Politics & Policy

Trumpism Is Failing the Romney Test

Trump campaigns in Council Bluffs, Iowa, September 28, 2016. (Reuters photo: Jonathan Ernst)
If Trump can’t outperform the last GOP nominee, his brand of populism may not play a big role in the GOP’s future.

Here is the measuring stick for Donald Trump’s performance in 2016: Can he win more votes than Mitt Romney did in the swing states?

To do that, Trump must finish with more than 1.18 million votes in Colorado, 4.16 million votes in Florida, 730,617 votes in Iowa, 2.11 million votes in Michigan, 463,567 votes in Nevada, 329,918 votes in New Hampshire, 2.27 million votes in North Carolina, 2.66 million votes in Ohio, 2.68 million votes in Pennsylvania, 1.82 million votes in Virginia, and 1.4 million votes in Wisconsin.

By beating Romney’s performance in these states, Trump would prove that his populist rhetoric, no-holds-barred style, and unorthodox campaign decisions were more effective than the more traditional approach of the past two GOP nominees. Of course, that seems exceedingly unlikely to happen. Polls are not perfect predictive tools, but they currently show Trump trailing in all of the above states except for Iowa (and maybe Ohio).

Trump’s fans insist that he will prove all of the polls wrong. The Trump campaign’s lack of a traditional ground game and data-driven get-out-the-vote system may well be less consequential than many think. Besides the Republican National Committee’s efforts, most of the big swing states have a GOP Senate candidate running for reelection and targeting the kinds of voters who are likely to prefer Trump to Hillary Clinton. But those incumbent GOP senators may not help Trump much: Right now, all of them are running even, slightly ahead, or way ahead of him in their home states.

If Trumpism – protectionist economic policies, a kind of incoherent bellicose isolationism in foreign affairs, and a de-emphasis of traditional religious values – is more popular than traditional conservatism, it should win more votes. Right now, it appears likely to win fewer.

Trump fans will insist this is not a fair comparison, pointing to the fact that Trump is competing not just with Clinton but with third-party candidates Gary Johnson and Jill Stein, not to mention independent conservative Evan McMullin. This ignores the fact that Johnson and Stein ran in 2012 and got less than 1.4 percent of the vote between them. Third parties aren’t going anywhere; they’ll be an issue for the Republican nominee in 2020, 2024, and beyond. A key test of a GOP candidate is how well they can unite the party and keep Right-minded voters on the bandwagon. If the final results resemble the current polls, then Trump (and Trump-ism) will have utterly failed, driving likely GOP voters away to other options.

#related#And that’s assuming Trump proves capable of holding many of the deep-red states where Romney cruised to victory four years ago. Romney won Louisiana by 17 points; a new poll by JMC Analytics and Polling shows Trump leading Clinton by just seven points in the Bayou State, 45 percent to 38 percent. Romney won Tennessee 59 percent to 39 percent; a Vanderbilt University poll in early October put Trump ahead by 12 points. Romney won Oklahoma 66 percent to 33 percent; a mid-September poll there found Trump ahead by just 15 points.

The point is not that Trump is likely to lose Louisiana, Tennessee, or Oklahoma. The point is that he repels a portion of usually reliable Republican voters in state after state. The GOP, losers of four of the last six presidential elections, simply can’t afford to drive away traditional Republicans in a risky gamble on blue-collar Rust Belt voters.

If the final election results resemble the current polls, Trump will prove weaker than Romney not just in the swing states, but almost everywhere. And if that happens, the argument that Trump’s rise is definitive proof of the GOP’s need to become more populist in future cycles will sound ridiculous.

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