Is it time to Dump Trump?
Long past, #NeverTrumpers would say. Many of them in my vicinity have been wistfully speculating on the means, from convention coup to public-spirited time travelers, by which Donald Trump might be removed from the top of the Republican ticket.
But the case for doing so has become stronger with three pieces of news. First, the revelation that he has, to a first approximation, done few of the things necessary to build a viable campaign, such as raising big money or hiring staff. Second, he has been trailing Clinton so badly that his supporters have already resorted to the kind of poll “unskewing” rituals that are traditionally reserved for the first week of every fourth November. And third, Nate Silver’s election forecast on his FiveThirtyEight blog gives Trump just a 20-26 percent chance of winning the election.
So let us consider three questions:
Would the Republican Party be better off if it staged a coup at the convention and substituted another candidate? Does the Republican Party have a moral right to stage such a coup? Can the Republican Party manage to pull it off? The answer to the first question is, I think, simply obviously “Yes.” Consider the magnitude of Trump’s campaigning incompetence. He is, at this late date, just learning basic political skills such as writing speeches down and reading them off a teleprompter, rather than blurting out whatever offensive slur or made-up factoid that happens to pop into his head while standing at the podium.
He has completely failed to master such basic political skills as phoning people up to ask them for money, or hiring professionals who know how to court donors and voters and get everyone out to the polls come Election Day. July of an election year is not the ideal month in which to commence these important learnings. Also, the things he said while he was in the “random blurting” stage have made many of the Republican Party’s professionals unwilling to work with him.
Other Republican politicians are keeping as much distance as they can. Leaving this man on top of the ticket in November will not only lose the presidency but bring a down-ticket disaster for the party.
FiveThirtyEight is only forecasting the presidency so far, but the forecast matches the forecast of prediction markets, which also place the odds of Republicans losing the Senate at 60 percent, and losing the House at almost 20 percent. In other words, if you believe the betting market, the chances that Hillary Clinton gets to be president with solid majorities in House and Senate are on par with Trump’s chance of getting to be president at all. And I think the odds of losing the House are probably understated.
While we tend to focus mostly on the presidency, a party is a much larger entity that needs to build a coalition to wield power – and for this reason, the fates of its members are strongly intertwined. In a presidential election year, candidates for the House, Senate and even local offices get a free ride on the presidential campaign efforts. People voting for your party’s presidential candidate will probably also vote for your party in the House and Senate.
Getting people to the polls is hard. This is not like a primary, where you need a relatively small number of highly motivated voters to come out and swing the election your way; this is the Big Game, where you need to get well north of 60 million folks into the ballot booth. By definition, the last 10 million or so are going to be the ones who aren’t that interested in politics, and need a little push to get them to take the time out of their day. That’s why candidates spend so much time building up their get-out-the-vote operations.
Trump so far has shown no signs of developing either the money or the campaign infrastructure to mount the kind of operation that the typical Republican presidential candidate would put on, which helps shore up down-ticket races even when the candidate loses (as Mitt Romney did in 2012). Trump is trying to do it all with free media and Trump-branded merchandise that doubles as advertising for his business.
So unless something changes, the polls and models are probably overstating his actual performance, with horrific potential results for Senate and House candidates in competitive races.
Even if dumping Trump causes some of his supporters to stay home, getting someone else to lead the ticket would at least enable the party to raise the funds and staff a campaign that could help other Republican candidates. And, of course, some of the losses would be made up by recovering #NeverTrump voters from the Gary Johnson/Bill Weld Libertarian ticket. The object at this point is not to win the presidency; it’s to keep from losing everything else.
Trump supporters might justly protest that he won the nomination fair and square, and the party has no right to rob him of his due. I’ve thought long and hard about this. But overall, I think the party does have the moral right to remove Trump.
All political systems strike an imperfect balance between democratic responsiveness and undemocratic institutions that limit responsiveness in the name of efficiency and stability. You can’t decide where to put roads by democratic referenda, and you also can’t run a legitimate democratic state by putting all the important decisions in the hands of unelected technocrats.
We can argue whether we’ve gone too far in one direction or the other, but the moment you concede we need some kind of bureaucracy, some appointed judges, some constitutional rights that cannot be willy-nilly overruled, then we’re no longer debating whether it’s OK to have anti-democratic elements in the political system. To steal a line from George Bernard Shaw (or, er, some other famous person), now we’re just haggling over the price.
I’d still draw the line at overturning the results of a democratic election that you don’t like. And yet … a party is not the same as a government. It’s a coalition designed to get things done within that government. Which means that the restrictions on what it can and can’t do are considerably lighter, precisely because it does not have direct power over our lives. Parties are ultimately a private association, and if you don’t like how they choose to govern themselves, you can easily go out and join a different political party. The same cannot be said for the U.S. government.
Moreover, the primary’s not really like a government election – it’s a multi-stage process that doesn’t cleanly express the will of the voters as a single-day election does. And Trump didn’t even get a majority of the votes in the primary. So you can’t quite argue that the convention is overturning the will of the voters, a majority of whom wanted someone else. (And still do, according to a poll from Fox). That, I think, gives the rules committee the moral right to let delegates choose someone else, if they want.
But can they? Aye, there’s the rub. As compelling as the case for removing Trump may be, there’s little sign that the Republican Party is going to manage it.
There are two very different sets of voters who would like to see Trump gone: urban/suburban moderates and rock-ribbed conservatives. Each of those groups is horrified by Trump and the prospect of losing the election. But they apparently can’t jointly agree on a candidate.
The hardcore conservatives want someone like the obstreperous Sen. Ted Cruz, who has little charisma to appeal beyond the base, and who has alienated most of his colleagues with his showboating. The moderates want someone like Sen. Marco Rubio or Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, who will appeal to a lot more voters in a general election but whose past friendly overtures towards looser immigration rules have made them anathema to a lot of the base.
Since those folks can’t agree on a consensus candidate, they’re mostly standing around in their respective clumps, wistfully sighing that they’d sure love to vote for Donald Trump if he’d only stop being so vile for a few minutes.
What we’re seeing in the Republican Party, in fact, is a replay of the very forces that let Trump stage a hostile takeover of its apparatus: the two sides are so far apart that there is seemingly no candidate that can unify them. And in the gap in between those two sides, we get chaos.
Megan McArdle is a columnist for Bloomberg View.