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Trump's Best-Case Scenario

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 fired his campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, on Monday. The move followed a disastrous stretch for the presumptive Republican presidential nominee in which he’s driven away his party’s elites, failed to organize a proper general election campaign and fallen far behind Hillary Clinton in the polls.

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Trump trails Clinton by 7.6 percentage points in the HuffPollster estimate. Her lead is larger than any that President Barack Obama was able to establish over Mitt Romney in 2012, and Trump has to do about 4 percentage points better than Romney. Moreover, it still seems likely that Clinton has a bit more of a surge remaining as she consolidates the Democratic vote once Bernie Sanders drops out and endorses her.

There’s no reason to believe that Trump will suddenly change, and it’s far more likely that the candidate, not the campaign manager, is the problem with his White House quest. Still, it’s possible that the staff contributed to some of the dysfunction, or that a shake-up reflects the candidate’s realization that he can’t win the general election by appealing to a plurality of Republicans while angering the rest of the nation.

A bigger question is how much of the (almost entirely self-inflicted) damage done to Trump since his Republican opponents dropped out is permanent.

Most of it, even now, is not. We all (especially the media and the campaigns) have a tendency to overreact to every twist and turn in the campaign. Take Lewandowski’s dismissal: Pundits and reporters tweeted this morning that a competent campaign would have canned him on Friday afternoon rather than on Monday morning, thereby burying the news. In fact, it’s unlikely that this June story will make any difference in November.

Most people who normally vote for Republicans are going to need strong forces pushing them away if they are going to defect to Clinton, the Libertarian Gary Johnson, or even just stay home on Election Day.

Without those strong forces, they’ll eventually drift back. Trump will most likely deliver an excellent speech at the Republican convention, because almost every nominee has given an excellent convention speech. Most likely, Trump will wind up raising plenty of money, and while he’s probably behind enough that he’ll be outspent overall, he could be competitive on the airwaves in the fall. If Trump can manage to behave himself, many Republican opinion leaders who have been skeptical of him -- or even opposed -- will move in his direction by October, sending a clearer signal to Republican voters that Trump is their candidate.

If all that happens -- and there’s no guarantee it will -- then the damage to Trump will be minimal in November. Some swing voters (especially those belong to groups that Trump has insulted) are no longer in play for him. After the reality-television star’s very slow start, Democrats are going to have a better get-out-the-vote operation no matter what happens now. A handful of Republican opinion leaders are probably already too committed to backtrack. That amounts to a best-case scenario for Trump in which he would run only some 2 to 4 percentage points behind where a generic Republican candidate would be. A very big deal, but not a party-destroying catastrophe.

Of course, there’s a very good chance that Trump can’t help himself and that the campaign so far is only a preview of even more spectacular disasters ahead -- so much so that there’s still a realistic, if small, chance that the Republican convention could dump him. Even if he makes it through the convention, he could emerge as a very weak general election candidate, as George McGovern and Barry Goldwater did, with large sections of his own party deserting him and his "campaign" never really getting its act together. Trump’s troubles are no media-driven mirage. But the worst outcomes aren’t set in stone. Yet.

  1. Convention speeches are easy: They can be written and rehearsed well in advance, and take place in a room filled with passionate supporters of the candidate who have worked for months to get to this point. It's hard, albeit not impossible, to mess that up.

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:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net