For the past several months, a patchwork of conservative activists and deep-pocketed donors had made it their mission to prevent Donald Trump from becoming the Republican nominee. Last week, they failed, touching off a series of angry recriminations about what went wrong and who should have been minding the store.
Some people involved in what came to be called the #NeverTrump movement lamented that their efforts to bloody the front-runner wouldn’t have been necessary if any of the other candidates had been willing to attack him themselves. Many laid the blame on Ted Cruz, calling him an unacceptable alternative to Trump. Cruz’s camp blamed John Kasich, saying the race would have unfolded differently if he’d dropped out and let Cruz go head to head with Trump. Others blamed the strategy of anti-Trump groups, saying it’s no help telling voters who to be against if you can’t tell them who they should be for. Several said the Republican National Committee should have stepped in and effectively excommunicated Trump from the party. And still others wondered whether Trump had ever been stoppable in the first place.
It has been nearly a year since the day, last June, when Trump descended an escalator into the presidential race. By August, he was standing in the center of a debate stage in Cleveland, refusing to commit to backing the eventual Republican nominee. At that moment, the nine other candidates on stage faded into the background. The remaining seven candidates in the field had already participated in the so-called “undercard” debate, and must have felt even more powerless.
Yes, the field was hopelessly divided from the beginning, and that helped Trump. But in retrospect, the more telling takeaway from that night in Cleveland may not have been immediately apparent: On a Republican debate stage, speaking to a Republican audience, Trump refused to pledge loyalty to the eventual Republican nominee — and felt no major repercussions for doing so.
For his foes, it was all downhill from there.
A Late Start
The most consistent knock on the anti-Trump outside groups is that their efforts did not start early enough. “They should have just set the money on fire,” opines GOP strategist Curt Anderson. “In fact, they did do just that. They had to get serious a few months before Iowa, preferably four months before Iowa. They overslept and it cost ’em.”
“Somehow in 2015 he got a real pass for a long time there [from] people who were willing to hear what he had to say and not say, ‘Wait a minute, this is coming from a guy we can’t trust,’” says Doug Sachtleben, communications director for the Club for Growth.
Club for Growth was the exception: In September, they put more than $1 million behind an ad running in Iowa that attacked Trump for his position on eminent domain. Sachtleben says the Club spent about $11 million total in efforts to stop Trump this cycle.
Other groups came in later. Trump Card LLC, a group started by GOP consultant Liz Mair, put out a memo in November asking donors to pitch in $250,000 toward attacking Trump. But deep-pocketed Republicans were slow to get on board. Some, Mair says, thought it was too early. Others thought it was an effort against someone who would never be the nominee anyway. Others said they “were being told by the campaigns that they supported not to support any anti-Trump efforts.”
‘They had to get serious a few months before Iowa. They overslept and it cost ’em.’ — GOP strategist Curt Anderson
“You really can’t start doing something a week before Election Day,” says Mair. The message had to be out there and funded in time to hit early voters, as well as to influence the media narrative heading into a vote.
Our Principles PAC, which became perhaps the most well-known of the anti-Trump groups, did not launch until late January, ten days before the Iowa caucuses, when it began spending on mailers and running radio ads in the state.
Sachtleben attributes the late start to the way Trump was positioning himself as a candidate: “He just tapped into the disgust people had for the political system, and he continued on his themes on immigration,” he says. “There was a sense that he was saying things in a more straightforward way, in a more forthright way, than had been said previously. . . . And I think that’s what kept a lot of groups on the sidelines: They were afraid to get crosswise with members.”
By the time Trump really started to double down on the positions and comments that have so disenchanted many Republicans, Sachtleben adds, it was too late: “He’d already developed a following that seemingly was immovable regardless of what facts you put in front of them, and regardless of what flip-flops he made.”
No Unified Strategy
A big issue, according to Jon Lerner, a top consultant for the Club, is that while most Republicans believed Trump had a ceiling in the primary, he also had a floor. “At the root of it, what went wrong is that Trump had a lot of support, and Trump’s support was very solid,” says Lerner, who also worked on the main super PAC supporting Marco Rubio. Lerner points to the period — in December, January, and February — when, he says, he was seeing numbers that showed that Trump had a group of solid supporters who “were not going to move off him, and so . . . at least in my view there was no real prospect of hitting Trump with negative ads and moving a lot of his voters away from him.”
“But there was, I think, real reason to be hopeful that when the field narrowed, those kinds of attacks against Trump would succeed in preventing other voters from joining with Trump,” Lerner says.
Of course, for those hopes to have been realized, anti-Trump groups would have needed to follow a coherent, unified plan of action that made sense and maximized every dollar spent. For instance, Our Principles PAC, American Future Fund, American Future Fund Action Fund, and Club for Growth all ran attacks on Trump in Florida, where he held a large lead in the polls. And many of those ads began running after early voting had already begun, meaning they didn’t reach some portion of the Republican electorate. Trump ended up winning the state easily, ending Rubio’s campaign in the process.
