Donald Trump has been underestimated enough times in 2015 that it's worth offering him a little bit of benefit of the doubt. The odds against him remain daunting given the way he's alienated the Republican Party's dominant tax cuts uber alles faction, but his combination of wealth, celebrity, and apparent popularity against the GOP rank and file gives him at least a sliver of the shot. Winning would take a lot of hard work (much of it not very Trump-like) and some good luck. But then again, what winning campaign doesn't? Here's the formula Trump needs to apply.
Seal the deal with conservative talk radio
Conservative talk radio in America is far less "visible" in the media or in academia than its objective importance as a political institution warrants. And as Rosie Gray observes, "Some of the biggest names in conservative talk radio — Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, Laura Ingraham, Sean Hannity, and [Michael] Savage — have praised Trump and his bashing of the politically correct left and Republican establishment."
This is far and away Trump's biggest and most important bastion of institutional support, and job number one for mounting a winning campaign is to lock it down.
At the moment, the problem is that it's far from clear what exactly conservative talkers are trying to accomplish with their Trump love. Do they actually want him to be the nominee, or are they mostly just trolling the party establishment over immigration? If Limbaugh and Hannity decide to start telling their audience on a daily basis that Trump isn't much of an orthodox conservative, and Scott Walker can be trusted not to push an immigration reform bill over the objections of House Republicans (both of which are probably true), then Trump is likely toast.
Get national security hawks on board
Conservatives primarily interested in military and national security issues are relatively thin on the ground. But Trump already has a meaningful level of mass appeal. And due to the difficulties sequester budget cuts have posed for the military, they have enemies in common with Trump.
Willing to lose the primary to win the general. https://t.co/wNau8bT4fm
— Bill Kristol (@BillKristol) August 29, 2015
The above remark from hawk extraordinaire Bill Kristol suggests that he, at least, is open to the argument that Trump's centrist take on entitlements is a reasonable concession to public opinion that Republicans should at least consider endorsing.
Trump's problem, so far, is that he has no real foreign policy ideas except stealing Iraqi oil. But having made enemies with the most powerful Republican faction, he can't afford to take anyone else for granted. He needs to sit down with leading hawks, convince them that he'll take their lead on policy, and sell them on the idea that his willingness to defy party economic orthodoxy is actually a strength.
It's really not far-fetched. Governors with little foreign policy experience win nominations all the time and find themselves dependent on national security tutors. If Trump can muster a little not-so-Trump-like humility, he can get the job done.
Ransack the failing campaigns
Donald Trump already poached Rick Perry's Iowa chair, and he needs to do a lot more of this. Between Perry, Bobby Jindal, Christ Christie, and John Kasich, there are a bunch of legitimate Republican Party politicians staffed by real Republican Party political operatives working for campaigns that are hopelessly behind in the polls. Trump needs to hire as many of these people as possible.
In part, it's for their political skills. But more fundamentally, it's for their connections. Outsider shtick has a lot of appeal to the mass market, but Trump needs a team that can reassure a whole range of stakeholders — state and local Republican elected officials, potential staffers of a Trump administration, midlevel donors and activists — that Trump is for real. The best way to do that is to be for real, and that means loading up on real Republican operatives.
Sell a deeper conversion story on abortion
Anti-abortion activists have no major conflicts with economic conservatives, and several points of alliance around questions of government funding for various reproductive health services. Nonetheless, the individual people who are primarily interested in abortion tend to be different from the tax cut crowd. And Trump needs to be considered an absolutely rock-solid choice by anti-abortion activists.
Having previously been vocally pro-choice and lacking any personal affinity for evangelical Protestantism, Trump simply can't claim the kind of lifelong commitment to the issue that Scott Walker has.
But everyone loves a good conversion story. After all, if you believe you're right, then you should be willing to believe other people have been sincerely persuaded of your rightness. Trump's weakness is that right now his official conversion story is a bit vague and shallow. He needs to work on making this deeper and more heartfelt. And he probably needs to hire a staffer or two from the world of pro-life activism and start laying out some policy positions that show he really understands the movement's priorities in detail — or at least is willing to listen to those who do.
Last but by no means least, he ought to make the argument that the abortion issue has too often been used by the GOP donor class as a tool to mobilize activists only to see the policy energy thrown into tax issues. Given the advanced age of several Supreme Court justices, does it really make sense to hold the chance of overturning Roe v. Wade hostage to an unpopular stance on Social Security?
Talk to trade-skeptical House Republicans
You heard very little about them during the debate over the Trans Pacific Partnership, but about fifty House Republicans voted against giving Obama the Trade Promotion Authority that he wanted and that the GOP leadership wanted him to have. Trump needs to talk to these guys, and to work as hard as possible to secure endorsements or at least vaguely positive comments from some of them.
Trump obviously isn't going to win the party establishment or the party leadership over to his side, but nobody can win as a purely anti-party candidate.
What he needs to do is branch out from his base in talk radio and build alliances with other groups that are at odds with the current leadership. Trade-skeptical House Republicans are willing to break with the congressional leadership on an important priority, and willing to do something that the party's donor base disagrees with. Their actions align with the broadly nationalist themes Trump has been striking in his campaign appearances.
More boring policy papers
Needless to say, boring policy papers don't win elections. Nobody cares about them. But Trump himself had a smart take on this during a Meet the Press segment.
"You know, when you put out policy, like a 14-point plan, a lot of times in the first our of negotiation that 14-point plan goes astray," he said, "but you may end up with a better deal. That's the way it works. That's the way really life works. When I do a deal, I don't say, 'Oh, here's 14 points.' I got out and do it. I don't sit down and talk about 14 points."
"But I know the press wants it," he continued. "I don't think the people care. I think they trust me. I think they know I'm going to make good deals for them."
There really is something pointless about the campaign ritual of the white paper. The health-care law President Obama signed in 2010, for example, looked a lot more like the one described in Hillary Clinton's campaign documents than it did Obama's proposals. The logic of a campaign season policy development process and the logic of a legislative bargaining process are simply very different.
But the press does want it. It's the media equivalent of going to the Iowa State Fair or chatting in diners in New Hampshire. Especially for someone like Trump who doesn't seem like the kind of guy who'd really be interested in wonky policy papers, showing that he can do it would go a long way. So he needs some. Not just the allegedly forthcoming one on tax reform, but some proposals on more obscure topics people don't necessarily care about. As a former real estate developer, maybe Trump has some thoughts on reform of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. As a private jet enthusiast, maybe he has ideas about air traffic control modernization or the use of congestion pricing to better manage limited runway capacity.
What he actually says matters less than simply showing that he can think through policy issues with his team and frame viable ideas about what to do about them.
Don't get complacent
The last item on the list is the most important. As August draws to a close, Trump is in a much better position than nearly anyone thought he would find himself in three months ago. But the one thing history tells us clearly about presidential nominating contests is that polls can move very quickly.
Trump's current standing in the polls gives him the opportunity to be taken seriously by a wide range of political actors who would otherwise dismiss him as a sideshow. But to take it as a sign that he can start coasting would be an enormous mistake. Early polling leads simply aren't predictive of final outcomes, and Trump's challenge remains daunting. The only way to meet it is to keep taking it seriously, working assiduously to build on his strengths and cultivate new allies.