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Why Trump didn't quite succeed at AIPAC — even if he came pretty close

Presidential Candidates Address AIPAC Policy Conference (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Randy Herman, who lives in Westchester County, New York, attended the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's annual conference. He's a strong supporter of the Jewish state. He's also a Democrat — and no fan of Donald Trump.

"He incites people to violence. He incites people to hatred. He's on a fascist-demagogue continuum," Herman, who works as a cantor (religious singer), says.

Yet after listening to Trump's speech to the AIPAC conference on Monday evening, he was strangely sympathetic to the orange-haired firebrand.

"I was so horrified to discover that he was winning me over," he continued. "Not to his policies, but I started liking him. He was so much more sophisticated."

A lot of AIPAC conference-goers had similarly mixed feelings after Trump's address. Almost all of them came in skeptical that Trump was a true champion of Israel; there was even talk of a mass walkout during Trump's address. But the speech itself was greeted with thunderous applause.

That's because Trump hit all the right notes for a pro-Israel audience. He boasted of a lifetime of support for Israel, blasted the Iran deal, and said that "the Palestinians must come to the table knowing that the bond between the United States and Israel is unbreakable." He walked off to a standing ovation.

Yet despite the palpable enthusiasm during Trump's speech, attendees still didn't seem ready to support Trump after he left the room. Every conference-goer I spoke to liked what he actually said about Israel, but they didn't quite trust the messenger.

That speaks to a bigger problem for Trump's campaign. Trump has succeeded in winning the allegiance of a major chunk of the Republican Party. But his long history of wild statements and outlandish behavior make it hard for a broader audience audiences to really get behind him — even when he tells them exactly what they want to hear.

It seemed, at first blush, like Trump succeeded at AIPAC. But looks might be deceiving.

Trump cleared AIPAC's lowest bar

Presidential Candidates Address AIPAC Policy Conference (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Trump's address was heavily scripted, an unusual move for the candidate, who prefers to freestyle his stump speeches. Sure, a few Trumpisms crept in: He said he had studied the Iran deal "in greater detail than almost anybody," prompting guffaws from the audience. But on the whole, Trump stuck to a prewritten speech, the text of which hewed very closely to standard Republican talking points on Israel.

"The Palestinians must come to the table knowing that the bond between the United States and Israel is unbreakable," Trump said. Previously, he had previously pledged to be "neutral" on the Israel-Palestine conflict, a stance in line with official American policy on the conflict.

He went further in attacking the Iran deal than ever before. "My number-one priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran," he said. Prior to last night, he had committed to implementing the Iran deal, saying that "it’s very tough" to rip up a deal once it's made.

Trump also got in a few partisan jabs, calling Obama "maybe the worst thing that ever happened to Israel." This, too, was greeted with wild applause.

Clearly, Trump was giving a speech carefully crafted to appeal to a staunchly pro-Israel audience, and particularly the conservatives in that audience. Strip away the references to deals and Trump knowing more than "anybody," and his speech was virtually identical to what other Republicans said in their speeches to AIPAC. For all Trump's denunciations of politicians, he was essentially acting like a conventional politician.

"He said all the right things," conference-goer Steven Greenbaum told me afterward. "Pandering takes on a whole new definition," said Elizabeth Milstein, another attendee.

Hence the raucous applause during Trump's speech. It's very easy to know what to say to this audience: Israel is America's closest friend, Iran is evil, the failure of the peace process is all the Palestinians' fault. It would be very hard for people who share AIPAC's view of the conflict to avoid applauding a candidate saying those things, even if they came in skeptical of Trump's commitment to Israel.

"It's not hard to say all the things for this crowd," Sheri Greenbaum, another attendee, said.

What this shows, then, is how ritual invocations of support for Israel have become in American politics. There's a set of platitudes that everyone is expected to say, which any minimally competent politician can easily identify. Say the magic words in your speech, and you too can get a standing ovation at AIPAC.

The Trump campaign's big problem: Donald Trump

Protestors Rally Against Donald Trump Outside AIPAC Conference
Protesters outside Trump's AIPAC speech.
(Gabriella Demczuk/Getty Images)

The problem, though, is that it's not clear that getting applause translates into getting support.

Virtually everyone I talked to after the speech, a group that included Democrats and Republicans and ranged from high school students to retired folks, said that they weren't ready to vote for Trump — even though he said all the right things.

"Trump is a guy that you're dating, gives you smooth lines, but he's still a scumbag," Jessica Epstein, a self-identified #NeverTrump Republican, told me. "He gave all the red-meat lines ... but he'll say something different tomorrow."

"Since Trump announced previously on Israel that he's neutral, a lot of people are nervous," Ethan Y. Zadeh, a conservative student at UCLA, said. "We don't want a future president who's going to be neutral."

These are, of course, just a few individuals — a handful of anecdotes don't amount to data. But the uniformity of the response was really striking, and points to what looks like, from actual data, a real problem for Trump.

If you look at national polls, Trump's favorability ratings have always been negative. In fact, a majority of Americans have always disapproved of Trump, and the gap appears to be widening:

For Trump to win, he needs to narrow this gap. His plan, as he's said openly, is to change his tune: to stop acting so out so much and become the kind of person who seems credible in a general election. "I will be changing very rapidly," Trump said in a mid-February Fox appearance, "as I get closer and closer to the goal."

But the problem for Trump is that the wall-to-wall media coverage of his antics may have cemented his negative image. That is, he may try to reach out to new audiences, but nobody will trust the new, sober Trump.

That's why the skeptical reaction of the AIPAC crowd should worry Trump. It's easy, as the attendees all said, to write applause lines. It's much harder to wish away the fact that you've said and done things, outside of prepared speeches, that directly contradict the image you're trying to sell in this speech.

"I thought it was superficial, highly structured, and not delivered convincingly," conference-goer Marvin Schlanger said of the speech. "He tried to address the elements that the audience was interested in, but it was delivered in a Trump style that I don't find particularly serious."

The AIPAC conference, then, may be Trump's first real stab at acting like a conventional politician: pandering to a specific interest group and delivering an unremarkable prepared speech. But it's possible that he's just not set up to do that kind of politics after months of the Donald Trump Show.