November 1976: As the last votes trickle in from Ohio, Gerald Ford defeats Jimmy Carter in a nail-biter. His upset victory is remarkable considering the unpopularity of the Nixon pardon and the post-Watergate weakness of the Republican Party.
Of course that outcome never happened. In a debate with Carter, Ford errantly declared that the Soviet Union did not dominate eastern Europe. What Ford meant to say was that he did not accept Soviet domination. This blunder cost him critical votes in Ohio and Wisconsin and the election. Never has American history been so affected by one omitted verb.
Ford’s loss highlights a critical fact: Elections are not won, they are lost. The campaign that makes the fewest mistakes wins. Victors should thank their opponents for their blunders, not compliment their worthiness as opponents.
This truism is playing out in the race for the Republican Presidential nomination. While the pundit class waxes about Donald Trump’s ability to tap into working class anger and his brilliance in self-promotion, the real story is Trump’s luck (and that he has received more free media coverage than all the other candidates put together, including Clinton and Sanders). Combined with the simple political fact that a determined minority will always defeat a fragmented opposition, mistakes by his opponents have propelled him forward as much as his own campaign.
In spite of his three victories on Tuesday, Trump’s frontrunner status is not nearly as strong as it seems. Trump remains the weakest GOP frontrunner since the advent of the modern primary system. Trump just had his best day, reaching a touch over 40 percent in the four primaries. Still, he has only garnered 37 percent of the Republican primary vote and has yet to gain an outright majority in any state (Ted Cruz has actually closed the gap since the first four contests). Previously, the latest for a GOP frontrunner to top 50 percent was 2008, when McCain did it on Super Tuesday after eight (8) contests were in the books. This year 29 states and the District of Columbia have voted and Trump has not gained a majority yet.
Trump’s weakness is particularly glaring considering all the additional voters he is supposedly attracting to the Republican Party. Taking the intersection of states that have voted in 2016 and states that voted by mid-March in 2012, participation is up 54.3 percent. Extrapolating across all states gives an estimated increase of 7.16 million voters. Yet, Trump’s vote total is just 7.54 million. The media narrative is that all the new voters are Trump backers. However, if Trump’s share of the GOP base is 30 percent, then his share of those new voters is less than 15 percent.
Alternately, if Trump is gaining 58 percent of those new voters, that would mean his support with the Republican base is lower than Cruz or Marco Rubio
. Give Trump 67 percent of new voters and his support with the base is lower than even Kasich. Either Trump is getting fewer votes from newcomers than the media assumes or he has no base within the GOP. Trump can claim juggernaut status all he wants – the numbers and the physics say otherwise.
And yet, Trump still leads.
For that, Trump can thank Cruz, Rubio and their raft of mistakes. The main mistake is not going negative against Trump. Granted, Trump is great on his feet and counterattacks without fear, but winning a tough political race without going on the attack is like trying to win a war by hiding in a bomb shelter.
Trump’s negatives have still allowed his opponents the opportunity to defeat him. But, those opportunities have been fumbled. Cruz and Rubio, in particular, spent much of the primary campaign engaged in a chess match to knock the other one out and face Trump one-on-one.
Rubio was first out of the gate. He devoted scarce resources to keeping Cruz from topping 50 percent in Texas and scooping all the delegates, instead of spending those resources in Alabama and Vermont – states which have a 20 percent threshold for delegates. Rubio missed the mark by 1.34 percent in Alabama and a mere 0.7 percent in Vermont, all for a gain of only 3 delegates in Texas. In the end, Rubio may well have been the reason Cruz did not top 50 percent but the real winner was Trump, gaining as many as 60 delegates.
Rubio and his allies engaged in fruitless efforts to push Kasich out of the race – only serving to make the Ohio governor even more determined to stay in. This collection of shenanigans only served to distract Rubio and his supporters away from Trump. By the time they regrouped, they had to make a last-ditch stand in Florida and it was too late.
After Super Tuesday, Cruz picked up the bad strategy torch. He squandered resources in an attempt to deny Rubio a win in Florida – in spite of the fact that it was Trump who led in the Sunshine State and that the haul of 99 winner-take-all delegates could put Trump out of reach. As if that was not enough, Cruz actually made an inexplicable campaign stop in Ohio. Meanwhile the favorable states of North Carolina and Missouri were wide open with Rubio and Kasich not competing. Cruz ended up losing by razor-thin margins in both states.
Cruz has been well ahead of Rubio and Kasich, running a tag-team strategy against Trump would have still left Cruz with a grip on second place. If Trump fails to gain a majority, second place is a very powerful place to be – and would put Cruz clearly in an almost undeniable position as an alternative to Trump. But, if Trump gets a majority then second place is worthless. Maybe Cruz is angling to be Trump’s running-mate. Although I cannot imagine a worse fate for him.
Ironically, it is Kasich who has run the shrewdest campaign strategically. Kasich has only campaigned where he can win or do well. Written off in January, his investment in New Hampshire paid off – in part due to a bad debate performance by Rubio — and his credible performance in the northeast and Midwest put him in a position to compete in Ohio and Illinois. Kasich’s performance is even more remarkable considering that the media and political class ignored him for long stretches. Kasich has turned a January road to oblivion into a position of power.
Trump’s success is not pure accident. His campaign has been single-mindedly focused on first place. No shadow chess games for Trump. He is by far the most aggressive candidate and has intimidated his opponents into not counterattacking. He has played to his strengths: big spectacles and vacuuming up as much free media as possible. Whether by design, or by accident, he has run the perfect campaign to take advantage of a divided opposition.
The 2016 Republican Presidential campaign is one strange animal. A very particular set of circumstances allowed Donald Trump to be a viable candidate. However, his graduation from viability to frontrunner was made possible by his opponents. While they divided, he conquered.