I believe I have discovered Donald Trump's problem. While I'm somewhat reluctant to reveal this insight since I find the idea of him becoming president rather unsettling, it wouldn't be right of me to keep it to myself. So here it is, the essence of Trump's predicament and the one thing keeping his party from taking back the White House:
Donald Trump should not get up in front of people and talk.
Now it's true that some of Trump's problems have come from things he has done outside the context of the campaign, like the shady business practices (Trump University, casino bankruptcies, etc.) that have diminished his claim to be a great businessman. And sometimes he says things in interviews that get him into trouble.
But for the most part, Trump has been reeling from one controversy to the next because he holds a rally, gets up in front of his most rabid supporters and winds up saying something shocking or despicable. Democrats (and often Republicans, too) express outrage, then the next couple of days are taken up with people reacting to the statement, commenting on the statement, condemning the statement and explaining the statement. Just when it begins to fade, Trump holds another rally and says something even more awful. I promise you, once we're done saying all there is to be said about his implied encouragement to "Second Amendment people" to take out Hillary Clinton or her judges, he'll do it again. I give it a week at most.
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So if you were a clear-eyed Trump strategist, you'd say, “We really need to stop doing these rallies.” The trouble is that the rallies are just about all the Trump campaign consists of. And Trump himself loves them.
Let's look at this excerpt from an interview in Time magazine:
TIME: You talk about the strategists and the wise people counseling you. Are you still having fun? You seem to want to return to the way things used to be during the primary.
TRUMP: I am having a good time. Again, you see the difference. Let's say between yesterday and go back into the rallies. I would say that I like the previous better. I can always revert to that if I want. It was more of an attacking style, which perhaps is a more natural style for me. There's always a chance that I will do that and can go back to that.
This is a curious exchange, to say the least. What is different between the way Trump is campaigning now and the way he did during the primaries? He does rallies, he does interviews, and other than spending some more time raising money (which he doesn't seem to be spending), there isn't any difference. What's different is the result. In the primaries, Trump's strategy worked. He could blow into a town in New Hampshire or South Carolina, hold a big rally, dominate coverage of the campaign, do some interviews on Fox News and overwhelm his opponents. He's doing the same thing now, but it's not working.
That's because Trump is saying the same things and making the same appeals, but he has a different audience he needs to persuade. He doesn't need to court the base of the Republican Party anymore; what he needs is to persuade the people in the middle. But from listening to him you'd never know it. Over the course of one of his stream-of-consciousness speeches, he'll talk about how corrupt Hillary Clinton is, and about how immigration is killing us and about how America doesn't win anymore. He mentions Clinton, and people shout "Lock her up!" Trump is in his element, soaking up their love and feeding off it. Almost inevitably, he says something insane like “ISIS is honoring President Obama. He is the founder of ISIS.” The crowd cheers, and he probably says to himself, “Nailed it.”
But the independents and Democrats whom Trump needs to win over if he's to get to a majority of votes aren't so enthusiastic; indeed, they're often horrified. Trump is plainly befuddled by this fact. After all, look at his crowds! Everybody loved it! Doesn't that show he's winning?
Trump believes his limited spending makes him more clever than the Clinton campaign. He's certainly right that she doesn't get big crowds at her events like he does. And she doesn't hold very many of them. She's running what has to be the quietest presidential campaign in memory. And
they don't produce anything that the New York Times is going to splash on its front page or NBC News is going to lead its nightly newscast with. And as as far as she and her campaign are concerned, that's just fine.
There's no way to know whether the polls would look different if Trump were running a campaign similar to Clinton's, but it doesn't matter, because he's never going to do that. He needs the crowd. He needs their love, their energy, the validation they give him. He needs to get up in front of them and say whatever comes into his head. And that's why there's going to be another controversy over something he says next week, and the week after that, and the week after that.
Waldman is a contributor to The Plum Line blog, and a senior writer at The American Prospect.