Trump’s Pivotal Flop

The General Election Pivot has become something of a tradition in contemporary American politics, as the nominated candidates pirouette from gymnasiums of party activists to coliseums of swing state voters. Some candidates make the transition seamlessly after uncontested or skillfully moderated primaries, while others careen out of partisan free-for-alls to try to explain away the promises they made to their bases.

Donald Trump’s segue into the general election has been harder to comprehend, in part because there has been no such pivot. The Donald has yet to accept or adjust to the fact that the general election is a bigger, more diverse playing field than the GOP primary and seems to think he can continue to settle scores, brush aside skeptics, and exacerbate controversies without consequence. Perhaps his abysmal poll numbers will jar him back to political reality but, with less than five months until election day, it may already be too late.

Although his candidacy was dismissed from beginning to end by the punditry, Trump’s politics were a perfect fit for the 2016 GOP primary. In a crowded field with a number of well-qualified but ideologically similar candidates, Trump had the name, temperament, and high-wattage personality to dominate the media landscape at the expense of his rivals. With this haphazard legion of competitors, Trump could afford to lose two-thirds of the voters in some states and still win the primary. In New Hampshire, where he scored his first primary victory, there were four other candidates who received at least 10 percent of the vote, and a litany of stragglers and also-rans lagged behind them. Trump needed only 35 percent of the vote to win the state, and a week later he took South Carolina in similar fashion with just 33 percent.

This environment incentivized Trump’s belligerence, as the networks provided endless coverage, his rallies attracted massive crowds, and the GOP debates became a sort of weekly political Super Bowl. Also, with the need to moderate his positions eliminated by the divided nature of his opposition, Trump could afford to stand out with his aggressive and often repugnant rhetoric. Faced with doubts about his candidacy that persisted long after he had built a substantial delegate lead, Trump may have learned the lesson too well that his belligerence was good politics.

As the Republican Party grudgingly accepted this orange-hued reality TV star as their nominee, it seemed likely that his advisers or the Republican National Committee would impress upon him that the general election was a new ballgame that required some degree of moderation. Trump, however, perhaps imaging himself smarter-by-half than the political insiders who had long doubted his candidacy, has decidedly gone in the opposite  direction, unleashing a salvo of controversial statements, insults, and policy proposals that have made the awfulness of his candidacy abundantly clear to the party and public alike. Five months is an eternity in politics, but even if he reforms tomorrow these past five weeks will weigh heavily on his candidacy.

What is obvious at this point is that Trump is simply unable or unwilling to understand that he is now facing the entire country as a candidate. His incendiary attacks on immigrants may have been accepted in overwhelmingly white, low-turnout primaries in crimson red Republican states, but in an increasingly diverse country these sentiments are increasingly met with the scorn they deserve. While it is astonishing to see a candidate on this stage with so little awareness of the electorate he’s facing, Trump, having just turned 70, is unlikely to remake himself in the public eye over the next few months. Facing the election as if he’s trying to win a tabloid war instead of the presidency, Trump seems to think he can fight the Democrats, half his own party, the media, and still navigate a path to victory. Facing off against a candidate backed by a comparatively unified Democratic Party, Trump is unlikely to insult his way to the White House.

Five Theories on Bernie’s End Game

In the aftermath of a chaotic Nevada state convention and rhetoric from Bernie Sanders that belies his near-zero chance at securing the nomination, it’s hard to tell what the end game is for the Sanders campaign. Here are a few theories from one of America’s least relevant political blogs on what he’s after.

The Rick Astley  / Wistful Bernie Theory

In virtually every Bernie Sanders stump speech, he’ll take his listeners back to “when we started this campaign” and recall the single-digit poll numbers and equally low expectations from which he launched his presidential bid. Although Sanders never led in pledged delegates after the Nevada caucus on February 20th and never consistently led Clinton in national polls, there were plenty of moments in the campaign when it looked like the perpetual underdog surely had the momentum and, in the eyes of his supporters if not the pundits, a legitimate chance at securing the nomination.

Even when Clinton seemed about to close the door, for months Sanders was able to pry it open with timely wins that cast doubt on whether the race was really over. After the ups and downs of that ride and months of defying expectations, it has to be hard for Sanders to admit that the door may have really closed, particularly since, at 74 years old, this is likely his first and last bid at the White House. On top of that, there are millions of Sanders supporters who emphatically want him to take the race all the way to the convention, and Bernie might have political incentives to do just that. Also, the cheering crowds and continuing enthusiasm for Bernie makes it clear, particularly from the vantage point of the podium, that he still has a receptive audience for his message.

The Bernie Sanders Is Pissed and Now a Source of Nihilistic Rage Theory

Another feature in virtually every Sanders stump speech is his denunciation of The Establishment and a riff on the allegedly crooked process that has obstructed his path to the nomination. This is politically valuable in the sense that, in spite of substantial deficits in the delegate count and popular vote for much of the race, Sanders has been able to keep alive the idea that he is the true tribune of the people. However, just because this message helps Sanders’ political narrative doesn’t mean he doesn’t believe it. Oftentimes Sanders sounds legitimately embittered and convinced that he has been denied a fair shot at the nomination. Is it possible that he’s angry enough to widen the split in the Democratic Party in the name of ornery New England spite?

The cold water on this theory is the simple fact that Sanders is an astute politician who’s unlikely to throw away his political capital for a kamikaze attack on the Democratic Party. Also, a casual jaunt through grainy clips of Sanders speeches from years past leaves one with the blindingly obvious impression that Sanders has been angry at The Establishment for years, so this isn’t a new concept for him. Finally, Sanders has regularly said that any Democratic nominee is far better than a Republican in the White House, so he’s unlikely to undercut that to settle a personal grudge.

