As someone who has been heavily involved in the last three Presidential election cycles, I can say one thing for sure about the nominating process: it’s the craziest system for nominating a head of state in the Western world.
A big part of the reason is the asymmetrical nature of the conflict between candidates who enter the race for different reasons.
There are Goal One, Goal Two, and Goal Three candidates.
Goal-one candidates run for President to enhance their visibility for some purpose unrelated to actually winning the election. It may be to promote an issue, or to promote themselves, or to give a greater voice to some faction that they think is unrepresented, but it’s not, in the first instance anyway, to win.
Congressman Ron Paul was always pretty much a goal one man. So was Senator Lindsey Graham in this election; he wanted a bigger platform to talk about national security issues. So were Jim Gilmore, George Pataki, and probably Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, and a number of others. On the Democratic side, Senator Bernie Sanders is also goal one. For a time it looked like Sanders might hit the jackpot and be nominated, but I don’t think that was the reason he ran.
Goal-two candidates want to win, but they mostly care about winning the nomination; the general election is secondary to them. I think Senator Dole had the nomination mostly in mind when he ran in 1996. Sure, he would have liked to become President, but he mostly wanted to redeem his previous primary defeats — to get his chance to lead the Party, for a brief period anyway.
A more aggressive form of goal-two candidate wants to win the nomination as a way to change the structure and philosophy of his Party, even though he knows he will get massacred in the general election once that happens. Senators Goldwater (’64) and McGovern (’72) were aggressive goal-two men.
Then there are the goal-three candidates. They run to win the nomination and general election and become President. It would be great if candidates who sought goal three also, and equally, had the goal of being a good President, but I’m not naïve enough to believe that is usually the case.
Goal-three candidates are careful about what they say, though they try not to sound careful. They vigorously attack people, groups, or causes that are safe to attack in a primary, but they try not to disparage even their opponents, much less their opponents’ supporters. The goal-three bird has his eye on November, when, if he gets that far, it will be quite important that his former opponents support him, or at least keep quiet. So the goal-three candidate restrains his tongue.
Some goal-one candidates are running to raise their visibility for a future goal-three race, or to run for Governor or Senator somewhere, or to get an appointment in the administration of a goal-three. If so, they may sound a lot like goal-threes.
But the classic goal-one candidate acts as differently from the goal-three candidate as his own internal sense of decorum allows. He’ll kick every sacred cow he can, to get more attention. He’s not worried about losing voters in a general election, or even the primary, because he didn’t enter the race with the object of winning either.
Here’s another way to distinguish the goal-three candidates. If and when it becomes clear that they can’t win, they drop out of the race. Governors Perry, Jindal, Walker, and O’Malley (and probably others I’ve forgotten) were goal-three guys. I think Senator Jim Webb was also, though he may have just been a goal-one who dropped out because nobody knew he was running.
Goal-one candidates stay in as long as people will pay attention. That’s why Senator Sanders won’t quit. Or it’s possible Sanders is really a goal-three man, playing the long game; in that case, he is staying in the race on the chance that Hillary Clinton gets indicted before she wins a majority of delegates.
There is quite a lot of tension between goals one and three, because the best way to elevate your visibility (goal one) is to be as outrageous as possible, and if you’re not careful about how you do it — and you won’t be, if you were a classic goal-one candidate to begin with — that becomes your brand. And it’s a lousy brand to have in a general election for President.
Voters are intrigued by the good goal-one candidate. They love to love him or hate him, and in either event, they enjoy watching him. But they don’t elect him.
They know the difference between goal-one, goal-two, and goal-three candidates. They’ll date goal one. They admire goal two. But they marry goal three.
Donald Trump’s problem is that he’s a goal-one man, who, lightning having struck, now has goal two in view. And as a classic goal one, he has campaigned in a way that makes goal three thoroughly impossible.
He’s the dog about to catch the bus.
There are a lot of political offices Americans don’t take very seriously. They don’t believe it matters much whom they send to Congress — they’ll take a flyer on those races — but they think, with good reason, that executive officials make decisions that actually affect their lives. So for those jobs a candidate has to qualify as “Gubernatorial timber” or “Presidential material.”
If a candidate does qualify, the soft voters, who are the difference in general elections, decide whether they dislike him less than the other candidate. But if the candidate doesn’t qualify, he doesn’t get on the radar screen. He never gets the chance to be the lesser of two evils.
Which is why Hillary Clinton is beating Donald Trump in the polls. The voters don’t like or trust Hillary, and they never will, but they can envision her as President. A bad President, certainly, but still a President.
They’re having a hard time seeing Trump that way. He’s the devil they don’t know, a guy who would spice things up in the Senate maybe, but too big a risk for the White House. If he’s the Republican nominee, they’ll be highly entertained for a few months after the convention, and then they’ll send him on to his next line of neckties, which they’ll probably buy.
Trump’s supporters think he’s going to win because he has big rallies and millions of dedicated fans, and because some of those fans are people who don’t normally vote but will vote with a vengeance for Trump.
But people who don’t go to rallies get to vote too, and the soft votes — the votes of people who vote because it’s the right thing to do and who believe in their hearts that Trump is wrong for the job — count just as much as the strong votes. And outside of Chicago even the strong votes can only vote once.
I think Trump understands the box he’s in. If, when he decided to launch his goal-one candidacy, he’d known he was going to get this close to goal two, he probably would have campaigned with goal three more in mind. That’s why he’s talking about being “flexible,” and why he’s walking back from some of what he’s said. But it’s too late. Unless one of the Trump companies has invented a machine that can go back a year in time, he’s stuck with the brand he’s created.
It’s mighty hard to go from a goal one to a goal three in the space of a few months, with the Democratic machine beating on you, and the Republicans you have offended getting some of theirs back at the same time.
The ironic thing is that Trump has been a really effective goal-one guy. He’s moved the needle a long way on his top issue: border security. If any of the goal-three Republicans win the election, they’ll probably have to give Trump and his people their Wall. But of course if Hillary wins, she won’t build it. She’s going to want to get reelected, and she has a different base to appeal to.
And she’s definitely goal three.