He needs a unified party behind him.

Photographer: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Trump Is on Track to Be the Next McGovern

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Donald Trump has had the worst first day as de facto nominee of a major party since George McGovern in 1972. And we know how that ended up.

Trump enters the general election with the worst polling numbers since polling was invented. But there’s good reason to think that a lot of his negative numbers are relatively soft. Not among the ethnic groups he’s insulted and their allies; he’s unlikely to win them over. But plenty of Republican voters who supported other candidates during the nomination battle, and swing voters who haven’t paid all that much attention yet, are likely to warm to Trump.

Under one condition: if he is the enthusiastically backed by his party.

If highly visible Republicans rally around Trump, he’ll wind up looking, to most Republican voters, like a relatively normal Republican candidate, and they’ll support him. If not -- if they receive mixed messages -- his unfavorable ratings may never recover, and he might never make the election competitive.

This could go either way. The Democrats were violently split during their Chicago convention in 1968, but eventually most party factions outside of the South rallied to Hubert Humphrey, and he came close to beating Richard Nixon. But in 1972, desertions increased over the course of the campaign, and George McGovern lost 49 states

Of course, it’s very, very early. But so far, the signs for Trump aren’t good.

As far as I can tell, not a single prominent supporter of the #NeverTrump movement (here’s a list) has backed down now that he's the nominee. To the contrary, many of them last night and today have recommitted to their position, with some going so far as to say they’ll vote for Hillary Clinton. Others, including Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, said they won’t vote for either. 

Meanwhile, reporters have noted an absence of any congratulatory press releases from big-name Republicans. In some cases, such as New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte, Republican politicians are saying they’ll vote for him, but take pains to emphasize that it doesn’t count as an “endorsement.” Make fun of that distinction if you want, but the point is Republicans aren’t acting as if Trump is a normal nominee they can all rally around. As David Hopkins predicted yesterday, the most common reaction from Republican politicians to the question of supporting Trump will likely be to give him the most minimal grudging acceptance they can and then rapidly change the subject. That's not exactly going to help those "unfavorable" scores.

And the Washington Examiner’s David Drucker reports that at least one group of important Republican donors intend to keep their checkbooks closed. As my View colleague Megan McArdle has said, Trump probably doesn’t have the cash available to fund the campaign himself; he’s going to need help, and at least so far it’s not certain the party will be willing. 

Yes, there’s plenty of time to turn it around. And sure, there are some examples of Republican reconciliation today. 

But Trump doesn’t have forever. Right now the incentives for party actors to accept him are at their highest. They can write off whatever they said during the nomination fight as the normal, forgettable exaggerations of a hard-fought campaign. And abandoning him risks turning a difficult general election battle into a rout.

If nothing changes, however -- and Trump is currently seven percentage points behind Clinton in the HuffPollster average -- then at some point in the next two months the incentives will start shifting the other way. To be the first Republican elected officials to abandon their nominee is difficult; joining an existing group, if the nominee is already collapsing, is a lot easier. It also makes each step on the way easier: from fully embracing the nominee including joint appearances and active support, to grudgingly accepting him without a full endorsement, to quietly refusing to vote for him, to openly supporting Clinton (or perhaps Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson). And the more prominent Republicans travel the more steps down that path, the stronger a signal is sent to Republican voters that this nominee isn’t a real Republican.

And that way lies McGovern.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net