Trump’s Strategy Now Falls Flat

A new poll finds that the edgy ideas Donald Trump stressed in the GOP primaries have little appeal to likely voters in the fall.

Donald Trump speaking in New York on Wednesday
AP Photo/Mary Altaffer
Ronald Brownstein
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Ronald Brownstein
June 23, 2016, 12:01 a.m.

The fail­ure to con­struct a cred­ible gen­er­al-elec­tion fun­drais­ing and field or­gan­iz­a­tion em­in­ently jus­ti­fied Don­ald Trump’s de­cision this week to fire his com­bat­ive cam­paign man­ager, Corey Le­wan­dowski. But it’s likely that Trump him­self has already made the de­cisions that will most shape—and con­strict—his gen­er­al-elec­tion pro­spects.

As a first-time can­did­ate with no re­cord in pub­lic of­fice, the most im­port­ant de­cision Trump faced was how to define him­self to the pub­lic. From the out­set, he has stressed three prin­cip­al iden­tit­ies. One is as a savvy busi­ness ex­ec­ut­ive who would use his private-sec­tor smarts to turn around the gov­ern­ment and eco­nomy. The second is as a polit­ic­al out­sider un­tethered to spe­cial in­terests who will clean up a self-serving polit­ic­al sys­tem. But through the primar­ies he sub­or­din­ated each of those to a third em­phas­is: his role as the em­bod­i­ment of res­ist­ance to Amer­ica’s rap­id demo­graph­ic and cul­tur­al change.

A ma­jor na­tion­al poll re­leased Thursday morn­ing shows how that defin­i­tion gave Trump a strong tail­wind dur­ing the Re­pub­lic­an primary—but now presents a fierce head­wind in a gen­er­al elec­tion. The poll also helps cla­ri­fy why the con­test between Trump and Hil­lary Clin­ton is likely to pivot more on ques­tions of na­tion­al iden­tity in a rap­idly di­ver­si­fy­ing coun­try than on any oth­er is­sue.

The sur­vey, by the non­par­tis­an Pub­lic Re­li­gion Re­search In­sti­tute and the cen­ter-left Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion, meas­ures Amer­ic­ans’ at­ti­tudes about a broad range of is­sues re­lat­ing to im­mig­ra­tion and demo­graph­ic change. Con­sist­ently, the poll found that Trump sup­port­ers view the changes with great­er—of­ten much great­er—alarm than not only Demo­crats or in­de­pend­ents, but also Re­pub­lic­ans who did not sup­port Trump dur­ing the GOP primar­ies. In all, the sur­vey shows that Trump was lif­ted by a co­ali­tion that largely be­lieves the Amer­ica it has known is un­der siege—and that un­pre­ced­en­ted meas­ures are re­quired to re­verse the threat.

Ac­cord­ing to fig­ures provided to me by PRRI, Trump sup­port­ers (in­clud­ing both Re­pub­lic­ans and GOP-lean­ing in­de­pend­ents who backed him dur­ing the primary) are more likely than Demo­crats, in­de­pend­ents, or oth­er Re­pub­lic­ans to say that they worry about be­ing a vic­tim of ter­ror­ism or vi­ol­ent crime; that they are bothered when they hear im­mig­rants talk­ing in a lan­guage oth­er than Eng­lish; that dis­crim­in­a­tion against whites is as great a prob­lem as dis­crim­in­a­tion against minor­it­ies; and that Amer­ic­an and Is­lam­ic val­ues are in­her­ently at odds. Fully 80 per­cent of Trump voters say that im­mig­rants are more bur­den than be­ne­fit to Amer­ica; just 27 per­cent of Demo­crats, 41 per­cent of in­de­pend­ents, and 53 per­cent of oth­er Re­pub­lic­ans agree.

Of­ten the con­trast between Trump sup­port­ers and all oth­er adults widened fur­ther when the poll meas­ured those who hold these po­s­i­tions most vehe­mently. That helps ex­plain the broad sup­port in Trump’s co­ali­tion for his edgi­est pro­pos­als; in­deed, the poll makes clear that Trump tri­umphed not in spite of his most po­lar­iz­ing ideas, but largely be­cause of them. Roughly four-fifths of Trump sup­port­ers say they back his plans to build a wall with Mex­ico, to tem­por­ar­ily ban all Muslims from en­ter­ing the coun­try, and to bar Syr­i­an refugees. In each case, between 43 and 47 per­cent of Trump sup­port­ers back those ideas strongly.

But each of those three ideas face sol­id ma­jor­ity op­pos­i­tion from the pub­lic over­all, draw­ing sup­port from only about one-quarter of Demo­crats and two-fifths of in­de­pend­ents. (Most non-Trump-sup­port­ing Re­pub­lic­ans do back them, but by much nar­row­er mar­gins.) Sim­il­arly, the poll found, less than one-quarter of in­de­pend­ents, Demo­crats, or oth­er Re­pub­lic­ans sup­port Trump’s pledge to de­port all un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants; even most of his own back­ers say they would al­low the un­doc­u­mented to ob­tain leg­al status and re­main.

The poll shows that Trump’s in­su­lar mes­sage may find its biggest audi­ence at the in­ter­sec­tion of im­mig­ra­tion and ter­ror; most re­spond­ents said they con­sidered Is­lam­ic and Amer­ic­an val­ues at odds. After the Or­lando mas­sacre, that sen­ti­ment could rise fur­ther. And the poll also shows anxi­ety about the im­pact of im­mig­ra­tion on wages.

But the sur­vey’s over­all mes­sage is that Trump’s emer­gence rep­res­ents a tri­umph for the most ar­dent ele­ments in the GOP’s “co­ali­tion of res­tor­a­tion,” voters who are res­ist­ant to demo­graph­ic change. Bar­ring an un­likely con­ven­tion coup, their suc­cess in pro­pelling him to the nom­in­a­tion has put the party at odds not only with Amer­ica’s grow­ing minor­ity pop­u­la­tion, which is ex­press­ing stra­to­spher­ic­ally high un­fa­vor­able sen­ti­ments about Trump in sur­veys. It’s also ali­en­ated many col­lege-edu­cated whites (es­pe­cially wo­men), who are much more likely than their non-col­lege-edu­cated coun­ter­parts to re­coil from Trump’s ra­cially tinged na­tion­al­ism. No Demo­crat­ic pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate since 1952 has car­ried most col­lege-edu­cated whites, but two na­tion­al sur­veys re­leased this week have shown Clin­ton lead­ing Trump among them by at least 6 per­cent­age points.

Those res­ults cap­ture the lim­its of this week’s ab­rupt mid-course cor­rec­tion. However the can­did­ate re­tools his gen­er­al-elec­tion strategy after dis­miss­ing Le­wan­dowski, the choices Trump made to win the primar­ies have already left him with only a nar­row and pre­cari­ous path to the White House.

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