Chris Sautter: Donald Trump misses key campaign lessons
Tuesday, June 28, 2016 10:01 AM
WASHINGTON – It may seem quaint now, but there was a time in American presidential politics when Labor Day marked the unofficial start of the fall campaign season. These days, the fall campaign begins whenever the candidates win enough delegates to secure the nominations of their respective parties, if not before.
Donald Trump greeting voters at Shapiro's Deli in Indianapolis just before the May 3 Indiana primary. (HPI Photo by Brian A. Howey)
Thus, the 2016 campaign is fully engaged now in June. The fundamental dynamics of this campaign will be set this summer, maybe even before the conventions. Those dynamics will be changed after Labor Day only by some dramatic event such as scandal, the specter of war or a looming economic catastrophe.
Mitt Romney learned this lesson the hard way. In June 2012, Romney was hit with a series of tough television ads that defined him as a heartless corporate raider who enjoyed firing people and whose private equity firm, Bain Capital, destroyed the lives of ordinary working people. Romney reinforced that image himself when he was captured on video at a private campaign event disparaging the “47%” of Americans, Obama voters, as lazy freeloaders. Romney, though competitive in the polls to the end, never recovered.
Donald Trump seems not to have learned the lesson. Hillary Clinton is using the Obama playbook, though Clinton’s approach takes the message much further. Not only is Trump, according to Clinton, a self-serving vulture capitalist who exploits working Americans, Trump is dangerously unfit for the office because he is unstable and reckless. In short, Trump cannot be trusted with the nuclear codes because he might blow up the world – shades of Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 campaign against Barry Goldwater and the famous “Daisy” commercial.
And, as Romney did for Obama, Trump is helping make Clinton’s case with his own words. Indeed, the Clinton Super PAC, Priorities USA, put up an ad with a sample of Trump’s more demeaning comments about women made during the Republican primaries. Another Priorities ad shows Trump mocking a disabled reporter.
Trump nailed down the Republican nomination with his convincing win in the Indiana primary on May 3. That was the time for him to pivot to a more moderate general election message. Instead, Trump doubled down on his racially charged message by attacking a Hoosier-born federal judge based on the judge’s Mexican heritage and calling for the profiling of American Muslims. As a result, Trump’s unfavorable ratings, already at a record high, have climbed even higher.
Is it too late to pivot when 70 percent of voters don’t like you? That is the daunting question facing the Trump campaign in the wake of its firing of campaign manager, Corey Lewandowki, who is said to have been a Trump enabler.
Trump claims that the campaign won’t really start until the parties hold their conventions in July. But many Republicans fear that it may be too late already, that Trump has already lost too much time to make his case against Hillary Clinton and that he has dug himself too deep a hole to dig out. Just as troubling, Trump’s anemic fundraising points to a campaign that will be incapable of competing with Clinton’s sophisticated air and ground campaign.
Trump is apparently taking comfort in knowing that despite a disastrous six weeks, Clinton leads him by only 5 percent, according to the latest CNN/ORC poll released June 21. More encouraging, Trump is tied with Clinton in Ohio and trails her by only one point in Pennsylvania.
The reason the race is still close is clear. Many voters, still struggling under a sluggish economy and fearing that the war on terrorism has come to America, want change. To them, Clinton is more of the same, while Trump represents change. Trump leads Clinton in the new CNN poll on the question of who will better lead on the economy. And, even with all the doubts raised about him, Trump is still viewed as generally more trustworthy than Clinton.
Clinton’s lead is based on doubts about whether Trump has the temperament or judgment to be president, something that might be corrected with a disciplined message and restrained behavior. The Trump controversies have overshadowed Clinton’s own considerable vulnerabilities. The race is currently a referendum on Trump and his erratic behavior and repugnant views rather than a choice between change and more of the same, as Trump needs it to be to win.
In a sense, in the minds of many voters, the case against Hillary Clinton has already been made. Republicans needed only to nominate a reasonable alternative, something Trump so far has failed to convince voters he is. Meanwhile, as Trump struggles to adjust after locking up the nomination, Clinton now shows signs that she will be a much better general election candidate than in Democratic presidential primaries. She still struggles with communicating a unifying message. But Trump has given her new energy and focus.
It is not completely clear what Trump’s crumbling campaign means for Indiana. No elected Indiana governor seeking reelection has ever been defeated (Dr. Otis Bowen was the first Indiana governor permitted by law to seek reelection 40 years ago). But Gov. Mike Pence has still not moved past the fallout from last year’s RFRA debacle, while John Gregg is running a smart, aggressive campaign. Trump is expected to carry Indiana, but a narrow margin for the Republican presidential candidate could enable Gregg to make history.
Democrats face a tougher challenge in House and Senate races in Indiana. To show how difficult it is for Democratic congressional candidates, no Democrat has unseated a sitting Republican member of Congress in a presidential election year since Lee Hamilton did it in 1964. That is because most of the additional people in Indiana who turn out to vote in a presidential election year tend to vote Republican.
The last public poll showed Trump winning Indiana by 7 percent. But if Trump’s campaign continues to stumble nationally, his margin in Indiana is likely to narrow. Then Democratic candidates like Baron Hill, who faces Todd Young in an open U.S. Senate race, could overcome his early deficit in the polls. And, Shelli Yoder, who is currently tied in polling with Republican Trey Hollingsworth, would stand an excellent chance of winning in the 9th District.
The five months until the election is a lifetime in politics. Nonetheless, we should have a good idea of where this election is heading by Labor Day.
Sautter is a Democratic consultant based in Washington and a regular Howey Politics Indiana contributor.