Why Letting Trump Be Trump Is Killing His General Election Prospects

Donald Trump, frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination, addresses the crowd at the Aiken Theatre in the Old National Events Plaza in Evansville, Ind., Thursday afternoon.(Denny Simmons/Courier & Press via AP)
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Donald Trump promised he wasn’t going to change after becoming the presumptive GOP nominee. He hasn’t — or he can’t. It’s killing his electoral chances.

What worked for Trump in the GOP primaries isn’t work for him in the general election, where his brand of bombastic, xenophobic fear-mongering doesn’t play in front of a different audience of voters.

“He is bearing out what conventional wisdom would have, which is, once your audience changes, if you don’t adapt to the change, you can continue to do well with the audience that got you the nomination but that’s not a sufficient number to win you the general election,” pollster J. Ann Selzer said in an interview with TPM.

The latest round of top lines aren’t pretty for the real estate mogul. Selzer’s poll for Bloomberg Politics revealed Tuesday that likely voters nationwide preferred Clinton over Trump, 49 percent to 37 percent. Meanwhile, a Washington Post-ABC News survey published Wednesday showed that 70 percent of Americans viewed him unfavorably, with only 29 percent seeing him favorably.

Digging deeper into the poll numbers spells a more troubling truth for Trump: the same policy proposals, rhetorical approaches and posturing that boosted him in the Republican primaries are proving unpopular among a general election audience.

“There’s no evidence that he’s doing what most political analysts would agree he should be doing to try to expand his appeal,” Douglas Usher, a pollster for Purple Strategies, told TPM.

Take his proposal to ban Muslim immigration, for instance. When he first suggested it, the widespread condemnation he received — even from fellow GOPers — did not hurt his primary poll numbers, and about three-in-five Republicans supported the idea, both when it was rolled out and in GOP primary exit polls months later.

After hinting briefly last month that the ban was “just a suggestion,” Trump has doubled down on it, making it a hallmark of his stump speeches since this weekend’s Orlando attack.

The problem is general election voters never liked the Muslim ban and the reportedly Islamic State-inspired attack (though by a U.S.-born citizen) hasn’t changed that. Back in December, 60 percent of Americans said it was the “wrong thing to do” and only 36 percent supported it. Surveys taken since the Orlando attack showed that the overall disapproval continued, with 62 percent of Americans saying Muslims should not be banned in a CBS News poll.

But it’s not just specific proposals that are costing Trump general election support. It’s the whole way he goes about campaigning, or as Usher put it, his tendency to be “reactive” rather than exhibit message discipline.

“The biggest issue for him is not only is he reluctant to change the topic from ones that are weak for him, he doesn’t really care to change the topic, he would rather litigate everything,” Usher said.

His penchant for personal insults, tirades, and derogatory language never seemed to hurt him in the primary election. His polling numbers actually went up after he attacked Sen. John McCain’s record as a prisoner of war and after he hurled a whole litany of slurs at Fox News host Megyn Kelly, including one about “blood coming out of her wherever.”

Since claiming the top of the GOP ticket, Trump kicked off a similar cycle of controversy by launching a racially-tinged smear campaign against a federal judge. In this week’s Bloomberg poll, 55 percent of likely voters said Trump’s claims about the judge bothered them “a lot” and only 26 percent said they were bothered not at all by the claims.

“It’s not just that it bothers them, but that it bothers them a lot, so that’s actually higher than the 51 percent who were bothered by the Muslim ban,” Selzer said.

Trump’s reaction to the Orlando massacre has been akin to his response to previous tragedies, as he yet again, took an “I told you so” tone.

He himself has bragged that such attacks are great for his poll numbers. His primary poll numbers increased after the terrorist attack in Paris and the mass shooting in San Bernardino, but so far there’s no evidence his handling of Orlando is bringing voters to his side. According to Wednesday’s CBS News poll, Trump has net negative approval of his handling of Orlando of 26 points, with 51 percent of Americans disapproving of Trump’s handling of the Orlando massacre and only 25 percent approving.

It’s worth noting that the latest round of behavior and the polling fallout that followed happened after top Republicans had urged him to tone it down and focus on more general election-friendly issues.

“My sense is that Trump has a particular style. It’s been successful for him. … The very idea of changing it up when it’s been so successful for him, because he doesn’t have experience in office, I think that it doesn’t resonate with him,” Selzer said.

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