We’ve seen a number of headlines in recent weeks saying that given a choice between Ted Cruz and Donald Trump much of the Republican establishment will go with the latter. The National Review’s recent onslaught against Trump has obscured this a bit, but it is still worth dissecting, because the hunch now held by a number of the GOP’s party regulars is that Trump is the most electable Republican candidate in the running.
And this analysis, increasingly common in private conversation with D.C. Republicans but rarely voiced in public, has, somewhat counter-intuitively, a lot going for it.
The big Trump advantage is that he has no actual ideology. Why is that seeming minus a plus? Because the fact that the guy has shown zero aptitude for understanding policy means that in a general election he’d need to provide some real specifics about what he intends to do as president. Normally candidates can rely on some in-house brain trust to provide him or her with the gritty details. But Trump doesn’t have one of those either, and appears almost entirely dependent on the experts he sees, by his own description, on “the shows.”
The GOP’s ruling class, for all of its many deficiencies, isn’t short on thought-out policy positions or white papers. So should Trump become the nominee, its members are assuming they can tutor him. He’ll need substance, and they think they can provide it.
Plus, unlike Cruz, Trump has no discernable ideological foundation, so all they would need to do is convince him it’s in his best interest to keep sounding like a brash, law-and-order populist even as he quietly embraces the Heritage Foundation’s views on tax policy.
And Trump’s ideological looseness also has one other central advantage, and this is one you won’t ever hear anyone say over at Heritage: He isn’t a conservative, and conservatives have a terrible track record at getting elected president in the post-Reagan era.
There was George W. Bush, sure, but let’s remember the mishegoss of the 2000 election, which can politely be called a tie, and then 2004, the only time the GOP has won the popular vote since 1988. Yes, Bush won, but by an exceedingly narrow margin in the midst of a boom economy and a war just three years after a catastrophic and unifying terror attack, and only against a flat-footed Democratic candidate. The typical conservative refrain here is that all the nominees since Reagan haven’t been conservative enough—an excuse that, at this point, is a tough sell even to most self-described conservatives.
Trump, who has a long record of supporting liberal positions on just about everything at one time or another, can start sounding like a moderate in a real hurry if he needs to. Remember that this is a guy who packaged himself as a center-left sort standing up to Pat Buchanan’s extremism when he last flirted with a presidential bid. And while we all associate Trump now with radical positions on Muslims and immigrants, it’s easy to picture him suddenly sounding squishy on just about everything else.
On that note, I wonder how many of his supporters view Trump, the guy with a decades-long habit of bragging about all the women he’s slept with, as a sincerely pro-life candidate. The answer is probably fewer than you think: over the summer, Ann Coulter mused that she would be fine with him performing abortions in the Oval Office as long as he ended illegal immigration. And it would be understandable to assume that he would bring the same flexibility to gay rights and guns and everything in between, so long as he assumes it’s in his best interest to do so. Trump’s immigration stance has been so essential to his appeal that he’ll likely have to stick with it, but there’s no reason why he wouldn’t be willing to negotiate on just about any other issue.
If you’re a conservative policy wonk this is all, how to put it, less-than-ideal. But if you’re a Republican who’s really interested in winning, Trump starts making more and more sense as a nominee. He would scramble the deck in a general and perhaps overperform with black voters, a constituency that Democrats rely on so heavily that a small change in polling in a place like Ohio can hand the election to the GOP. He might not do as badly with Latinos as many expect, and he could win so much of the white vote as to make up for what he loses everywhere else.
All of this is hypothetical, but the point is this: We do have an idea of how well a typical conservative Republican candidate would do in a presidential election, and it’s probably in the neighborhood of 220 or so electoral votes; but we have no idea how Trump would perform. He could do even worse than that number—but he could surpass it, too. After all, Trump is neck-and-neck with Hillary in Pennsylvania, a state essential to Democratic presidential ambitions, and competitive with her in solid blue states like Michigan.
If he wins the nomination he will have done so by throwing out the rulebook and upending what we thought we knew about how candidates are supposed to campaign. He would enter the general as a giant question mark, the man who believes in seemingly nothing but his own ability to win whatever the cost, while having already proven that he can get people to actually go and vote for him.
If the idea of a nationalist demagogue being embraced by conservative influencers because they think they can control him sets off certain historical alarm bells, well, it probably should. But by jettisoning much of modern conservative philosophy while seizing control of the GOP’s still-considerable infrastructure, there’s simply no knowing how well he could do in a general election. And for a Republican Party so used to failure at the national level, Trump just might provide the electoral shakeup they so desperately need.
The flipside here is that Trump could just implode after he gets the nomination. Voters tire of his antics, Republicans defect in droves to Hillary Clinton (or, should he run, Mike Bloomberg), and Trump bottoms out with around a third of the popular vote. In fact, this might be the best scenario for Republicans in the long run, or at least Republicans interested in keeping the GOP more-or-less the same. The unsavory elements Trump has dredged up within the Republican electorate, your white nationalists and so forth, would be blamed for the failure, allowing the establishmentarians to cement their control of the GOP and keep the crazies in check, coopting some populist ideas while ditching the rest.
Maybe. Or maybe Trump’s amorphous populism really does have tremendous appeal in a country so distrustful of all its major institutions, the two parties in particular. Either way, it’s hard to see why Trump, the overexposed unknown, isn’t at least as electable as any of the actual conservatives he’s running against.