Decoding Trump: Dead in the water?

5:27 pm on 25 August 2016

Opinion - With so few paths to victory will the Republican Party quietly abandon ship and leave Trump to go down alone? Phil Smith checks the GOP's supply of life jackets.

Some weeks it almost seems Donald Trump is trying to win a misère election (no trumps of course), with possibly only a new TV station, a healthy profit, and a bitterly divided nation to show for it.

Donald Trump speaks to the crowd at a rally at the Mississippi Coliseum.

Donald Trump speaks to the crowd at a rally at the Mississippi Coliseum. Photo: AFP

Considering the race so far, it's amazing the national polls are as close as they are. The Republican-Democratic divide has become so cemented that many voters would vote for a turnip, so long as it was their team's turnip.

It is increasingly obvious that the GOP establishment think that Donald Trump is heading for disaster. Last week Donald Trump appeared to agree when he fired his campaign leadership for the second time. The party might have seen that as an opportunity, but the outcome will have depressed them further.

He replaced the increasingly toxic Paul Manafort (the professional henchman), with two people, one of whom is somewhat mainstream but the other is a live grenade. The new campaign manager is pollster Kellyanne Conway who got experience in ameliorating the indefensible while advising Todd Akin who scuttled his 2012 senate race talking about "legitimate rape". She tried a strong start by getting Donald Trump to apologise vaguely for previous offence (an apology he then walked back), and prefiguring a speech outlining a gentler immigration policy (the planned speech was shelved).

In with the unpredictable...

It's the new campaign CEO that will be giving mainstream Republicans nightmares. Stephen K. Bannon is chairman of the far-right pseudo-journalistic website and a champion of misogynist gamergate trolls, xenophobes and conspiracy theorists. For any normal candidate he would be someone you would avoid appearing in a photo with, let alone appoint to run your organisation.

Donald Trump campaign CEO Stephen K. Bannon.

Trump campaign CEO Stephen K. Bannon responds to a caller while hosting Brietbart News Daily Photo: AFP

He is not squeamish about attacking the Democrats even if by simply making stories up (the new 'Clinton too sick to be President' attack is very Breitbart), but he's also not squeamish about attacking his own party, which makes deciding what to do next even harder for Reince Priebus at Republican headquarters. Stephen K. Bannon considers the party leadership to be RhINOs (Republicans in name only), and his thoughts on them cause headline writers to resort to asterisks.

For weeks individual republicans have been distancing themselves from the campaign. Sometimes in droves. For some politicians standing in moderate districts or states this has been a tactical manoeuvre to avoid being tarred by association. But many are professionals that might otherwise have hoped to work for a Republican administration and whose disavowing of the candidate is down to ethics.

For the party honchos it's harder. Many of them have been sure for quite a while now that Donald Trump cannot win. A level of doom-saying that is somewhat unprecedented.

The tradition is that regardless of polling or reality you keep a brave public face, going down with the ship, predicting a fine day's sailing even while the water envelops you. Donald Trump is breaking out the lifeboats while the rocks are still three months away, by predicting a rigged election.

A desperate opposition...

For weeks the Republican Party has been assessing its options. They can't easily remove him as their candidate and if they did it would cause a political apocalypse from his supporters. Some have been hoping his ego would cause him to drop out rather than lose. The Wall Street Journal (a staunchly Republican paper) gave him a public ultimatum to shape up by Labour Day (Sept 5th) or quit.

The #NeverTrump people went for the second candidate option, and eventually found a willing sacrifice but it's too late to even get on the ballot in many states. Evan McMullin is from Utah and on the ballot there, so while his impact nationally will be microscopic there is a very slim chance that if he gets local traction he could split the state vote and cause deep red Utah to go Democratic for the first time since 1968.

Former CIA agent Evan McMullin announcing his presidential campaign as an Independent candidate.

