GOP Branding Problem Is Larger than Donald Trump

Sick Elephant AP

National Republican leaders are openly discussing ways to select an alternative at the Republican Convention in July, as frontrunner Donald Trump inches closer to securing the Republican nomination.

The options range from imposing a new multiple-ballot vote, to a closed-door effort that would stack delegates and subvert existing convention rules to defeat Trump.

The most defensible argument for a brokered convention is a growing belief that Trump would be a disaster as the Republican standard-bearer in November.

Trump is certainly an unconventional choice for a general election candidate and presents the party with a host of complications. It is important to remember, though, that the Republican party finds itself in this position because it has destroyed its brand with large segments of its own voters and, perhaps, a decisive number of general election voters.

But Trump’s candidacy does face real challenges in November. A poll released Monday showed Trump trailing both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in Utah, a state that hasn’t voted for a Democrat for President since LBJ’s landslide in 1964. Both Ted Cruz and John Kasich led the Democrats by almost 20 points in Utah.

This isn’t an outlier, either. Another recent poll of Utah found that only 29 percent of Republicans in the state would support Trump in November. One quarter of Republicans, amazingly, say they would write-in another candidate. Just seven percent say they would vote for a Democrat, while 15 percent would back a third-party candidate.

This hesitancy isn’t just a Utah phenomenon. Even in New Hampshire, which Trump won by around 20 points, 47 percent of Republicans said they would be “dissatisfied” if he were the nominee.

According to exit polls from last week’s primaries, between a quarter and a third of Republicans say they would not support Trump if he were the nominee. Almost 40 percent of Republicans in these states would consider supporting a third-party candidate instead of Trump.

Considering that states included in these exit polls include perennial swing-states Florida, Ohio, Missouri’ and North Carolina, the possibility that a sizable chunk of Republicans may bolt to a third party, or simply stay home, ensures that many national Republicans fret at the idea of Trump capturing the nomination.

In the latest CNN poll, one-fifth of Republicans nationwide say they would be “upset” if Trump won the nomination. In the poll, Trump trails Hillary Clinton by 12 points. He trails Bernie Sanders by 20 points. Kasich actually edges Clinton, while Cruz and Clinton are tied. In this poll, then, Trump fares at least 12 points worse against Clinton than his competitors.

In dozens of recent general election polls, in fact, Trump fares far worse against Clinton than either Cruz or Kasich. Only in New York state does Trump fare better, although he still loses to Clinton by 19 points. In Arizona, Trump ties Clinton, while Cruz leads her by six. In Pennsylvania, Trump trails Clinton by eight points, but Cruz trails by just three points. Trump trails Clinton in Ohio by six points, yet Cruz leads her by two points.

It is important to remember that the general election is still more than seven months away. Trump has shown he has an uncanny ability to dominate the terms of debate and terrain of a campaign. He is likely to campaign against Hillary Clinton with an aggressive tenacity.

Still, it is worth noting that he is starting much further behind than any of his remaining competitors.

Therein lies the really serious problem for the Republican party. It still has not found a way to stop Trump from winning Republican primaries in every region of the country. So far, Republican donors have spent over $500 million supporting candidates who have dropped out of the Presidential race. Half a billion dollars didn’t even make it through the middle of March, when just over half the delegates have been awarded.

Many critics of Trump console themselves with the fact that he hasn’t yet won a majority of Republicans in any state, but he has secured healthy pluralities. While it is certainly conceivable that Trump would lose to a single Republican opponent, John Kasich, who is a very distant third in the race, has promised to stay in the nomination contest until the bitter end.

Trump’s strong plurality is sufficient to prevail in the remaining contests against two opponents. Even if he doesn’t secure 1,237 delegates ahead of the convention, he will have by far the most delegates of any other candidate.

Kasich’s quixotic run for the nomination reveals the central problem facing the Republican party. The Ohio Governor is continuing his run because he believes that neither Donald Trump nor Ted Cruz can win in November. Kasich’s stubborn run isn’t solely to block Trump, but also to block Cruz.

Together, Trump and Cruz have won 60-75 percent of the Republican vote in most state primaries. This overwhelming majority has come in open and closed primaries in all parts of the country. Even in Kasich’s home state of Ohio, Trump and Cruz combined for more votes than Kasich. In most other states, the gap between them is more of a chasm.

The argument put forward by Kasich, and many national Republicans, is that the base of the Republican party is wrong about the general election. Since the beginning of the campaign season, outsider candidates, including Trump, Cruz, Carson, and Fiorina, commanded at least 70 percent support among Republicans. The anti-climactic “battle for the establishment lane,” obsessed over by the media, was focused on no more than a third of Republicans voters nationwide.

The $500 million blown already by failed Republican candidates for President isn’t about a failure to deploy all the tactics of a modern-day campaign. It is simply testament to the notion that no amount of money can sell a product no one wants.

While many Republican leaders say they are most concerned with Donald Trump winning the nomination, their actions speak otherwise. If blocking Trump were the imperative they suggest it is, then Kasich would immediately drop out and they would swing all of their support behind Ted Cruz. He is the only other Republican candidate who could, theoretically, still secure the 1,237 delegates necessary to win the nomination.

Tellingly, however, they won’t do that. They worry publicly about Trump, but fret just as much privately about Cruz. While Trump has some clear weaknesses in a general election, Cruz, they believe, is “too conservative” to win in November.

Twice now, national Republican leaders have prevailed over grass-roots activist voters supporting conservative candidates and secured the nomination for Sen. John McCain and Gov. Mitt Romney, two candidates GOP voters were assured could “win in November.”

They lost, spectacularly. Is there any coherent reason to suggest that the Kasich playbook, built on ignoring 70 percent of Republican voters, would fare any better?

If the GOP has a Trump problem, or a Cruz problem, its because the party has lost touch with its own voters. In exit polls, over half of Republicans say they feel “betrayed” by GOP leadership. Not dissatisfied or annoyed, mind you, but betrayed. Kind in mind, this betrayal has arisen less than two years after voters handed Republicans complete control of Congress and dozens of statehouses around the country.

It is perhaps foolish to bet against an entrenched political machine in its own nomination contest. Almost by definition, the party controls all the levers of power and decision making in that contest. In the end, though, a party is nothing without its voters. Trump, and to an extent Cruz, have already shown that Republican voters feel little loyalty to the party’s leadership.

The rise of Trump and the persistence of Cruz will force the party hierarchy to pull out all the stops if it tries to win the nomination battle. If it does try, it will lose the election war.



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