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Donald Trump is sloppy about policy details, but precise at managing party factions

He is carefully trying to remove libertarians and neoconservatives from the Republican coalition.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump addresses the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) March 21, 2016, in Washington, DC.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump addresses the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) March 21, 2016, in Washington, DC.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

On the public policy substance, Donald Trump sounds like an ignoramus. He knows almost nothing about a large percentage of issues. When asked questions, he responds like a student who hasn't done the reading and is bluffing until the teacher moves on.

There are numerous examples. When asked about the "nuclear triad" in a December debate, he gave a completely nonresponsive answer, leaving it to Mario Rubio, who spoke next, to explain it. When asked by Chris Matthews to go beyond just saying he is pro-life and get specific about what abortion law should look like, he flailed around for a few minutes before finally consenting to Matthews's suggestion that he support punishing women who had abortions. This is a position both pro-choice and pro-life activists find appalling, and Trump backtracked from it the next day with an official statement taking a more conventional pro-life position.  Lets not even get into this Washington Post interview with Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, where he appears to know nothing about Abraham Lincoln.

Trump's response to an alarmingly large range of questions boils down to, "We've made terrible deals, and I will make good deals." This is true when he is discussing the nuclear deal with Iran, but also relations with Mexico and China, and even with our military allies such as Japan and South Korea and in NATO. Another tactic when asked about a specific policy is to pivot to discussing his poll numbers (often inaccurately).

To appreciate Trump's full ignorance of policy details and tactics for bluffing through, I encourage you to read the transcript of either his interview with the Washington Post editorial board or his foreign policy interview with the New York Times. After reading the Post interview transcript, liberal op-ed columnist Eugene Robinson concluded, "I am ... appalled at how little he knows and truly frightened." Trump has clearly spent little time learning about national political issues, which is a reasonable thing if you are a real estate developer, reality show star, and serial licenser of your last name, but rare for a serious presidential candidate.

Just as important, Trump (unlike George W. Bush in 2000) shows minimal interest in learning more about issues or hiring the best conservative policy advisers. The advisers and staff he has chosen so far, as well as his long history in business, suggest that he values loyalty much more than knowledge and skill.

Brendan Bordelon in the National Review writes, "Trump's move to surround himself with neophytes and fringe players suggests he doesn't grasp how Washington's network of decision-makers collaborate on important global decisions. Should he become president, most believe that lack of understanding would bode ill for America's geopolitical future."

Trump's careful factional positioning

Yet when it comes to managing political factions, the situation is completely different. Trump acts like he has a precise plan. This is his true gift — what has brought him to the cusp of the Republican presidential nomination. While Trump can't discuss the details of policy, his campaign has taken many positions. When you look at them, as well as the cultural cues Trump gives off, it is all carefully calibrated to appeal to cultural conservatives while shearing off Koch-style libertarians and foreign policy neoconservative hawks.

Appealing to the former while shunning the latter two factions is hard to do. Trump has shown immense political skill in attempting it, and in realizing that if he successfully divides the GOP electorate this way, a majority of GOP voters would be with him. Libertarians and neoconservative are much more heavily represented in elite Republican circles than in the Republican electorate.

Trump has taken a series of unorthodox positions for a Republican. He supports Social Security and Medicaid as they exist now. He is not proposing cuts for future generations or some type of privatization. The last Republican president, George W. Bush, and all of the other leading contenders are proposing one or the other or both. (Trump is proposing massive tax cuts, but as Milton Friedman pointed out, spending levels determine the size of government. Tax rates just determine when government will be paid for: now or later.)

Trump also has strongly criticized the Iraq War (which is very closely associated with the Bush administration), opposed the US military presence in Japan, Korea, and Europe unless those allies pay more of the cost, and generally been skeptical of any commitment of US troops overseas.

Yet he is not haphazardly taking whatever unorthodox positions he feels like because the normal laws of politics just don't apply to him. He is clearly constrained by politics. I don't know if he consciously planned this strategy or just has an innate instinct for managing political factions. But he is only taking unorthodox positions on topics that libertarians and neoconservatives care about, two factions with small mass followings.

