Until now, Trump’s one-man show was working. He has been seduced by most things going his way. His unilateral decision making, his rebellion against the normal protocols of campaigning, and his entirely unorthodox approach — all this has been associated with an upward trajectory, and a cost-effective one, at that. And Trump loves to remind everyone of Jeb’s campaign, among the most absurd and futile efforts in a bleak history of the excesses of modern campaigning. It is a campaign that never should have occurred, and I have been saying so since Jeb’s announcement. Nice guy, intelligent man, serious policy wonk, but no reason to run for president.
But my conservative friends who support Ted Cruz say — don’t talk Jeb out of the race, we need him to squander more money and take up space. It becomes clearer that Jeb doesn’t get a lot of votes. But their fear is that “Establishment Money” might switch, say, to Marco Rubio. That may happen anyway, it probably is happening. Jeb’s super-rich SuperPAC donors are restless. Visionary and highly successful businessmen, they are clueless in politics. Even so, as pathetic as they are in their political decisions, many have finally realized the stupidity of the whole Bush campaign. They no longer take seriously the endless stream of insider memoranda from Jeb’s compensated fundraising consultants and the SuperPAC functionaries on the secret plan for Jeb to win the nomination. Indeed, most of the Bush ads have been to take down Rubio, as if that would help Bush. It looks petty and vindictive. And the positive Bush ads have no traction. When you keep buying ads, and they don’t help, you would think you would pull the ads and revise them, or stop the ad campaign. Or just quit the race. What about the Jeb SuperPAC ridiculous anti-Trump billboards in Iowa? They were not effective, and if they hurt Trump, they did not help Jeb, but others (Cruz? Rubio?).
You don’t win a primary campaign for the presidency by hitting a guy when he’s down. Trump has over-used the Jeb prop. Trump wants everyone to know that Jeb has already spent the bulk of $120 million (his official campaign and SuperPAC), while Jeb’s polling numbers declined precipitously. Of course, Trump has used the free media and social media more effectively than any presidential candidate, ever, with no close second. Here was a candidate who would call in television interviews, as if he were on a radio program. And yesterday, the day after Iowa, CNN was reduced to talking to Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski by telephone.
Trump’s superb coups have contributed to the reality — or the mystique — depending on your viewpoint, that Trump’s campaign works. And it has functioned marvelously. And despite Iowa, it may still be working. More about that in a moment.
But Trumps gets it, on many levels. If voters believe that he is running an efficient campaign, then voters can infer: Ergo, Trump’s presidency would be awesome. Many voters implicitly judge a prospective incumbency by the campaign at hand. But when you push that implicit (and sometimes explicit) correlation, you risk downward inference, also. That’s why he really needs to win in New Hampshire.
So, it’s more than that Trump is a winner, or that his campaign is a winning campaign. It’s an explanation for momentum that keeps lifting the ceiling that the “talking head” pundits kept telling everyone Trump could not go above. In Iowa, he really went above what should have been his Iowa ceiling. If he had more experienced campaign people around him, and they had the courage to provide appropriate counsel, he would have said something like, “I would be surprised and blessed [when in Iowa, you use words like “blessed”] to come in number one in Iowa. But everyone last year wrote off this state, so I’ll be delighted with a respectable showing to be in the top tier.”
Trump has been shrewd and intuitive, but his hubris can have unsettling consequences.
Experienced political strategists know how to play the expectation games. But Trump surrounds himself with people too timid to tell the boss what he needs to hear. Or they might hear those feared words, “You’re fired.” But candidates must be told not what they want to hear, but what they need to hear.
Trump’s obsession with poll numbers was always disquieting and risky. It was unseemly because you don’t build a campaign stump speech about transient poll numbers, especially when certain primaries, notably Iowa, have a history of late decision makers. And you don’t raise expectations but keep them low, so you meet or surpass them. That’s why so many corporations in their “guidance” for quarterly earnings are restrained: they would rather post better than expected earnings.
With one notable exception awhile back, Trump has been booking venues that are too small, so the media reports “standing room only” or “the fire marshals would not let them admit more” or “people were turned away from a Trump rally.” So in theory, Trump understands the expectations game. But in practice — when it comes to touting poll numbers, he has made a respectable second place showing into a psychological defeat.
His instincts can be keen. He raised the “natural born citizen” gambit at the right time about Cruz’s eligibility to be president. And polling data suggest Trump’s planting the seeds of doubt hurt Cruz and helped Trump. Suddenly Trump seemed in first place in Iowa. But rather than proceed cautiously to consolidate his gain, Trump did himself in with the debate gambit, a kind of “Hail Mary” maneuver, as if Trump were at or near the bottom and were desperate.
Trump is a risk-taker. Voters like that, as part of his strength and determination to do it “my way.” But boycotting the Iowa debate probably hurt among the significant number of Iowa voters who make their decision late. Trump doesn’t understand that while undecideds can allocate their votes in a proportion similar to the decideds, they may break disproportionately. The massive turnout was misinterpreted to be pro-Trump. That wasn’t the case. Trump lacked anyone on his team with the perspective, confidence, and courage to tell him not to skip the debate, and to focus as a supplicant to court the last-minute deciders and not act like their support is a preordained entitlement.
Nor does his campaign understand that in a state like Iowa where the number of Republican voters who turned out is less than the number of registered Republicans in some congressional districts, a “ground operation” is not a luxury but a necessity. The able team about Ted Cruz understood this. It is not that the polls are wrong, it is that the Cruz operation was a brilliant and methodical approach toward identifying and turning out their people.
Polls — even if accurate — are the classic snapshot. The fateful debate probably didn’t help Cruz, it wasn’t his finest hour. But it did cut into the undecided in favor of Rubio.
Trump remains viable. But Donald Trump as perpetual “winner” will have difficulty to survive two consecutive losses. He needs to win New Hampshire on Tuesday. But over the long-term, which is to say over the next month or so, has Trump learned enough to cut the polling swagger, get some campaign people who know what they are doing and can stand up to the boss, and allocate resources to reach people on the ground?
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