Watching Republican establishment types trying to stop Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is like watching a highlight film of Fran Tarkenton’s NFL career. Tarkenton’s legendary ability as a scrambling quarterback was every football coach’s worst nightmare. Never mind what play Tarkenton called in the huddle, or what scheme the defense deployed against him. Once he started scrambling, the playbook ceased to matter. He’d run all over the backfield, eluding the defensive linemen who tried to tackle him, until he found a receiver open downfield. Tarkenton’s improvisational style was unique and unpredictable, and he led the Minnesota Vikings to three Super Bowls by defying the norms of what an NFL quarterback should be.
What Tarkenton did to NFL defenses, Donald Trump is doing to the Republican Party. The bombastic billionaire routinely says things that, for any other candidate, would be campaign-destroying gaffes. With his larger-than-life celebrity persona, however, Trump keeps winning. His poll numbers seem immune to the factors that affect ordinary politicians, because Trump is neither ordinary nor a politician. We have seen similar candidates before — Ross Perot in the 1990s and Herman Cain’s primary campaign in 2012 — but neither of those populist businessmen had such startling odds-defying success as Trump has had so far. TV news interrogators and his GOP rivals keep trying to trip him up, but Trump keeps eluding them like Tarkenton shaking off a defensive tackle in one of his madcap scrambles.
Can Trump win? To this question, the Republican establishment emphatically answers, “No.” Even if Trump were to survive the primary campaign and capture the GOP nomination, all the clever consultants and shrewd strategists assure us, he would certainly lose on Election Day 2016.
Maybe they’re right. Maybe Donald Trump’s tendency to shoot from the hip and speak his mind has created too much ammunition the Democrats could us against him. Maybe Trump’s reckless rhetorical style — his habit of throwing out simplistic sound bites as if these were a substitute for policy proposals — is such a liability that he cannot possibly overcome it. Maybe he lacks the serious-minded gravitas necessary to win the White House. Or, even if Trump’s celebrity status and savvy media instincts enabled him to defy the odds against him, perhaps some Republican naysayers would contend that he simply doesn’t have the proper temperament to be president. On the other hand …
Well, on the other hand, Trump keeps winning. And also on the other hand, the GOP establishment hasn’t covered itself in glory the past few years.
Let’s face facts: If the GOP establishment had its druthers, the Republican Party would nominate Jeb Bush and run an altogether predictable campaign designed to get 51 percent of the popular vote and win just enough of the key “swing” states to eke out a narrow victory in the Electoral College. While it’s possible that this kind of Standard Republican Playbook campaign might actually work, there are no guarantees that the GOP can win by playing it safe with a Karl Rove-type strategy and a typical Republican candidate.
Like a lot of other conservatives, my initial hunch on the campaign for the 2016 GOP nomination was that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker was the man to beat. Nominating a successful two-term governor has been a winning strategy for Republicans, as the success of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush showed. Furthermore, Walker seized on a key reform issue — breaking the budget-busting power of government-employee unions — and then fought off repeated efforts by the union-backed Democrats to drive him from office. Walker had proven himself a reliable ally of the Tea Party movement in Wisconsin and was ready to present Republican primary votes with a solid record of both conservative policy success and a proven ability to win tough elections. So far as I could see, Scott Walker had exactly one real political weakness: Immigration.
Like a lot of other Republicans, Walker was aligned with the Chamber of Commerce, whose position is that any immigration is good immigration, because immigrants are workers and consumers and therefore good for business — the more the better. However, the immigration issue looks far different from the perspective of middle-class American voters who see their local school district struggling to cope with an influx of children whose parents don’t speak English. Nor are the benefits of immigration apparent to working-class voters who view immigrants as economic competitors exerting a downward pressure on wages. It is easy for affluent and well-educated people to dismiss concerns about immigration as motivated by ignorance, xenophobia, and racism, but such a dismissive attitude ignores the disproportionately negative impact that massive immigration has in the real lives of people who can’t afford to move to gated enclaves. You simply can’t sell an open-borders policy to the ordinary people in small-town Iowa who have seen with their own eyes what happens to their community when the local meatpacking plant hires hundreds of immigrant workers.
No matter what the Chamber of Commerce says, a “get-tough” position on illegal immigration resonates with many voters, and Donald Trump seized this so decisively that Scott Walker, Jeb Bush, and every other Republican candidate has been confounded by Trump’s advantage on the issue. Combined with his name-recognition value as a bona fide celebrity, Trump’s tough talk on immigration could be enough to keep him atop the GOP polls no matter what attacks the “Stop Trump” movement may throw at him.
With less than five months to go until the Iowa caucuses, Trump could continue scrambling in the backfield, dodging would-be tacklers like Fran Tarkenton, and pull off a victory. If Trump wins Iowa, the field would immediately be winnowed down to four or five candidates in a four-week blitz to the March 1 “Super Tuesday” primaries. If Trump is still on top after March 1, how could the anti-Trump forces hope to stop him at that point?
There is yet a long way to go until next March, but the longer Trump continues leading the GOP field, the less his campaign looks like a gimmick, and the more likely he will defy the odds to win it all. Nothing is certain now except that Trump has the ball and so far he’s winning. He has made the standard Republican campaign model as irrelevant as whatever play Fran Tarkenton called in the huddle. Donald Trump has changed the play, he’s scrambling and looking downfield and, despite the predictions of naysayers, he just might be able to take the Republican Party all the way.