Former CIA agent Evan McMullin announcing his presidential campaign as an Independent candidate. Photo: AFP

It doesn't appear that Donald Trump is going to lie down quietly. Much more likely is that the Republican party will do what they did in 1986 when Bob Dole was failing in his bid to prevent Bill Clinton's second term. By October Dole was polling 7% points behind nationally (a lot like Trump), and had few paths to victory.

The GOP abandoned Bob Dole to his fate and pulled money and resources away from the presidential race and into the down-ticket races (i.e. senators and representatives up for election at the same time). Their message to voters became 'we know you're planning to vote for Bill but split your vote to make sure Clinton doesn't get a blank cheque'. Vote splitting was more common then than it is now but it didn't work and they lost seats in both the House and Senate.

It's worth remembering that the November 8th election isn't just for President. It's also for a third of the Senate, all of the House of Representatives, eleven state governors, state senates and houses, judges, state, county and city councils, school boards and sheriffs and everything in between. There are more than half a million elected offices in the US and a portion are elected every year.

Also on the ballots will be local plebiscites on issues from marijuana legalization and the death penalty, down to the erection of tents on sidewalks (that's one of 25 local measures and 17 state measures on the San Francisco ballot - no wonder the voting queues can get long).

It's not over until...

So, for a party that suspects the presidency is lost there is still a lot to play for. The party can throw resources at key house seats and senate races to try to retain control of Congress and continue the utter gridlock that strangled Barack Obama's second term.

This is already happening unofficially. Donor money that would usually have gone to the presidential race is going elsewhere. A super PAC called the Congressional Leadership Fund announced this week that they are spending ten million on key House races. The Koch brother's network have $750 million to spend and plan for a sizeable portion to go to senate races but none to Donald Trump.

There will be more where that came from. And either quietly or officially the party will also likely switch goals with the message 'vote GOP for senate to stop Hillary going too far left'.

It's an achievable goal. Hillary Clinton is strongly projected to win the presidential election, but the Senate is a tough hill to climb against incumbents, and the House will stay firmly Republican unless there's a landslide because House elections are rigged, but just not in the way that Trump means (but more on that another time).

So there's a lot to play for in the senate and house races for the republicans and a little money goes a long way in a local race where advertising is cheap and just a slight swing or a slightly elevated turnout can make a huge impact.

Supporters cheer for Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump during a campaign rally at the Mississippi Coliseum.

Supporters cheer for Donald Trump in Mississippi. Photo: AFP

A few caveats, however...

One: It's still very early. It didn't happen to Bob Dole until just days before the vote. The impact on morale, public sentiment and party unity are so uncertain and unsettling that there will be nerves about showing the hand too overtly or too soon.

Two: Trump is relying heavily on the party for aspects of his campaign to function at all. He has 80 staff and almost no ground operation while Hillary Clinton has a staff of more than 700 and dozens of local offices in key states. His lack of a professional infrastructure is exemplified by Jefferson County, Colorado. It's a critical county in what should be a swing state and the Trump campaign there is being co-chaired by a 12-year-old. Bob Dole had a substantial infrastructure of his own and could cope. Donald Trump's campaign could go down in a flaming heap without help from head office. This will give pause.

Three: It's not over yet. Some of Trump's disastrous national polling is down to how much support he has lost in strong Republican states that he will win regardless. It's been such a strange year that anything could happen and a good week or two could make the Republican party wonder whether it's worth keeping some skin in the game.

Four: Republican Chairman Reince Priebus will be genuinely unnerved about how Stephen K. Bannon might react if they leave Trump swinging in the wind. Mr Bannon already hates the party establishment. It's quite possible that rather than quietly taking one for the team he would cry for blood and set Trump on a path of party destruction turning a bad situation worse. Donald Trump's supporters are already angry and rife with paranoid, conspiracy theories. Their possible response is neither predictable nor pretty.

*Phil Smith is a journalist who has wasted his adult life revelling in the entertaining minutiae of American politics and culture. He once shared a lunch of rare bison steaks with Jimmy Carter.

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