Game Plan

Trump’s Primary Strategy May Not Serve Him Well in General Election

What worked for the outsider candidate in the Republican primary may not prove as successful in the general election.

By the Numbers: Republican Down-Ballot Woes

Donald Trump is in something of a political desert. After becoming the presumptive Republican nominee at least a month earlier than even he expected, he's being hammered by Democrats, and denied the welcome mat from his own party. 

Since his GOP rivals dropped out of the race, Trump has stuck to basics—using his celebrity to draw big crowds at rallies, dominating news shows on TV, eviscerating opponents with insults—even as some down-ballot Republican candidates cringe, nervous about being forced to defend him, and Democrats predict he’ll be radioactive to a good number of working women, minorities, and independent voters.

The primary electorate is about 20 percent of the general election electorate. So far, Trump hasn’t strayed from a rally schedule that follows the route to a GOP primary victory, campaigning in West Virginia, Nebraska, Oregon, and Washington.

But on Sunday, day four of the general election, Trump appeared to shift to the center on a couple positions. He came out in favor of a hike in the minimum wage and suggested that the wealthiest Americans should pay more in taxes—maneuvers that seem targeted at general-election voters. 

“I’m very different than everybody else, perhaps, that’s ever run for office,” Trump said on ABC’s This Week, one of two Sunday show appearances. “I'm allowed to change. You need flexibility.”

On Monday, Trump said his comments about tax rates for the wealthy—which would represent a rejection of conservative orthodoxy—had been misunderstood.

“If I increase it on the wealthy that means they're still going to be paying less than they pay now,” Trump said on CNN. “I'm not talking about increasing from this point. I'm talking about increasing from my tax proposal.”

‘Political Jiu-jitsu’

Some politics watchers say they’re waiting, with skepticism, to see how he builds a fundraising operation from a dead standstill, how he courts mainstream voters repelled by some of his past statements, and how he balances all the other competing demands of fighting a candidate Democrats think is much easier to defend.

Others say Trump is doing what he needs to do. He’s collaborating with the Republican National Committee on fundraising and other organizational tasks. And he’s aggressively targeting rival Hillary Clinton.

Trump's strategy will work, Roger Stone, a longtime Trump ally, said.

“He is the master at political jiu-jitsu,” Stone said. “He's doing it his way.”

Trump has a potent message, said Republican political strategist Alex Castellanos, who was not a Trump supporter in the primary.

“The country is on the wrong track. The plane is headed for the mountain. Unless we pull up, the end is certain,” Castellanos said Sunday. “Trump’s strategy is to demonstrate that he is disruptive change and Hillary Clinton is more of the same—plane, meet mountain. That’s powerful.”

Strategist Kevin Madden said the main advantage Trump enjoyed in the primary—the ability to control the terms of debate and leave other candidates and the media constantly reacting to him—has the potential to be even more effective with the larger audience of voters.

“He has this asymmetrical style that the Clinton machine, which can be sluggish and hesitant as a result of internal dissent, might have a tough time figuring out,” said Madden, who was a senior adviser for Mitt Romney’s campaigns and stayed neutral in the 2016 primary.

But political analyst Aaron Kall of the University of Michigan argued that it will be hard for Trump to replicate his successful primary strategy in the new race, given the changes in demographics and electoral math.

“Trump starts the general election race as a major underdog, who must pivot toward the center without compromising his core principles to maximize his chance of prevailing,” Kall said. 

Trump, who once said wages were too high but has made specific appeals to voters hit by economic stagnation, said he would like to see a minimum-wage increase but only at the state level. “I don't know how people make it on $7.25 an hour,” he said. “But I'd rather leave it to the states. Let the states decide.”

Trump’s tactics in the primary also relied on his entertaining debate performances, but he’ll face more scrutiny now “and may be unable to escape future gaffes unscathed,” he said. Trump will likely continue to attract large crowds, “but so has Bernie Sanders,” Kall said, referring to the popular Democratic challenger who, despite out-sized rally audiences, is losing to Clinton.

Clinton’s campaign has gone on the attack against Trump’s tax plan.

“There has never been a more reckless and risky tax proposal put forward by a presidential candidate,” Gene Sperling, former director of the National Economic Council, told reporters Monday in a conference call organized by the Clinton campaign.

Liz Mair, head of the anti-Trump super-PAC Make America Awesome, noted that most GOP nominees walk into an election with votes banked for their party, but Trump won’t, even if he switches tactics. “A lot of people are not going to support this guy under any circumstances,” she said.

