2016 Elections

The Most Important Fact About Trump

Republican opposition to him was deep and wide, and then it was ignored.

The focus was way off.

Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

No one can accuse the press of failing to expose Donald Trump's weaknesses in the 2016 campaign. The sexual-assault accusations, the lewd and cruel comments, the bullying, the bigotry, the tax dodges, the Trump University shenanigans, the failure to pay contractors, the bankruptcies, the ignorance of government and issues, the kowtowing to Vladimir Putin, the serial falsehoods -- all those things and more have been reported on, extensively. 

The question is why the sum of all these parts has seemed to fail to make a cumulative impact on many voters. Maybe it was because he hasn't been judged by the standards for normal presidential candidates, since he is so far from being a normal presidential candidate. 

But among all the explanations, could it be that something was lost in the waves of evidence on how unfit he is to be president of the United States? Maybe those stories kept swamping one central story: The sheer depth and extent of the opposition to him in the Republican Party. 

This opposition begins at the top with two former Republican presidents and the most recent Republican presidential nominee -- George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush and Mitt Romney. Then there are the dozens of Republican former office-holders and officials who are supporting Hillary Clinton. Another set of dissidents includes several sitting senators and governors who won't back Clinton, but won't vote for Trump either. Here are three examples among many. Ohio Governor John Kasich wrote in John McCain's name on his early ballot. Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam said he will write in another Republican's name. And in Arizona, Senator Jeff Flake said he may write in Evan McMullin, the independent candidate who isn't on the ballot there.  

Republican disunity is present at every level of the party. A perfect example is in Idaho, where a newspaper surveyed state legislative candidates. Only 15 of the 45 Republicans asked said they would vote for Trump, and not a single one gave a strong positive answer. 

That's typical of the nationwide picture. Political scientist Boris Shor reports that only 5 percent -- 5 percent! -- of Republican state legislators have endorsed Trump, while Hillary Clinton is backed by 73 percent of Democratic state legislators across the country. 

Many Republicans who have said they will vote for Trump have done so grudgingly -- indicating that they would vote for the "Republican nominee," without saying his name, or that they would vote for him but not endorse him. They have avoided appearing with Trump or mentioning him. 

Democrats and some reporters have interpreted these Republicans' positions as an attempt to have it both ways. Fair or not, that analysis puts the focus on the wishy-washy politician -- rather than on Trump's continued weakness within a divided party. 

Cable news networks, in particular, have minimized the extent of the elite Republican split. CNN, for example, hired several Trump surrogates, rather than depending on its usual cadre of Republican pundits, many of whom are skeptical of Trump or are opposed to him. Even as these networks revel in the unique spectacle that is Trump, they maintain an illusion by sticking to their regular format, which presents the race through the standard Democrats-vs.-Republicans lens. What they in fact showed was a Democrats-vs.-Trump story that left out the considerable conflict within the Republican Party. 

At most, the Republican defections have been reported episodically, and indeed they are less likely to grab the interest of most voters than the more salacious or shocking items about the candidate. 

This imbalance has meant that the signal sent by the GOP opposition has been muffled, not amplified. Even if Republican politicians and other party actors are practically doing back flips to tell voters not to support so seriously flawed a candidate, these actors are marginalized and rarely appear on center stage. 

Would it have mattered if their voices had been louder? Many Republican voters simply like Trump, and would have chosen him regardless of -- or maybe because of -- the opposition to him among established Republican leaders.

But there are plenty of Republicans who will vote for Trump on Tuesday just because they never really heard the signal the party was sending. They were left to assume, wrongly, that aside from the drama and objections from a few party outliers, Washington insiders and sore losers, Trump is basically a normal Republican nominee.

There's no way to know how many votes might have been swayed, had the Republican resistance to Trump gotten more sustained attention. Maybe, just maybe, this would have allowed the voters who were open to new information a chance to make more informed decisions.

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:
    Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net

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