The Power of the Healer Theory

Perhaps the most compelling theory is that Sanders benefits politically from maintaining something of a gulf between his supporters and the Democratic Party. Had Sanders read the writing on the wall after his crushing loss in New York and decided  to march gently into the good night, the Democratic Party would be more unified today, but such a move would sharply diminish Sanders’ clout. He would have a good speaking slot at the convention and might be holding unity rallies with Clinton, but his ability to push the party left and influence its platform would be fading by the day. By keeping his campaign alive into June, Sanders maintains his influence and heightens his ability to extract concessions from the party. Also, to borrow from the last two theories, this enables him to stay on the trail and, if he’s so inclined, air a few grievances.

If this is indeed Sanders’ strategy, it’s a dangerous one for the Democrats since each day of party disunity benefits Donald Trump. However, Sanders is undoubtedly aware of Trump’s astronomically high unfavorable ratings, decades of incendiary quotes, and problematic relationships with nearly every demographic group the Census Bureau acknowledges. With what looks like a winnable race for Clinton, Sanders might feel he can afford to push her and the Democratic Party to the left for a few more weeks.

The Valley of the Polls Theory

One has to believe that, behind closed doors, Bernie is aware that his chances of winning are virtually non-existent. However, one argument he’s been making for months is that, because of his better poll numbers against Trump, superdelegates should read the political tea leaves and award him the nomination. Since that would involve a complete repudiation of the popular vote, this is highly unlikely to happen, and Bernie’s tenuous relationship with the Democratic Party makes this hail-mary effort even more of a long shot. Still, a mass defection of superdelegates is the only chance Sanders has at this point, so by delaying party unity and denying Clinton a bump in the polls as the party coalesces around her, Bernie keeps his negligible chances of winning on life support.

The this-won’t-happen-BUT-OH-MY-GOD-WHAT-IF-IT-DOES Theory

If Trump has astronomically high unfavorables right now, Hillary Clinton’s negatives are at least adrift in the stratosphere. Clinton’s profile is likely more fixable than Trump’s since many of her negative storylines are old news that has been in the papers since the previous century, while Trump on the other hand is about to face a level of scrutiny that far surpasses what he encountered during the primary or during earlier flirtations with higher office. On top of that, the Democrats will soon dust off their opposition research file on Trump, which surely rivals War & Peace in both length and narrative complexity. However, if Sanders has truly ventured into the political wilderness he might read into the unfavorable ratings of  the two presumptive nominees and see a narrow path to the nomination on the third party track. The chances of this, while infinitesimal, are just enough to sustain a paragraph of wild speculation.

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Despite the bitter conclusion to this year’s Democratic primary and Sanders’ obstinate refusal to yield to the cold realities of delegate math, Sanders has repeatedly indicated that he will support the Democratic nominee. While it remains to be seen whether he will be an enthusiastic supporter of Clinton (as she was of Obama in 2008) or a lukewarm endorser (in the mold of Ted Kennedy in 1980), the  most likely outcome is that Sanders will endorse Hillary and muster a reasonable level of enthusiasm while seeking to capitalize on his newfound profile. Whether he does that in the Senate or attempts to sustain the movement he spearheaded in less traditional ways will be interesting to watch, but he is surely ready to serve as an antagonist to whoever is elected to the White House.

Hillary Clinton Stumbles on Wealth Questions

After a presidential election in which the losing candidate was seriously damaged, if not defeated, by perceptions that he was a distant plutocrat, Hillary Clinton’s early stumbles on questions about her personal fortune certainly cheered opponents. Claims that she and Bill were “dead broke” when they left the White House and had “no money” rang hollow with the public. While their finances may have been stretched thinner than some may realize, there’s certainly no shortage of lucrative opportunities for an ex-president and accomplished first lady. She didn’t help matters with a later remark that they pay income taxes “unlike a lot people who are truly well off.” If Clinton is indeed going to seek the presidency, she’s going to need to find a better way to talk about being rich.

The “dead broke” comment was a tone deaf exaggeration that was predictably lampooned and met with general skepticism. Enlisting Terry McAuliffe to help secure a loan for a $1.7 million house isn’t quite the same thing as scrambling to scrounge together a security deposit for a post-White House apartment. The remark about those who are “truly well off” is a bit more innocuous when read in context, but still a comment that should’ve been avoided after she claimed to have emerged from the White House in poverty. It’s precisely the kind of sound bite that will be dissected by breathless conservative commentators and minced into unflattering headlines.

In the grand scheme of the 24-hour news cycle, these remarks are unlikely to be terribly significant in the long run. They’ll live on for a time in the conservative echo chamber but will eventually fade from public memory, particularly as other prospective candidates contribute their own verbal failures to the national discussion. However, that doesn’t mean Clinton’s initial missteps on this topic shouldn’t be cause for some concern. In the wake of a major recession, with income equality becoming a more persistent issue, and many voters convinced that the American Dream is no longer within reach, talking about wealth has become an increasingly important part of running for office in America. Voters can be forgiven for thinking that the millionaire candidate on stage who just flew in on a corporate jet from a $50,000-a-plate fundraiser may not be completely in tune with their concerns. While the Clintons spent much of their lives in public service and outside the upper stratosphere of income earners, in recent years they have earned tremendous amounts of money from best-selling books, speaking engagements, and other endeavors. There’s certainly nothing wrong with such success, but there needs to be a better approach to discussing it. Fortunately for Clinton, she has quite a bit of time to develop that message.