However Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign ends, the way in which he ran will likely perplex other candidates, strategists, and political scientists for years.
Trump became the Republican front-runner for president and has remained so since July for one big reason: He didn’t follow the rules. And he didn’t just break them. He shattered them for months on end.
But now Trump has had a rough few weeks: His campaign manager was charged with battery, new polls show him more unpopular than ever with all voters, and he lost the Wisconsin primary by a large margin — making it more likely he’ll confront a contested convention this summer.
Trump broke a lot of rules to stay on top. Is he finally paying for it now?
Broken rule No. 1: There are some things a candidate just cannot say.
Beginning from his announcement speech last summer until now, there are two things Trump has done with consistency: insult and win.
No one and no topic is off limits. Trump has gone after Republicans, Democrats, and independents. He has criticized the looks of other candidates, as well as their spouses. He has insulted minorities (Mexican immigrants) and the majority (women are 51 percent of the country).
This strategy has resonated with a certain segment of the Republican electorate — the grass-roots base who have been frustrated with party leaders for years. They had no problem leveling such insults in their living room; now they have someone saying the same thing with a much larger microphone.
While this has helped him win a portion of the primary electorate, polls already show it’s taken a toll on potential general election voters. A new Associated Press poll released Thursday found that nearly 7 in 10 voters have a negative opinion about Trump — a record for a potential general election candidate at this stage. Even if Trump’s reputation recovers by Labor Day, Democrats could run Trump’s choice quotes in non-stop advertisements through November.
Broken rule No. 2: Candidates must get endorsements from party leaders to build credibility and a campaign.
Trump has won about half of the GOP’s state nominating contests with only a handful of endorsements from national party figures: one US senator, two congressmen, two governors, and Sarah Palin. His supporters, who are wary of GOP leadership anyway, don’t seem to mind.
But this could affect Trump’s prospects as soon as July. There’s a scenario in which he could be denied the nomination by the very GOP leaders that he’s frequently insulted (see No. 1).
If Trump is headed to a contested convention, he will need all the help he can get from party insiders. These are the GOP faithful who will vote on rules changes at the conventions — and most of the strategists with this specialty knowledge and connections are currently working against him.
Broken rule 3: A candidate must win prior office and have a political record.
If Trump becomes the Republican nominee, he will be the first to do so without any previous political experience since Wendell Willkie in 1940.
Being a governor or a senator prior to running for president has advantages. Along the way they hire trusted aides, build a political infrastructure, make mistakes, learn from them, and hone relationships with donors. These are all things that Ben Carson, for example, lacked in his presidential run — and it showed.
It’s arguable whether Trump has paid the price for this yet. He never had to take controversial votes in Congress or sign contentious bills into law. But he hasn’t been shy about his political opinions for the last few decades: He was for abortion rights before he was against them. He supported the invasion of Iraq before he said he was against it all along. He favored the assault weapons ban before he didn’t. There’s a long list.
There’s a segment of the Republican Party that is so angry with its leadership that they don’t care about Trump’s flip-flops. But Trump’s waffling may not be as popular with independent voters, many of whom decide at the last minute (ask John Kerry or Mitt Romney about that).
In other words, Trump may be breaking the rules with his resume, but he’s not getting many of the benefits of being a first-time national candidate with a clean political record.
James Pindell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.