for Trump. At last week’s debate, it seemed like it was an answer Trump was ready to give and it was both humanizing for Trump and painted Cruz as someone who would say anything to win an election (if you forgot Trump’s answer, he said Cruz’s comment was insulting because New York Values are the ones that the world watched play out in the heroism and aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks). Not only was this a moment of humanizing for Trump, but it also capitalized on several problems for Cruz: first, that he went to Harvard; second, that he’s familiar with a lot of New York fundraisers; and, third, that Cruz has openly toned down his rhetoric when talking with New Yorkers. Moreover, Trump knows better than anyone on the stage that “New York” controls the media. With a huge number of reporters and outlets based in New York, Trump’s decision to pit Cruz against the media immediately got Trump favorable coverage from even those media sources that routinely disagree with Trump. It also made sure that Cruz got major negative press and forced him into damage control in the lead up to Iowa.
Trump’s second focus, that Cruz failed to disclose a loan from Goldman Sachs to his Senate campaign was handled well by Cruz in the debate, until it broke the day after that there was yet another million-dollar loan that Cruz didn’t properly note on his filings. This is Trump’s play to the same populist anger that has made him the champion of the anti-establishment forces in the GOP. “Cruz is a hypocrite pretending to be one of us, but he’s actually one of them.” It’s odd that Trump has the moral high ground when it comes to money, but the billionaire has been forthright (even though it’s not entirely accurate) that he intends to self-finance his campaign. Ted Cruz’s taking the loans probably wouldn’t have been much of a story except for the apparent paperwork error in disclosure. Now, Trump can play up the fact that it looks like Cruz was trying to hide the fact that he was getting support from big money donors.
Finally, and what seems like the most ridiculous criticism, is Trump’s concern that Cruz is ineligible for the Presidency because he was born in Canada. While Cruz’s exact situation has not been litigated, it appears that Cruz should not have a problem with the “natural born citizen” clause. Trump’s assertion that he knows some lawyers who disagree is a fairly weak point. However, like saying that Jeb is “low energy,” calling out Cruz on the birther issue has forced Cruz and his campaign to spend time responding to Trump on the concern and has made Trump look like he’s just a “concerned citizen.”
So, what does all of this have to do with Trump being a good politician? Doubt. In each of the aforementioned areas, whether New York values, loans from bankers, or Ted Cruz’s place of birth, the facts are less important than the implication: Ted Cruz isn’t qualified, you can’t trust him. Donald Trump doesn’t need to release a dossier proving all of his “concerns” about Cruz. In fact, it’s better that they are ephemeral. He wants voters to be sitting around talking about the candidates and when Cruz’s name comes up for Cruz to be defined as a “politician” or “I’m just not sure about him.”
In recent polls, Donald Trump’s best statistic isn’t his actual polling score, it’s that his voters are typically the most stalwartly committed to their candidate. Usually north of 60% of Trump voters are firmly decided that they will vote Trump. By putting doubt into the minds of voters with respect to his closest opponents, Trump is lowering that confidence score. Especially in Iowa where caucus attendees talk about their candidates, Trump is hoping that the fervor for Cruz will diminish at just the right point for Trump to be able to take the State (by an albeit slim majority).
Now, we get to see if Trump’s seeds of doubt were effective enough to yield him a win in Iowa or if voters can thresh out their version of Cruz from the Trumpian chaff.