2016 Elections

I Was Wrong About Trump (Which Should Scare Democrats)

I underestimated Trump and overestimated the Republican Party elite's will to live.

Forget the stereotypes.

Photographer: Matt Mills McKnight/Getty Images

So the Republican primaries basically unfolded just as I expected — ha ha, just kidding. I wrote both a column in late August and a wishful three-letter tweet in early February predicting that Trump would not be the Republican nominee. Several wits on Twitter had fun with that, when Trump clinched the nomination.

As well they should have. That forecast was wrong on nearly everything.

Perhaps my most fundamental mistake was to overestimate the will to live among Republican elites. I thought that Republican officials and donors would attack a candidate who appeared in the polls to be leading their party to an unnecessary defeat.

If Senator Ted Cruz had built a large lead in the fall of 2015, he probably would have faced a barrage of negative ads and a lot of Republican congressmen would have endorsed someone else since he was unpopular with the party's leaders. Trump, in contrast, was not taken seriously until long after he had bonded tight with a large minority of Republican primary voters -- and at that point, a lot of Republicans who were not for him initially either decided that they could deal with him or that it was too late to stop him.

Trump was always said to be a dagger aimed at the heart of an ill-defined “party establishment,” but no group of people who could plausibly answer to that description ever tried to convince Republican voters that he was an unacceptable candidate. Instead there was only a very late, half-hearted effort to boost Senator Marco Rubio, followed by silence once he dropped out of the race.

As surprising as the behavior of Republican elites was the behavior of Republican voters -- and especially of moderate Republican voters. When I wrote that Trump would not win the nomination, I assumed that he would be seeking support from conservatives who felt betrayed by Republican politicians who had done too little to fight President Obama. This strategy, I suggested, would not work.

But his campaign actually developed along very different lines than I expected. He did not pitch himself to the Tea Party using its themes and arguments. And Republicans who consider themselves “moderates” and “somewhat conservative” were his strongest supporters. When he won the crucial early state of South Carolina, for example, he did better among both of those groups than among the “very conservatives.”

It turned out that I had an incorrect picture of moderate and blue-state Republicans. I thought they would be appalled by Trump’s crude attacks on women. In reality, many of them define themselves as moderate because they are less interested in shrinking government and social conservatism than, say, Cruz.

There were other mistaken assumptions as well. The field shrank more slowly than I had expected, with John Kasich especially staying longer than made any sense. And the media gave Trump unfiltered access to the public that no other candidate has ever gotten.

Outside of that column, I managed to get a few things right. Cruz’s support was too narrow. Rubio’s strategy of being everyone’s second choice made him vulnerable to candidates with more secure bases. The primary electorate did not have enough room for both Rubio and Jeb Bush. The traditional conservative economic agenda proved incapable of exciting voters.

Republicans who considered themselves “moderate” or “somewhat conservative” proved more influential in the contest than “very conservative” voters. And the eventual nominee was, therefore, someone generally to the left rather than the right of the party.

On the bottom-line question of whether Trump would win the nomination, though, I was, just in case you missed it, wrong. I can’t help thinking, however, that the Republican Party’s mistake was bigger than mine.

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:
    Ramesh Ponnuru at rponnuru@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net

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