Trump seems to be trying to make appeals. 

To try to boost relations with Latino voters on Cinco de Mayo, his first day as the lone GOP candidate, Trump tweeted that he loved Hispanics and posted a photo of himself posing with a taco bowl. To improve his standing with women, he said at a Friday rally in Oregon that no one respects women more than he does, adding that his daughter, Ivanka, can back him up on that. Democrats, Trump argued, can’t ding him on women’s issues because of former President Bill Clinton’s history of extramarital activities.

Demographic Reality

Brent Wilkes, national executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, said he thinks Trump won the Republican nomination by nakedly pitting minority populations against white voters.

“Unless people have collective amnesia and suddenly believe Trump is the biggest friend of African Americans, Latinos and women, his strategy makes it impossible for him to win,” Wilkes said Sunday.

Trump has to deal with the fact that 18 states have been reliably Democratic in the presidential election every year between 1992 and 2012—and they represent 242 electoral votes, Wilkes said. Only 13 states have been reliably Republican, and they collectively have 102 electoral votes, he said.

It seems unbelievable Trump could reverse that, Wilkes said, then added: “Strange things have happened this election.”

Some Republicans are critical of Republican National Committee leaders for failing to follow the guide points of the organization's own 2013 autopsy on Romney’s loss, which included a call for the party to reach out to nonwhite voters.

“Instead of following that playbook, the RNC viewed it only as a fundraising ploy and never took real action,” said Shawn McCoy, publisher of the news website InsideSources.com and a former Romney campaign aide. “Chairman [Reince] Priebus said last week that Trump need not change his agenda, only his tone. If that is the party’s strategy to win the general election, Hillary Clinton can begin measuring the drapes.”

Trump may not be able to reduce unfavorable opinions about him enough to win millennials and Hispanics, Castellanos said.

“But subtraction works as well as addition,” Castellanos said. “He can keep Hillary from getting their votes by driving her negatives to equal or surpass his.

From his first rally as the presumptive nominee, on Thursday night in West Virginia, Trump made it clear he will go after Clinton by claiming she waged her own war on women, personally hurting women who accused her husband of being a sexual predator. He used innuendo to reference Bill Clinton’s infidelities.

“The Clinton administration, of which Hillary was a part … she was a part of almost everything. Almost,” he said.

In Spokane, Washington, on Saturday, Trump called Bill Clinton “the worst abuser of women in the history of politics.” In Eugene, Oregon: “Nobody in this country was worse for women than Bill Clinton—and she was the enabler.”

Trump’s argument, Castellanos said, is the equivalent of: “So who ran that ‘war room’ in the White House? Not Bill, he’d been sent to his room. She chose to protect her political future, not victimized women.

Castellanos added: “Donald Trump is one heartbeat away from the presidency. Unfortunately for our former secretary of state, that hearts beats within Hillary Clinton. A defibrillator would not be a bad purchase for her now.

New Trump

There are subtle signs Trump is embracing his new role as the party’s standard-bearer.

On Thursday, a West Virginia gubernatorial candidate spoke ahead of Trump’s remarks—the first time Trump allowed any other candidate to use his prime political real estate to address his supporters.

“We are going to make this state great again,” Republican Bill Cole told Trump’s audience.

Trump explained his flip-flop from proudly self-funding much of his campaign—a stance his primary voters heartily embraced—to fundraising aggressively. 

“I’m going to help raise money for the party if they’re going to work with us. … We’re helping to raise money,” he said Thursday. “We have a great group and we’re raising money for the party and we’re going to get a lot of other people elected with us.”

Some supporters seemed unfazed by his change of course.

“Does anybody think that Donald Trump is really beholden to anybody? I don’t think so,” said coal miner David Myers, 49, of Spencer, West Virginia.

Dentist Lisa Haddox, 60, of Logan, West Virginia, said that while she still supports Trump, she was “surprised” he decided to accept money because of his independent wealth.

“I don’t really think he needs to do it,” Haddox said. She remains a devout Trump supporter, she said.

Despite Ted Cruz and John Kasich’s evaporation from the Republican race last week, Trump marched on to the next states on the primary calendar.

“I would have done the same,” said Doug Watts, who was a strategist for Ben Carson’s campaign. “The pressure is off—for the campaign as well as the voter—so people not previously inclined will come out to see what the fuss is about.”

Trump’s schedule demonstrates a measure of humility to the Republican guard, Watts said.

“Healing and uniting opportunity. Photo ops, small receptions, with people possibly on the fence,” he said.

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