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.