You can tell how he calibrates his appeal to different factions by the issues on which he doesn't deviate from Republican dogma. Trump has pitched his appeal to those who worry about the declining economic and social position of white men and the loss of related "traditional values" in American society, but he doesn't talk much about other "cultural" issues like abortion and LGBTQ rights. He clearly cares much less about abortion than most conservatives. Trump could have just said that he wasn't pro-life. Since he was pro-choice until quite recently (and likely helped at least one former romantic partner obtain an abortion), it would have been much less effort to just take a pro-choice or unorthodox middle-ground abortion position.

But on this issue, Trump decided that he needs to conform to Republican orthodoxy. He is working hard to do that, even though, as the Chris Matthews interview shows, he doesn't yet know the nuances of the pro-life position.

Usually when Trump says something unorthodox (criticizing John McCain for getting captured, for instance) he refuses to back down. Part of his appeal to cultural conservatives is precisely the fact that he doesn't back down under pressure. But this is one instance on which Trump responded to criticism by quickly backing down and taking a conventional position. Whether Trump can convince pro-life interest groups of his sincerity is an open question. They remain skeptical. But Trump will continue to work to win over pro-life voters.

Trump's rhetoric and image attempt to appeal to cultural conservatives primarily through race and gender. He evokes an America with traditional racial and gender hierarchies restored. A pro-choice (or even middle-ground) abortion position would risk alienating the voters who are most receptive to this message.

Trump has tried hard to reassure cultural conservatives about judicial appointments. Rather than asserting his independence, Trump has promised that he will develop a list of possible Supreme Court nominees in close consultation with the Heritage Foundation, which he will make public before the election and select from if elected.

Why would this tough negotiator, who claims to be independent of the normal political system, commit in advance to a list of Supreme Court nominees who have been screened by the Heritage Foundation? It doesn't fit with the overall image he tries to project. But it makes sense if you think that cultural conservatives are a key faction that he wants in his coalition.

Supporters gather for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump prior to a campaign rally on April 6, 2016, in Bethpage, New York. The rally comes ahead of the April 15 New York primary. (Photo by Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images)

This also helps explain his major deviation from his opposition to US military intervention overseas. Opposition to the Iraq War or to keeping US troops in Asia and Europe doesn't tread on any sacred cows for cultural conservatives. But evangelicals care a lot about Israel, which is the one foreign policy area where Trump sounds like a hawk. In a recent Brookings/University of Maryland poll, 64 percent of evangelical Republicans said that a candidate's position on Israel matters "a lot," compared with only 33 percent of non-evangelical Republicans. A hawkish position on Israel is one bit of Republican neoconservative orthodoxy that Trump has been careful not to jettison.

Trump almost never reads from a prepared text when speaking. But an exception was his March speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the most powerful hawkish pro-Israel interest group, where he read a prepared speech that reiterated all major aspects of Republican orthodoxy on Israel. It is a strange juxtaposition that the same man could care so much about (and be so good at) factional politics while caring so little about the actual policy details. But with Trump, it appears to be true.

Trump is not the only one appealing to cultural conservative voters. Early on, it seemed like Ted Cruz and Trump were competing for the same factions. Cruz, despite being disliked by almost all his Senate colleagues because of his abrasive personality and go-it-alone legislative tactics, is running a more conventionally conservative campaign. He is trying to appeal to evangelicals and other cultural conservatives, yet he hasn't taken positions to offend the Koch-affiliated small government libertarian or neoconservative foreign policy factions. Basically, unlike Trump, he is courting all the existing major Republican constituencies.

If Trump fails to perform well enough in primaries and caucuses to have a majority of delegates pledged to him on the first ballot, the convention will likely turn into a fight between Trump and Cruz. For the reasons Josh Marshall lays out here and here, it will be very hard for a candidate who did poorly in the primaries and caucuses (or did not enter at all) to get serious consideration at the convention.

