Over the course of the Republican primary, Donald Trump made a series of inflammatory and bizarre statements, and in each case some pundits predicted the remarks would prove fatal to his campaign. In fact, those statements did nothing to dim his appeal to the plurality of Republicans who supported him. And they helped him continue to dominate media coverage in a way that made it difficult for anyone else to break through. Having won the nomination, a bit of a counter-conventional wisdom began to emerge holding that Trump is some kind of strategic mastermind whose bizarre statements don’t hurt him because they are like catnip to his supporters.
But just as the old CW that Trump’s rants would hurt him is wrong, the new CW is also wrong. Trump’s unfavorables are sky-high and rising. A general election is different from a primary in fundamental ways, and what helped him win the primary is going to hurt him between now and November. Indeed, one main reason earlier nominees didn't pursue Trump’s route to victory is precisely because they knew this. Trump's attacks on the Mexican ancestry of a federal judge, for example, are viewed as racist and wrong by most Americans.
If you actually want to become president, campaigning à la Trump doesn’t work — which is what left the path wide open for him.
Trump’s voters love his shtick, but they're not enough
BuzzFeed’s Rosie Gray, reporting from a Trump rally Tuesday night, expressed what you might call the new CW — Trump’s crazy talk doesn’t hurt him because the fans love it:
Didn't have service and couldn't tweet during Trump rally, but did want to note the crowd reaction to Trump boasting of banning WaPo— Rosie Gray (@RosieGray) June 15, 2016
Hearty cheering, and a guy near me yelled "over the wall with them!"— Rosie Gray (@RosieGray) June 15, 2016
i.e. this is why Trump does this. There's no downside to banning the press when it comes to his voters— Rosie Gray (@RosieGray) June 15, 2016
This is true, but his problem is that "Trump’s voters" aren’t nearly enough voters to win a general election.
Overall turnout in primaries is incredibly low compared to general elections. And on the Republican side especially, you can win primaries without getting a majority of the small number of votes that are cast. Across all primaries in 2016, Republican candidates combined for fewer than 30 million votes — of which only 13.3 million were cast for Trump. Mitt Romney got almost 61 million votes in the 2012 general election, and he lost.
To beat Hillary Clinton in November, Trump doesn’t need Trump’s voters. Trump needs Ted Cruz's voters and Marco Rubio’s voters and John Kasich’s voters and probably 35 million more people who didn't participate in the primaries at all.
Sheer antipathy to Clinton will help him get a lot of those voters. But the question to ask about Trump’s various threats to retaliate against Jeff Bezos’s business interests for hostile coverage in the Washington Post, racist attacks on a federal judge, ignorant foreign policy speeches, and general destruction of American political norms is whether it helps or hurts him in the quest to recruit those Clinton-skeptical voters to his side.
And the answer, in most cases, is that it hurts him.
Republican primary voters are fundamentally different
The key thing to understand is that Trump has won the hearts of Republican primary voters with "transgressive" statements that are popular with Republicans but unpopular with the American people writ large.
- From the beginning, for example, most Republicans have endorsed Trump’s proposed Muslim ban while most Americans have said it’s a bad idea.
- By the same token, most Americans thought Trump’s racist attacks on Judge Gonzalo Curiel were racist and wrong but most Republicans disagreed.
- The overarching theme is that, as I've said before, most Republicans think anti-white racism is a bigger problem than white racism, while most Americans disagree.
Traditionally, Republican Party politicians have tried to shy away from saying overtly racist things precisely because racism is not a winning general election platform. At times it’s possible to thread the needle between what the base wants to hear and what the general public wants to hear with "dog whistle" messages.
What Trump found was that a plain old whistle was louder and more effective at reaching its intended audience of cranky older white people. The problem is that everyone else can hear it too, and there aren't enough cranky older white people to win a general election.
Dominating the news cycle isn't that helpful in a general election
Trump’s penchant for outrageous statements has also been highly effective at allowing him to dominate the airwaves and the internet, attracting a vastly disproportionate quantity of coverage.
When you have more than a dozen candidates competing in a low-turnout election, attention per se is an extremely valuable commodity. There are millions of Republicans across the United States who probably agree with Rick Perry about the major issues of the day but never really heard anything about him or considered voting for him for president.
By contrast, everyone heard all about Donald Trump.
If you happened to be the kind of person who was inclined to like what you heard about him, there was no possibility that you would somehow miss the message, not realize he was coming to town, or forget that he was competing in an upcoming primary.
This kind of attention-getting savvy would probably be useful to Gary Johnson right about now, but if you’ve already secured a major party presidential nomination, getting attention really isn't very useful. There’s an absolute guarantee that the media will cover your poll numbers, send reporters to your campaign events, and note your major speeches. You’ll be the star of a week-long convention, and you’ll be on the stage at major debates.
Trump could turn it around — but he needs to want to
Trump does have considerable structural strengths in the 2016 campaign. Clinton is not a popular figure, and she has a poor relationship with the media that will make it difficult for her to become better-liked. Historically, parties have struggled to win a third presidential election in a row. The state of the economy in 2016 is pretty good, but political science seems to tell us that the rate of improvement matters more than the level of conditions, and the economy is not growing very rapidly.
In theory, a generic Republican would be favored to win the election by many leading models.
So in order to win, Trump would need to unlearn the lessons of his primary campaign and try his best to act like a more normal politician — most fundamentally by not saying bizarre, irresponsible, blatantly racist things. Given his very long track record as a colorful public figure and totally nonexistent track record as an on-message politician, that seems unlikely to happen. But there’s no method to the current madness. If Trump wants to win, he needs to get normal.