The Republican Party seemingly dodged a bullet today when Donald Trump signed a pledge not to run as a third party candidate in 2016 and to endorse the party’s nominee no matter who it might be. Trump makes no bones about why his position shifted on such a pledge since the August 6th debate when he refused to make that promise. Since then, his poll numbers have soared and, whether the Republican National Committee wants it or not, he deserves the title of current frontrunner in the GOP race. But nobody should think that Trump wouldn’t change his mind if he winds up being eclipsed in the early caucus and primary states next winter and spring.
The Trump loyalty pledge was an indication of how confident he’s feeling now about winning the GOP nomination, and he has good reason to think so at this point. The latest national poll, this one from Monmouth, shows Trump getting a whopping 30 percent in the 17-person race with Ben Carson, his nearest competitor, at 18 percent. Scoff all you want at the potential inaccuracy of polls and tell us again about how early it is and how much things may change in the five months before Iowans cast the first votes in 2016. But that’s still a huge lead, and, given the fact that neither media scrutiny nor attacks from competitors seem to influence his fans, it’s hard to argue that he doesn’t, at the very least, have a good chance of being the GOP nominee.
But five months is a lifetime in politics, and what seems certain today may not last. And that is why this pledge isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.
Trump initially said he wouldn’t sign if he thought the RNC wasn’t fair to him. In the intervening weeks he says they have been appropriate but fairness to Trump has nothing to do with fair play and everything to do with whether it advances his agenda. The RNC has nothing to lose by trying to get Trump to play ball, but it will be a different story next spring if one of his competitors comes from behind and beats him.
The interesting experiment that we’re going to watch unfold in the coming weeks and months is how an avalanche of negative advertising directed at him affects his popularity. It’s true that up until now it has appeared as if he was the ultimate Teflon candidate. No statement he made, no matter how outrageous, irresponsible, or misogynist has hurt him in the least. No arguments about his liberal policy stands or analysis that showed how contradictory and senseless many of his talking points detracted from his popularity. Indeed, the more ridiculous his stances, the more many people seemed to like him. Trump’s personality and truculence seem to embody the current moment in which anger and disgust against career politicians dominate the national conversation.
But will grassroots Republicans, including Tea Partiers and social and religious conservatives, really vote for him after they learn more about his record and positions? Maybe they won’t care. That seems to be what some liberals, who never had any respect for Tea Party principles, think will happen. Perhaps Trumpist populism will conquer all in its path. But then again, perhaps Donald Trump isn’t as miraculous a politician as he currently seems to be.
Better men with stronger records as well as a lot of financial resources have ultimately been demolished by negative advertising. Is Trump the sole exception to the rule that says negative advertising is used because it works?
We don’t know the answer to that question yet. But if he is ultimately proved to be as vulnerable to being taken down by a microscopic of his record as any other candidate, then we’ll look back on today’s pledge and laugh.
There is a lot we don’t know about Trump as a candidate and a politician yet. But the one thing we know for sure is that he is not likely to be a good loser. When it comes to attacks, he is a counter-puncher, and if he winds up not being ale to defeat the Republicans taking punches at him, he will take it out on the entire party.
Trump is a smart man and, therefore, some wise men tell us, he knows that third party candidates can’t possibly win the presidency. But we also know that Trump thinks the normal rules of conduct and politics don’t apply to him. If for some reason he doesn’t get the GOP nomination, it’s likely he’ll think he has a populist formula and the cash on hand to do what Ross Perot failed to do in 1992 and 1996.
That seems like a far-fetched scenario today, but Trump’s rage if he appears to be losing the nomination will be fearful. It’s not just that there is no way to enforce the pledge. It’s that Trump will convince himself that he is justified in breaking his promise because he will see every negative development in his campaign as part of an unfair plot against him. And if enough GOP candidates drop out and a critical mass of Republicans coalesce behind the leading non-Trump — which right now is the only formula in sight for beating him — he’s going to view it as a conspiracy.
Last month, I wrote that nothing short of a personality cult masquerading as a political party could accommodate his egoism or tolerate his bad behavior. At the moment, that prediction appears to have been debunked as the Trump surge seems big enough to sweep the entire GOP in its wake. But if it doesn’t, I still believe Trump will run as a third party candidate and that he’ll believe he can win as one. After the last two months, can anyone safely bet against him?