If you are a Republican hoping the Trump for President campaign would get its shit together, your just-concluded convention must have left you wanting. The week started with Trump’s campaign chairman dissing the Governor of Ohio and ended with the candidate reviving conspiracy theories about Ted Cruz’s father being involved in the JFK assassination. In between, Trump’s wife was accused of plagiarism, Ben Carson suggested Hillary Clinton consulted with Lucifer, and Antonio Sabato, Jr. called the President a Muslim. Through it all, the animating emotion was rage, the favored chant a full-throated “LOCK HER UP” in reference to Hillary Clinton, egged on and abetted by prominent Republicans like Chris Christie and Rudy Giuliani.
Once upon a time, Republicans leavened their fear-mongering with a patina of sunny optimism. Homages to lower taxes, less regulation, and a strong military could be relied upon to make their message go down smoothly. Reagan’s “Morning in America” and George H.W. Bush’s “Thousand Points of Light” have descended into Trump’s paranoid imagery of a country fraying at the seams.
From the inner cities in the 1960s to the Soviet Union in the 1980s and terrorists in the 2000s, there was always some “other” to fear, but that has curdled into a sense of white grievance that now vilifies immigrants, people protesting police shootings, and of course, the twin evils of maybe-not-born-in-America Barack Obama and she-belongs-in-prison Hillary Clinton. Trump’s ranting acceptance speech - clocking in at 75 minutes, had the feel of a tinpot dictator, not a serious candidate for elective office, much less the highest one in the land.
So why doesn’t any of this matter? It is really quite simple. Any Republican running for President starts off with 102 electoral votes from states they have won in the past six elections, 56 from states they have won five of the last six elections, and about 40% of the vote. The GOP has suffered four major landslide defeats in the last six elections, yet only George H.W. Bush failed to cross that minimum threshold and that was because Ross Perot, a third-party candidate, got 19% of the vote. Bob Dole (also hindered by Perot’s presence), John McCain, and Mitt Romney were all crushed, but they received 41%, 46%, and 47% respectively, of the popular vote.
Trump’s problem is that securing the other 10% necessary to win the Presidency is both hard and expensive and he has not shown an inclination to do the work or raise and spend the money necessary to win. He is woefully ill-informed about the basics of governing, has no use for the analytics and get-out-the-vote effort that is needed on Election Day and is late to the game in fundraising. The Republican National Convention exposed the amateur-hour level of his organization and major donors are not opening their wallets as they have in previous years. Instead, he is relying on Twitter and appearing on cable TV to make up for his unwillingness (or inability) to generate the money needed to run a legitimate campaign for President.
But again, none of this really matters because the race will be close simply because the electorate is not what it was in 1964, 1972, or even 1984 when huge swaths of one party’s voters abandoned ship and voted the other way. In 2008, the conditions for a Democratic landslide were about as favorable as they will ever be: the economy was in free fall, we were involved in two unpopular wars, and George W. Bush’s favorability rating hovered in the 20s. And even with that, McCain still scratched out 173 electoral votes and 46% of the vote. It was not a close race, but it was not the 49 state landslide that both Nixon and Reagan won or LBJ’s 44 state romp.
What we will get for the next 100 days or so is an odd, mutually beneficial arrangement. Trump will pretend he is running an actual campaign for President even though he has none of the basic building blocks to do so and the press will pretend he has a serious chance of winning because to do otherwise would both expose his fraud, drain the contest of any suspense and destroy ratings. Enjoy!
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