There's a question that still remains to be answered as the 2015 “invisible primary” – the pre-primary debates, television ads, polling and talk show appearances – comes to an end. It is, "Will the Republicans lose the 2016 presidential election if they nominate Donald Trump as their candidate?"
The question has been bandied about since last summer, but as Trump's lead (35 percent or more in many recent polls) continues to increase with less than four weeks to go to the Iowa caucuses and then another week to the New Hampshire primary, it has spread beyond the halls of the Republican National Committee. It is now the 800-pound gorilla in the room of political analysts and the party faithful.
For many Republicans outside the Washington area, Trump’s candidacy has been a breath of fresh air in an atmosphere of suffocating campaign double-talk, political correctness and the business-as-usual approach of the political class in the nation’s capital. Trump's rise to cruising-level popularity has shown those of us who thought we'd seen it all that we hadn’t. He has caught the slipstream of voter dissatisfaction and ridden it successfully, with attention-grabbing direct talk to the public and deft manipulation of the hottest of hot-button issues and the national media.
Like an Olympic runner who gets off to a quick start and then stretches his lead, Trump has spent most of his time just grinding ahead and never looking back. He hasn’t suffered fools (or attacks) gladly. He’s been locked and loaded with his classic lightning-bolt, counter-punching style, using personal invective rather than policy disagreements on whomever he sees as his opposition. It’s not endearing, but it’s effective ... for now.
For most of 2015, Trump adopted a “take no prisoners” attitude, using the media against all who would ridicule him and leaving his detractors wounded on the battlefield. This is the just the first step in his overall strategy of divide and conquer, but how long can he can ride this wave? Republican insiders still believe the time will come when the flammable mix of anger toward Washington and xenophobic fear that's giving Trump his numbers will dissipate.
But angry and fearful voter support could last long enough to give Trump several early primary victories. And if he runs the table and gets the Republicans' nod, he will face an important choice: Should he stay true to his current battle plan of confrontation and controversial statements, or should he adopt a more policy-oriented campaign that might ingratiate him with minorities, women and young voters?
Given that few candidates can – or should – actually remake themselves, it’s doubtful that Trump can change his spots, and this could result in the loss of several states' electoral votes. In our recent book, "Breaking Republican," S.J. Helgesen and I wrote that the Republican candidate will need to win all the states the party won in 2012 plus one or two more to hit the magic 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency. Absent a vice presidential nominee who could improve Trump’s chances of winning a couple of purple or blue states, one of the must-win states will be Virginia, with 13 electoral votes. But Trump’s candidacy has the potential to rewrite that scenario somewhat.
It is well known that some Republicans, anticipating a Trump loss in the general election and even a loss of control of the Senate, are wringing their hands before the first primary votes are counted. On the other hand, Trump, with his “Make America Great Again” theme, has the potential to win states in the Midwest like Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio (“make the industrial states great again”).
This would mean getting support from more blue-collar and white working-class voters, not just suburban, college-educated, white-collar voters. These angriest voters have been attracted to Trump largely for his unique leadership style – yes, I said “style,” not “policy” – and this is what makes this election year totally different, one that no Romney or McCain would understand.
The key for Trump would be to convince GOP insiders with polling data that he can rebrand the party image (remember … as a businessman, he is a master at branding) with a permanent alliance of the angrier Midwestern states with the more ideological Southern states. If that is Trump’s version of making America great again, then 270 electoral votes will be there.
Obviously, given the importance of this election, we must keep our finger on the pulse of the Republican Party's leaders and watch where they're heading. But more importantly, we must closely monitor voter sentiment in a few key states: Virginia and now Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio. We should also carefully weigh the damage that could be done if the party insiders stay with the old GOP brand, and if some abandon the nominee.
Republicans shouldn't put themselves in that position. Now is not the time to be conflicted. Now is the time to realign the Republican party with key Midwest states, and Trump may have the answer. In just a few weeks, the 2016 primaries may also have the answer.