Conventional wisdom says Donald Trump can’t be elected president.
Not only does he score poorly with women and non-white voters, but also more than a third of Republicans say they’ll never support him, according to a recent Rasmussen survey.
That percentage surely would shrink were Trump to become the Republican nominee, but an intraparty gulf anywhere near that magnitude would be electorally prohibitive when added to Trump’s other challenges, or so the thinking goes.
But what if Trump and his team are up to something else? What if they’re planning to write off millions of conservative voters and instead pursue a new, broad and hazily defined populist coalition that includes political independents and disaffected devotees of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, should former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton become the Democratic Party nominee?
This at once sounds farcical and obvious.
First the obvious: Of course, Trump is going to move to the political middle. It’s standard operating procedure in general election campaigns. And then the laugh: The archetypal Sanders voters is a 23-year-old Brown graduate with a degree in environmentally progressive feminism, hardly the Trump type.
But a couple of recent Trump statements suggest this could be his team’s strategy, nonetheless. That, or The Donald’s message indiscipline knows no bounds.
In a single week, Trump called for removing the “Human Life Amendment” from the national Republican Party platform, and for liberality in granting transgender Americans access to changing and bathroom facilities of their choice. (He has since taken a half-step back on the latter, but only a half-step.)
Trump’s statements should rationally disabuse any notion that he’s still seeking to corral holdout conservative voters. The human life plank, which would update 14th Amendment’s protections to apply to unborn children, has been central to keeping social conservatives in the existing Republican coalition since it was added to the party platform in 1984. And Trump’s bath and shower room comments clearly appeal more to young progressives than to traditionalist Americans. The question is whether his remarks were genuine or by design.
It’s a gigantic question.
If Trump pivots into anti-Wall Street messaging a few weeks hence; if he starts talking about the insane cost of a college education and Clinton’s big corporate contributors, that question will be largely answered. If nominee Trump were to pick a moderate as a running mate, it would be cemented.
Such a move could constitute a radical realignment of the country’s existing political dynamic. If the Republican National Committee were to willingly go along, it would mean redefining the Republican Party as a centrist vessel for largely white, middle- and lower-middle class dissatisfaction from both sides of the political aisle. It would mean setting the Ronald Reagan conservative wing of the GOP adrift.
Would such a coalition be feasible?
It just might be: Trump’s model voter, according to political demographers, is white, working class and male, although far from exclusively male. He or she is the crassly proverbial “Joe and Jane Sixpack,” left behind by today’s economy and political structure. Many of these voters are Democrats — and Bernie Sanders supporters.
When you consider that around 63 percent of Americans are Caucasian, and an almost equal percentage are without a college diploma, you can begin to add up the number of potential voters theoretically in play. What you have, ripe for the picking, is a large, not particularly ideological, cross section of frustrated Americans looking to make a statement. Added to that, or rather subtracted from it, might be that Brown and that socially conservative voter, each with no place to go in November. Both might just stay home.
It takes a lot of assumptions to envision a scenario like this unfolding. But it feels anything but far-fetched. Indeed, it’s the only strategy that makes sense at this point, if there’s any logic to Trump’s madness.
William F. B. O’Reilly is a Republican consultant.