For a Brief Instant, Donald Trump Played the Role of Presidential Candidate with a Modicum of Dignity. Then, poof, It Was Gone.
Donald Trump’s trip to Mexico this week has the potential to be a game changer for his campaign. In what was clearly a Hail Mary tactic, Trump flew to Mexico between a fundraiser in California and a speech in Arizona to meet with Mexico President Enrique Peña Nieto.
It is hard to imagine that a meeting could have lower expectations than a visit by Donald Trump to the President of Mexico, and, against that backdrop, Trump outperformed. It was not simply that he was gracious―almost diplomatic―but that he reframed the discussion away from who pays for the wall toward issues of hemispheric common purpose, specifically border stability, the problems of drug cartels and guns, and the common problem that both countries have with the evisceration of manufacturing industries in the face of Asian―primarily Chinese―competition.
The opportunity to fly to Mexico came just at a moment when Trump badly needed to change the discussion around immigration away from his contentious diatribes about Mexican rapists and a border wall that for more than a year have been central to building support among his core voters. Like his campaign narrative about race over the past several weeks, the trip was less about changing the math around the Latino vote than about the white vote, which has always been the focus of his campaign. It was a high risk/high reward gambit, but Trump stood at the podium with a man who by all accounts detests him, behaved himself and even showed some diplomatic skill. It is a low bar, but he cleared it.
Despite the barely disguised glee among Democrats as Donald Trump’s fortunes in the battleground states continued to sink over recent weeks, Trump’s campaign is not imploding, it is arguably becoming more focused. Earlier this month, Trump finally pivoted. After months of Republican anguish, their nominee for president did what Republican leaders have been looking for him to do. As the Labor Day kick off to the final stretch of the presidential race approached, he shook up his staff and started listening to them, and, for several days at least, he spoke from a teleprompter.
This, however, was not the pivot that Republican leaders had in mind. Out was long-time establishment Republican Paul Manafort. In his place, Trump brought in right wing conspiracy monger and GOP tormentor Steve Bannon. If Paul Ryan thought things were going to get easier, he must have been sorely disappointed.
From the day he announced his campaign in June 2015, Donald Trump has been clear about the electoral theory underpinning his campaign. It is all about white voter turnout, and it is right up Steve Bannon’s alley. After Mitt Romney lost in 2012, the GOP spent a lot of time examining what went wrong. Famously, the official RNC diagnosis was that the party needed to become more diverse. What had once been the Party of Lincoln feared that it had lost Black voters for good and was at risk of making a similar mistake with Latino voters.
But there was a minority report of sorts, which was encapsulated in a piece written by Sean Trende in the days following the 2012 election entitled The Case of the Missing White Voters. Trende’s thesis, updated earlier this year in light of the Trump candidacy―and as reflected in the turnout numbers shown here―was that a large share of white voters―particularly less educated white voters―were no longer turning up to vote in presidential election years, and that the GOP could win back the White House if it reenergized these voters.
Karl Rove, along with a slew of other Republican analysts, were wildly derisive of Trende’s thesis. Rove did not dispute that millions of white voters had not shown up, he just said they weren’t conservatives. But Trende hadn’t said that they were conservative, only that they were Republican voters. He emphasized instead that they were secular, less educated and economic populists―more like supporters of Ross Perot than the southern and evangelical voters that fit the normal profile of the Republican base.
Revisiting his 2012 article in 2013―almost two years to the day before Donald Trump entered the presidential race―Trende foreshadowed the Trump campaign succinctly: “This doesn’t mean embracing “big government” economics or redistribution full bore; suspicion of government is a strain in American populism dating back at least to Andrew Jackson. It means abandoning some of [the GOP’s] more pro-corporate stances. This GOP would have to be more “America first” on trade, immigration and foreign policy; less pro-Wall Street and big business in its rhetoric; more Main Street/populist on economics.”
The simple truth is that Trump’s campaign has eschewed traditional GOP themes―small government, free trade, personal responsibility, and the like. Instead, Trump’s pitch has been part old-time Democrat free trade bashing and part George Wallace race-bating. There is more Huey Long in his pitch than Ronald Reagan―other than tax cuts, the obligatory price of entry into the GOP primaries―and not even a smidgen of Paul Ryan. The only Republican of recent memory that Trump is emulating at all is Patrick Buchanan.
The problem with Trump’s theory of the missing white voter has from the outset been turnout and education. Trump’s strongest support has been among the least educated voters, who, historically, have the poorest record for turning out on election day. From 1988 to 2012, turnout among voters with less than a high school diploma declined from 37% to 33%, while overall non-Hispanic white turnout increased from 56% in 1988 to 65% in 2008, before dipping, as noted above, to 62% in 2012.
As much as Trump’s new campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, might claim that Trump support is understated in the national and battleground state polls, his most avid, less educated white supporters are historically tough to turn out on election day. Indeed, Trump’s campaign messaging since Conway and Bannon took over has been less about pumping up his less-educated base than softening his image among educated whites in the hope of stemming his losses among those voters.
For all the flurry of media discussion about Trump’s outreach to African American voters since Conway came onboard three weeks ago, that rhetoric has had far less to do with black votes than white ones. The campaign’s objective is less to increase Trump’s black support in polls from 2% to 9% than it is to stanch his deteriorating support among Republican women. This is Kellyanne Conway’s specialty, and Trump has clearly heard her message that to win back moderate Republicans―notably women―he has to act a bit less like a racist thug.
As it turns out, Mexico President Peña Nieto extended his hand just at a moment when Trump needed one, and gave him the opportunity to change the media focus from an immigration discussion that was spiraling out of control, to a discussion of the U.S. and Mexico’s collective hemisphere interests. Peña Nieto invited both candidates, but only Trump took him up on it, and he made good use of the opportunity. It matters little whether or not they discussed who was going to pay for Trump’s wall, as President Peña Nieto suggested in a post-meeting kerfuffle. What matters is that just at a moment when Hillary Clinton’s own problems appear to have led to some tightening in some national polls, Donald Trump stood on the public stage and behaved himself, and suggested to educated white voters, who have increasingly been slipping from his grasp, that they might be able to vote for him after all.
Artwork by Jay Duret. Find him at jayduret.com.