It wasn’t the only such setback. The non-Trump contenders were all damaged by spending onslaughts, even as their chief antagonist largely proved impervious to outside spending on negative ads. Attacks from the super PAC backing Rubio damaged Chris Christie’s chances in New Hampshire. Spending by Right to Rise, the Super PAC backing Jeb Bush, kept Rubio’s poll numbers low leading up to the Iowa caucuses. But Right to Rise was a cautionary tale of the limited impact of paid attacks this cycle — the group spent over $100 million to help Bush, who dropped out after the South Carolina primary, having never placed higher than fourth place. And the attacks that truly damaged Rubio’s campaign were not backed by Right to Rise’s millions, but rather leveled at him in person: Christie’s attack on him as a robot at the New Hampshire debate, and Trump’s unflattering “Little Marco” moniker.
The non-Trump contenders were all damaged by spending onslaughts, even as their chief antagonist largely proved impervious to outside spending on negative ads.
Meanwhile, in the same way that he was able to openly defy Republican orthodoxy with little to no consequence, Trump appeared largely unscathed by the money spent on stopping him. In part, he managed to balance any ad aired against him with a personal appearance on the same screen. He was a near-constant presence on television, calling in to cable-news shows or appearing in person. “I don’t think any of us could have calculated the effect he had in earned media,” says Sachtleben.
What’s more, Trump, who largely self-funded his campaign, repeatedly demonized super PACs and major donors as part of the D.C. political class for which he — and his supporters — expressed so much disgust. “He managed to set that up at the beginning to make it hard for paid media to get oxygen, and at the same time he dominated earned media, so it did really make the money side of things a lot less effective,” says Sachtleben.
Even #NeverTrump’s one big strategic victory – in Wisconsin — proved less a template than an outlier. Its hopes buoyed by the newly narrowed three-man field, the Club ran ads in the state telling people that if they didn’t want Trump to win the nomination, their only viable mathematical option was to support Cruz. But that wasn’t a strategy that was easily replicated moving forward. The primary calendar moved to the northeast next, where neither Cruz nor Kasich had enough of a foothold to unite anti-Trump voters. And Indiana, which in Wisconsin’s immediate aftermath had been touted by Cruz as a pivotal chance to win another Midwestern victory with the same strategy, turned out not to be close. Cruz and Kasich eventually teamed up, and Kasich backed out of the state and ceded its anti-Trump vote to Cruz. But by then Trump was too far ahead. He won 54 percent of the vote, ending the race.
Too Many Candidates
Anti-Trump Republicans argued from the beginning that even if Trump was leading the polls, the fact that he was below 50 percent meant there were always more people against him than for him. But when the race began there were 16 people splitting that anti-Trump vote. Somehow, most Republicans agree, there had to be a whittling of the field resulting in an anti-Trump champion to take on the front-runner.
“The only strategy that would’ve worked would’ve been the NCAA playoffs,” argues GOP consultant Alex Castellanos, who tried to organize an anti-Trump effort back in the fall of 2015. “You needed to have a playoff game to find the best alternative to Trump, to have that competition, and to have a Marco Rubio or someone win that, and then there was a thought of beating Trump in the finals.”
“A lot of people said, ‘Well Trump’s the guy we’ve got to stop because he’s leading.’ But the fact is this was a two-step process, not one-. Until you won the battle to be the alternative to Trump, you couldn’t really compete against Trump.”
That’s not something anti-Trump groups had any control over. But it did put them at a disadvantage. Donors funding anti-Trump efforts backed a variety of different candidates, so the groups could not settle on an alternative without alienating the people funding them. It’s harder to message against someone when you can’t tell people whom they should be voting for instead.
Shrinking the field to just two candidates might have helped. That’s an argument that Ted Cruz’s campaign has been making for the past several months — and one it continued to make last week, even after Cruz had dropped out of the race. Trump ”was a candidate that you had to get head to head,” says a source in Cruz’s orbit. ”He was a niche candidate that had a strong niche with a group of people that was going to be very difficult to pin back. That was the ticket to successfully taking on Trump, which Kasich screwed up” by staying in the race for as long as he did.
But others argue that the fact that Cruz ended up being the last man standing against Trump was part of the problem. The polling was striking: In the weeks before the Indiana primary, Cruz’s net favorability rating among Republicans plummeted to negative 6 percent — down from a positive 15 percent in early April, according to Gallup. Trump’s popularity went the opposite direction — from 12 percent net favorability to 24 percent — at the same time.
“He was an unacceptable alternative,” Castellanos says of Cruz. “Even when people wanted to get out of Donald Trump’s room, the only door led to Ted Cruz, and no one wanted to go.”
As a result, the various groups within the #NeverTrump movement are left trying to plot out a second act. Matt Martini, a spokesperson for Our Principles PAC, says Katie Packer and Tim Miller, the PACs leaders, are not doing interviews but that “the organization still has robust donor support and is looking at next options.” The Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol is spearheading an effort to recruit a third-party candidate. There are future checkpoints at which these groups might hinder Trump’s success. But short of some extraordinary circumstance, they have failed at their original mission: Donald Trump will be the Republican nominee.
— Alexis Levinson is the senior political reporter for National Review.