Matt Lewis at the Daily Caller argues that most of the people declaring themselves “Never Trump” right now on the Right will end up caving and supporting Trump in the fall. He makes two main arguments: that most ordinary voters don’t really care much about elitist concepts like Constitutional principle or consistency on issues or whether the President has the vaguest clue what he’s doing, and that the tribal nature of partisan politics and the horrible prospect of a Hillary presidency will create enormous pressures to fall in line and vote R. He uses as an example the 2008 “PUMA” (Party Unity My A**) Hillary voters – a few of the internet voices of the PUMAs ended up leaving the party for good, but the overwhelming bulk voted for Barack Obama anyway in November.
Lewis’ arguments are not wrong, as such, and I have no doubt that some number of the people swearing now they won’t vote for Trump will come around for the reasons he identifies. Certainly many elected officials will, since they still need to appeal to the Trump voters. But I think he is underestimating a couple of important factors.
Number one, Obama in 2008 was a winner – he was ahead or at worst tied in the polls all summer and fall - and people flock to winners. Trump trails Hillary badly now, and we have copious examples in the past (especially in statewide races) of candidates who saw their support only keep splintering as a crushing defeat came into view. True, if a race is close (like Gerald Ford’s in 1976 or Mitt Romney in 2012) or even when it is obviously lost (as with Bob Dole in 1996), Republican voters may “come home” in the fall. But if it is not close, people will be a lot less motivated to put aside their “I told you so” and fall into line behind a loser. “Stop Hillary!” ceases to work as a message once it becomes apparent that she can’t be stopped.
Number two, candidates who inflame party divisions in the primaries generally try to fix this in the general election, mainly by picking fights with the other side. Romney was no rock-ribbed “severe conservative,” but he was painfully aware that the GOP base didn’t really trust him, so he mostly tried to reassure people that he was actually the conservative he claimed to be. Trump is not Romney. His first instincts upon dispatching his primary opponents were to abandon his tax cut proposal, muse about supporting a minimum wage hike, and transparently pander to Bernie Sanders voters. He won’t be able to help himself from daily reminding Republicans and conservatives why he’s not one, and at least arguably given the path he might need to win, he probably shouldn’t even try.
Number three, Trump will continue to embarrass people who might consider supporting him. Ace of Spades has made a great point about this sort of thing:
The other day a friend asked me why I was posting negative stuff on Trump. I told him, basically, that everyone has their threshold of embarrassment. I can mock the Upper Middle Class Respectable set for having what I think is a way-too-high sensitivity to embarrassment — usually one strongly shaped by leftwing PC codes –but everyone has their own level.
It’s embarrassing, to me, that at this late date Trump can only sputter about “getting rid of the lines” at a debate when asked about his health care plan.
It’s embarrassing, to me personally, when I’m is repeatedly confronted with the fact that Trump still seems to not know the contents of the Sessions Immigration Plan on his own website — the whole reason I even began to be “Trump Curious,” as I term it.
If a plan could be nominated for president, I’d vote for the Sessions Immigration Plan.
It’s personally embarrassing to discover that Trump is nearly entirely unaware of the only reason I entertained supporting him.
I’ve said it a hundred times: People will not vote for, nor support, something they feel reduces their own sense of self-worth. Or which brings shame upon them.
Maybe the biggest of all the divides in the pro-Trump and anti-Trump electorates is this – Trump’s supporters are not embarrassed by him. They mostly think he is either doing the things a leader is supposed to do, and/or putting on an entertaining act. But among normally persuadable Republicans and the 60% of Republicans who opposed Trump in the primary, sure, some just liked another candidate or didn’t think he was the best shot to win, but quite a lot felt that palpable feeling that they could not respect themselves or their party if they voted for this guy – that the only respectable way to deal with “Donald Trump for President” was to disassociate yourself entirely. Certainly that’s the case among the white collar/college educated/suburban type of Republican. I don’t need to rehash here all the reasons for that feeling (yesterday’s Cinco de Mayo tweet is but a small example), but it tends to increase with exposure to Trump, and Trump will be ubiquitous for the next six months, doing the same Trump things that already turn off so many people. That may seem to some extent like class-based tribalism, but class-based tribalism is what attracts Trump’s supporters, so they can’t well complain that it also repels his critics. Unless Trump can make #NeverTrump people comfortable with the idea that he is not embarrassing them or playing them for fools, he’s going to make it really easy to sustain resistance.