When Donald Trump wrapped up the primaries in early May, it seemed like it could mark a turning point in his campaign. Perhaps, some Republican elites hopefully mused, he’d put the craziness of the primary behind him, get serious about winning the general, and start acting more "presidential."
It’s now unmistakably clear that that is never going to happen.
Trump’s month so far has been a remarkable cavalcade of ugliness and incompetence. In just 16 days, he has:
- Said Indiana-born Judge Gonzalo Curiel shouldn't preside over lawsuits against Trump University because he is "of Mexican heritage"
- Banned Washington Post reporters from covering his campaign events
- Hinted that President Barack Obama may have sympathies with terrorists
- Doubled down on his proposal to block Muslim immigration to the US, a proposal previously considered beyond the pale in the GOP
- Accused American soldiers of stealing money from Iraq (which, to be fair, has some merit, but isn’t the sort of thing one normally plays up in a heated campaign)
So much has happened that it’s difficult to even remember that in between all this, after days of criticism about his Judge Curiel comments, Trump made a major attempt to turn the page and adopt a more presidential affect. On Tuesday of last week, Trump read a speech from a teleprompter that actually stayed on message against Clinton and avoided any offensive or racially inflammatory comments. Some political pundits found this new Trump to look less exciting but more like a candidate who could actually win.
But all this seems to be in the distant past now, as the endless cycle of Trump-caused controversies has continued on. Indeed, what’s really remarkable is that he’s still doing as well as he is in the polls despite all this.
Meanwhile, Trump has completely failed to build a campaign
Just as revealing as all the ridiculous things Trump has done are things he hasn’t done. Namely, he's utterly failed to professionalize his seat-of-the-pants primary campaign into an operation that looks anything like past major party general election operations:
- Despite having wrapped up the nomination over six weeks ago, Trump has barely spent any time campaigning in swing states.
- He doesn’t seem to be fundraising very successfully — according to Politico, Trump had promised the RNC that he would call two dozen major GOP donors to fundraise, but "he called only three before stopping."
- This failure to fundraise means Trump doesn’t have the cash to make massive ad buys in swing states — even though Hillary Clinton is.
- He hasn’t bothered to staff up for a general election either — MSNBC reported that "veteran operatives are shocked by the campaign’s failure to fill key roles"
- And his relationship with the Republican National Committee — a group he is counting on to fulfill those basic campaign functions he’s not bothering to — has badly deteriorated, according to multiple reports.
All of this led MSNBC’s Benjy Sarlin, Katy Tur, and Ali Vitali to conclude that Trump essentially "does not have a campaign," which seems basically right.
And this neglect seems deliberate on Trump’s part. He was clearly quite struck by the fact that he won the GOP nomination despite spending far less money than Jeb Bush’s, Marco Rubio’s, and Ted Cruz’s operations, and therefore seems to have concluded that most traditional campaign spending is useless. Last month, he told the Associated Press that voter data operations are "overrated."
Indeed, Trump’s failure to fulfill basic campaign functions is so total that political scientists are already speculating that this election will provide important evidence in just how important traditional campaigns truly are.
And yet, those polls…
But though there’s been a lot of chortling over Trump’s meltdown among political elites, and there have been many hot takes on how he’s collapsing in the polls, his actual decline isn’t as striking as you might expect.
Since mid-May, Trump has moved from being about a point behind Clinton to about 6 points behind her in the HuffPost Pollster average. That is certainly a bad trend line for Trump, but it’s nothing like a historic landslide (Obama beat McCain by more in 2008), and a race with a 6-point margin at this time of year certainly can’t be considered over.
Indeed, when Clinton’s own sky-high unfavorable ratings are considered, there’s a real question about how much anti-Trump support will instead go to third-party candidates like the Libertarian Party’s Gary Johnson and the Green Party’s Jill Stein rather than the Democrat. For instance, the RealClearPolitics poll average that includes Johnson and Stein has Clinton up just 4.7 percent ahead of Trump.)
Of course, if Clinton beats Trump 44 percent to 38 percent with the remainder of the vote going to Johnson and Stein, that still almost certainly means a win for Clinton (and one that looks a lot like her husband’s 1992 win). But she’d certainly much prefer if she beat Trump by double digits, and downballot gains for Democrats could well be muted unless she does.
So it’s clear that, despite all of Trump’s recent floundering, Clinton and the Democrats still have a lot more work to do if they want to build a majority coalition that will strengthen their position in Congress as well as giving them a comfortable lead in the presidential race.