I wanted to discuss a couple questions I keep getting asked.
First, couldn’t Trump’s sky-high poll numbers just not pan out if he has no ground game in the early or even the primary states?
No, this is not the case.
First, for non-political types, ground game just means a level of field organization (and increasingly a data component to the field organization) that can be effectively used to turn out voters on election day. Field operations are a big, big deal. Campaigns spend huge amounts of money building them and for good reason.
But here’s the big ‘but’ … With the exception of Iowa where the rules are so complicated and participation time-consuming, field organization only matters for, say, 1% to 5% of the vote margin. Going into a 2012 Romney v Obama election day, the chance to gain or lose up to 5% of your vote means everything. But in the case of Trump we’re talking about a candidate who may have anywhere from a 10 to 20 point margin over the next runner up. If Donald Trump goes into, say, New Hampshire, with a durable 15 point lead, he’s going to win. Period.
By and large people don’t need to be told to vote or how to vote. They vote. They know how to do it.
This isn’t an either/or. There are all sorts of advantages at the margins, which campaigns can and do make use of. You can isolate your most sporadically voting supporters and focus on them to work to get them to the polls. The key is that these advantages are at the margins. If the polls say you’re winning at blow-out margins, ground game is not going to make the difference.
I would say that I do hear isolated reports that the Trump campaign actually is building a ground operation more than people realize. And they should. Because they cannot count on those poll numbers holding up. But again, if you’ve got blow out numbers, ground game won’t matter.
Second, who is the best Republican nominee for Democrats to run against?
People reflexively say that the person you think is going to be awesome to run against is the person who is going to turn around and beat you. This is dubious cliche turned into conventional wisdom. Sure, that can happen. But not usually. Campaigns have a reasonably good sense of the strengths and weaknesses of their potential opponents.
But let me suggest a slightly dissident evaluation. While I think both Donald Trump and Ted Cruz would quite likely be historically weak general election candidates, I think it’s quite likely that Ted Cruz would fair worse.
Let me explain.
Trump has managed to deeply alienate huge chunks of the electorate: Hispanics, African-Americans, women, Muslims and immigrants generally. (He could well be declared emperor of middle aged white men. But there are no longer enough of them to elect emperors.) There’s also a more diffuse but wider-spread cross section of the population that appears (not surprisingly) to find him too offensive, illiberal or clownish to be suitable to be president – even if they have not been on the direct receiving end of his bile.
But there are potential advantages Trump has that I think we should not entirely discount. First, Trump is not a conservative. Indeed, I don’t think he’s particularly ideological at all. By this I don’t mean that everything he says is a put-on or that he’s a closet liberal. What I mean is that his big issues are anti-immigration (something conservative elites are at best uncomfortable with), opposition to “loser” free trade agreements (something conservative elites completely disagree on) and frankly, racism (I’ll leave people to decide this on their own). Note too that often when Trump is talking about the failure of the aggressive unilateralism that characterized the Bush years, he talks about the need to rebuild the national infrastructure – bridges, roads, etc. This is Democratic talk – and conservative ideologues know it.
Not only do these points give conservative elites a lot of concern about how a President Trump might govern, they also give him a lot options in a general election. What’s more, since I don’t think Trump has many fixed ideological convictions and since he doesn’t seem bound to any of the typical conventions of consistency or propriety, I think it’s entirely plausible that Trump could dramatically change his pitch in a general election.
None of this makes me think he could win a general election. But if he toned down the racist incitement and immigration bashing and focused on failed free trade agreements, American decline and bringing the money back home to rebuild crumbling infrastructure, this is a platform that I believe could have significant cross-over appeal to independents and even Democrats. After all, major public investment in infrastructure is practically the Holy Grail of Democratic economic policy.
This means there’s a significant wild card factor to a Trump nomination.
The other point is likability. It’s really hard to say that Trump is likable after shaming Hillary Clinton for using the bathroom or saying Mexican immigrants are “rapists.” But let’s go back to what we might call the Apprentice Trump era. Back then, I think many Americans saw Trump as a sort of clownish but entertaining figure – perhaps even likable in a surreal sort of way. (If this weren’t the case, his show would not have been as successful as it once was.) If you are a second generation Mexican-American or an educated woman, I’m sure any such likability is totally lost on you. And with good reason.
But not everyone is so political and not everyone has such long memories.
My point is that a mix of ideological chameleon-ness, appeal to more populist and even Democratic agenda items and a surreal but non-trivial level of charm, mean that for all his weakness he could shake up the normal political alignments and even have cross over appeal that add a real element of unpredictability.
Cruz, on the other hand, is not likable. And thoroughly unlikeable people do not win the presidency.
As I’ve written, in part from personal experience, there does not seem to be any social milieu in which Cruz has spent any amount of time in in which virtually everyone didn’t dislike him. College, Law School, high profile legal work, Senate, etc. He has the uncanny and almost ingenious ability to radiate both intensely grating insincerity with wildly convincing true-believer-ism. His political appeal is geared to people who are alienated and angry enough that the mix of aggression, indifference, and exploitativeness he radiates is one that these people can identify with.
Second is simply ideology. Cruz is way too rightwing for a national campaign. This is almost mathematical. He’s very right wing and unlike George W. Bush presents his hard right politics in a pure and unmediated form. That is a recipe for a staggering defeat in a national election. Just as importantly, I do not think Cruz is either temperamentally capable, interested or able to significant shift off those views in a general election. Part of it is character and part of it is simply that he’s created to long a paper trail. There is no credible softer, gentler Ted Cruz who cares about people like you.
He would certainly have impassioned and intense support from the base of his party and some of the more conservative elements of the financial services community – something that Trump might struggle with. But beyond that he would have great difficulty.
All this being said, I think Trump would likely fare worse than Cruz in a general election. But I don’t think that is necessarily the case. Cruz is predictable, unmovable and unlikable. I think we know how Cruz would fare. Trump might do significantly worse than we imagine but I also think he could do significantly better, mainly because of potential cross over appeal that is hard to understand in today’s climate of a new provocation every week.