Before you get to perceptions of legitimacy among Republican voters, who would need to vote for the party ticket in November, you have the simple issue that Trump and Cruz delegates will prevent other candidates from being placed into nomination in Cleveland by keeping a rule requiring candidates to have won eight states. For all the things Trump and Cruz disagree about, each will be able to agree that his best shot at the nomination is a one-on-one contest with the other.

So the Koch network (and the small constituency for neoconservative foreign policy) will have no choice but to fight for Cruz. The Koch network (led by brothers Charles and David Koch) is what political scientist Theda Skocpol calls a "fat cat consortium" of large donors who direct their money to various conservative organizations, especially Americans for Prosperity, which operates on the ground in many states in parallel to the Republican Party's organization.

Trump's candidacy is a challenge to the Koch network's ideological influence over the Republican Party. The battle between Trump and Cruz for the nomination will be a test of whether one can lead the Republican Party while completely scorning the Koch wing of the party. Early reports suggest that the Charles Koch prefers that House Speaker Paul Ryan get the nomination in Cleveland. I think that won't be possible, and he will have no choice but to content himself with Cruz. The power he has built in the Republican coalition depends on it.

With Trump conceding the libertarian and neoconservative factions to him, Cruz will try to steal away Trump's cultural conservative support. Many pro-life and evangelical interest group leaders, who are less convinced than many of their voters that Trump is reliable on their issues, will also fight for Cruz. The question is whether Trump can get enough grassroots support to prevail, or whether Cruz can so dominate the state-level delegate selection process or persuade undecided delegates at convention once they are unbound on later ballots, that he is a better vessel for their agenda.

To what end?

Even through he is painfully ignorant about policy, Trump's campaign has not just been flailing around. It is not true (as some have claimed) that the normal laws of political don't apply to him. His success has come from a clear and fairly disciplined political strategy of appealing to some Republican factions and not others.

Yet while Trump has been skilled and careful about cutting off the neoconservative foreign policy and libertarian Koch network factions from the rest of the GOP coalition, it is unclear what the end game is. He may not succeed in winning a majority of pledged delegates. Throughout the process, Cruz has fought Trump for the support of cultural conservatives, often winning. It could be that Cruz will get enough of their support (combined with the help of the factions that Trump has scorned) to take the nomination away from Trump in Cleveland.

But even if Trump does win the nomination, his strategy makes it very difficult to win the general election. The two parties' coalitions are very evenly matched in the United States right now. Since 1984, no presidential candidate has won more the about 53 percent of the popular vote. It is possible that some outside event, like a large economic downturn, will produce a uniform swing toward the Republicans among all groups. But short of that, the presidential election promises to be very close. Every faction in each party will be essential in the fight for victory.

While the libertarian-leaning faction associated with the Koch network and the neoconservative foreign policy faction may represent only a minority of GOP voters, Republicans can't afford to lose any of their significant factions if they hope to defeat the Democrats and win the presidency. If these types of voters stay home (or, much less likely, vote for Hillary Clinton), Trump would need to make up for those losses with new groups of voters who have not supported Republicans in recent cycles.

He could bring in cultural conservatives who don't usually vote because they are disengaged from politics. The problem with this strategy is that every losing candidate promises to do this, and it almost never works.  The main reason is that people who don't usually vote because they are not interested in politics are among the least likely to get excited about a new political candidate, no matter how populist his or her agenda is.

The only other option would be to win over Democratic voters. But almost all culturally conservative white voters already abandoned the Democrats over the past 40 years. Most remaining white Democratic presidential voters are either liberals or lack strong political preferences. Very few of those who voted twice for Barack Hussein Obama for president are susceptible to culturally conservative appeals based on race and gender.

It is hard to see any way that Trump's factional coalition could get him elected without an outside event producing a huge Republican wave. He has devised a plausible strategy for winning a majority of Republicans, but not for getting elected.