Donald Trump might be a punch line in East Coast newsrooms, but veteran political operatives regard him as a serious contender in the 2016 Iowa Republican caucuses.
Trump’s recent feuding with NBC and Univision has endeared him to some Republican activists, just as Newt Gingrich profited from attacking debate moderators in 2012, and he brings a matchless degree of celebrity to the Republican field. Trump isn’t resting on his reputation, though. Instead, the billionaire real-estate tycoon has built a robust political operation in Iowa, raising the possibility that his dismal approval rating won’t stop him from exerting a significant influence on the race.
Trump has surged into second place in Iowa and New Hampshire since announcing his candidacy two weeks ago, in part because his high name-ID has generated broad-based interest in his campaign. “Trump is interesting, in a strange sort of way,” says Steve Roberts, who has served as chairman of the Iowa Republican Party and as a former member of the Republican National Committee. “I’d need to know more about his positions before I’d [vote for him], but I don’t think it’s outside the realm of possibility.”
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“Even if he can’t win, I wouldn’t discount his ability to play spoiler in the early states.”
Even more traditional candidates are starting to regard Trump as a rival. “Even if he can’t win, I wouldn’t discount his ability to play spoiler in the early states,” says a pollster affiliated with another GOP presidential hopeful. “And for who, is yet to be determined.”
Trump has benefited from condemnation, by media companies, of his recent comments on immigration. “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” Trump said. “They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
Univision and NBC Universal cut ties with the Trump-sponsored Miss USA pageant. Undaunted, he’s suing for breach of contract and standing by his remarks. The fight plays to Trump’s political advantage, as he well knows. “This is part of the campaign,” he told People magazine. “It shows that we don’t back down, it shows that I protect the border and it shows that we don’t want [undocumented immigrants] coming into the country.”
That may sound like bluster to media ears, but it happens to resonate with a significant minority of conservative voters. “I think people are seeing the NBC decision and all this stuff, and they’ll probably rally around stuff like that because they probably share some of Trump’s views on these issues,” says Craig Robinson, editor of The Iowa Republican and a former political director of the state GOP.
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If Trump transcends the fate of the evanescent also-rans who sought the GOP nomination in 2012, he’ll have to thank his Iowa political team — which is headed up by Chuck Laudner, the architect of Rick Santorum’s surprise victory last cycle. “Donald Trump has nine paid staffers in the state of Iowa who work full time for him; that’s significant,” says Robinson. “Some of them are a little untraditional, but that’s not bad, either. And so these are people who are around who have networks in which they can work, and, to me, I look at Donald Trump’s team and say, ‘not bad.’”
Trump’s worst-case scenario could look something like that guy in every game of Risk who gets bored and decides to devote all of his resources to destroying a particular opponent.
Robinson believes that only a “fatal error” could consign Trump to irrelevance. The nature of his persona, however, makes it difficult to imagine what would constitute such a mistake. “Trump’s the only candidate who can bring out the ‘Willie Nelson for President’ vote,” says one unaligned GOP operative. “It’s a big ‘if,’ but what if he just radically expands the electorate? Nobody will ever see it coming.”
If that happens, Trump’s record will provide opponents with plenty of material to use against him. Take health care, for instance. In 2011, he denounced Obamacare as a job-destroying government program while calling for its repeal. “Every argument that you’d make against socialism you can make against socialized health care,” he said. In 2000, though, he proposed allowing the federal government to create a market — some might say “exchange” — where people could purchase insurance from private companies. “We must have universal healthcare,” he wrote in 2000. “I’m a conservative on most issues but a liberal on this one.”
Trump’s heterodoxy might create a target-rich environment for other presidential candidates, but his rivals hesitate to pull the trigger on a negative ad. Why? Because Trump’s worst-case scenario could look something like that guy in every game of Risk who gets bored and decides to devote all of his resources to destroying a particular opponent. “I wouldn’t pick a fight with a billionaire who’s got nothing to lose,” the pollster says.
That might change come Labor Day, the pollster suggests, if Trump is still polling near the front of the field and taking a significant percentage of votes from a single candidate. “Then you’d have to take the shine off of him; you’d have no choice,” he says.
#related#At that point, Trump will find out if he represents a loyal political coalition or if his celebrity status and hawkish immigration rhetoric contain the seeds of his own defeat. The trouble for Trump is that 59 percent of Republicans, according to a recent Fox News poll, say they would never vote for him.
For Roberts, the former RNC committeeman, Trump’s “attitude toward Mexicans” is very troubling. “I probably got too overenthusiastic with Trump because I forgot his immigration [comments],” Roberts says.
“We need some excitement in our candidate, that’s what I’m trying to say,” he explains. “And he brings that.”