Many in the media seem to be having some difficulties comprehending just how badly Donald Trump is doing, and how unusual it is for the Republican Party to be so resistant to their own presidential nominee.
Alan Rappeport and Maggie Haberman had a perfectly fine piece in the New York Times Wednesday listing the many issues on which Trump has flip-flopped. But the preface is bizarre: They compare Trump to Secretary of State John Kerry in his 2004 run for president, and claim Kerry was destroyed by charges of flip-flopping while Trump “has so far avoided much harm” from switching positions on core issues of public policy.
For the record: Kerry lost narrowly to George W. Bush, a fairly popular sitting president. Trump is currently falling about 7 percentage points behind Hillary Clinton, even though she appears to be quite unpopular herself — perhaps because Trump is the most unpopular major party presidential nominee in the polling era.
And while Kerry had solid backing from Democratic Party actors in 2004, practically every prominent Republican seems to have come down with a severe case of needing-to-wash-their-hair the week of July 18, rendering them unable to make it to Cleveland for the party’s convention.
It’s true that Kerry’s flip-flops were featured in lots of news stories in 2004 (in part because Bush made them a major campaign theme). And it’s probably true there has been less media attention given to Trump’s policy changes. It’s also possible that Kerry’s relatively strong finish in his presidential race happened despite damage done to his campaign from flip-flopping.
Leaving 2004 aside, however, I think Rappeport and Haberman are dead wrong about Trump.
Perhaps flip-flopping hasn’t directly harmed Trump with voters. It has, almost certainly, harmed him with Republican party actors. And rightly so.
It’s likely many Christian conservatives don’t trust his current pro-life position on abortion, given his many gyrations on the issue. It’s likely tax-cut proponents don’t trust him on their issues, since he’s been on both sides of that one, too. Neither neocons nor pragmatists trust him on foreign policy, since in addition to displaying appalling ignorance on the subject, he also regularly changes his positions.
Some Republican party actors will still wind up supporting him because, for example, totally random selections for the Supreme Court are still a better value for conservative Republicans than the mainstream liberals Clinton is certain to nominee. But only the most gullible of the naïve will trust Trump to stick to the conservative-approved list of potential justices he has been peddling recently. And while there are exceptions, political actors tend to be hard-headed cynics, not naifs.
Sometimes, the stuff that matters doesn’t show up in TV ads. That doesn’t mean it isn’t important. And not everything in TV ads turns out to be all that significant.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist covering U.S. politics.