At last Thursday’s GOP presidential debate—the first of the season—Fox News and the Republican Party tried to embarass Donald Trump out of the game. “Is there anyone onstage, and can I see hands, who is unwilling tonight to pledge your support to the eventual nominee of the Republican Party and pledge to not run an independent campaign against that person?” asked Bret Baier, beginning the debate. Trump had answered that question before, but that night it was clear for the viewing public.
Megyn Kelly called attention to his misogyny—“You’ve called women you don’t like ‘fat pigs,’ ‘dogs,’ ‘slobs,’ and ‘disgusting animals’ ”—and Chris Wallace pressed Trump for substantive answers, ignoring the rest of the field, even as they dodged direct questions. Likewise, in the weekend after the debate, Trump took further fire from Republican politicians and conservative activists. On Friday, Erick Erickson—editor in chief of RedState—lobbed a trident at Trump and ejected him from the site’s annual conference, citing his sexist attack on Kelly. “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever,” Trump had said in an interview Friday on CNN. (Erickson has his own history of misogynist rhetoric.) Bush called on Trump to apologize, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry slammed Trump for a “serious lack of character and basic decency.”
The great irony of this is that, as Trump is someone who draws from the most anti-establishment parts of the Republican Party, these attacks could help Trump as much as hurt him. To that point, there’s no evidence he’s paid a price with Republican voters since the debate, and small signs he’s just as popular as he was before. In a post-debate online survey from NBC News, 23 percent of Republicans endorsed Trump. Jeb Bush, the modest front-runner in cash, organization, and endorsements, won just 7 percent support. And looking among Republicans in Iowa, Public Policy Polling found Trump with a solid lead of 19 percent, to 12 percent for Ben Carson and Gov. Scott Walker, and 11 percent for Jeb Bush. Conservative and Republican leaders are worried: The higher Trump’s star, the more damage he might do to the GOP’s presidential hopes.
“We will not gain the White House,” said Erickson about Trump and his supporters, “if we’re screaming at people, calling them whores and queer and the N-word.” In the same vein, the New York Times reports that “prominent Republican women said they were worried about how female voters would respond to Mr. Trump’s prominence on the debate stage, where he defended imprecations like ‘fat pigs’ and ‘bimbo’ to describe women—and his rivals did not chide him.” Trump is a toxic figure, and Republicans are right to do everything they can to push him out of the race.
At the same time, Republicans shouldn’t worry too much about Trump’s effect on their presidential prospects. Yes, there are real dangers to Trump-mentum: The longer Trump stays in the game, the greater odds that voters will associate him with the Republican Party itself. In general, that’s a problem. When it comes to the specific case of Latino voters—an important part of any Republican election plan—it’s dangerous. Trump could become the “self-deportation” of the 2016 race: a concrete symbol of anti-immigrant and anti-Latino animus. And of course there’s the real (if small) risk that Trump holds his support, makes a third-party run, and dooms Republican White House ambitions.
We can’t predict if Trump will run for president as an independent, and it’s difficult to say how he’ll influence broad perceptions of the Republican Party. But if the 2012 election taught us anything, it’s that the shenanigans of the primary don’t necessarily influence the general election.
Conventional wisdom notwithstanding, Mitt Romney wasn’t harmed by the extremism that blossomed through 2011, and into the first voting primaries. If anything, in fact, the opposite happened. As Lynn Vavreck and John Sides note in The Gamble: Choice and Chance in the 2012 Presidential Election, “compared to Obama, Romney was ideologically closer to more voters all along.” By the end of the 2012 campaign, according to research from YouGov, “52 percent of voters placed themselves closer to Romney than Obama, while 38 percent placed themselves closer to Obama.”
How did voters miss that Romney was a self-proclaimed “severely conservative” governor? They didn’t see it in the first place. From this point in the process until the conventions, the only people paying real attention are political diehards and otherwise informed people. But the most politically informed Americans are also the most partisan ones, with firm positions and clear allegiances to one party or the other. Twenty-four million people may have watched last Thursday’s debate, but there’s a strong chance those viewers had already made up their minds: They were either Republicans interested in the process, or Democrats with a taste for schadenfreude.
If most voters don’t pay attention until late in the process, and if those who do aren’t up for grabs, then how do we explain Romney’s apparent weakness in 2012? Easy: Mitt Romney didn’t lose because of party baggage or his penchant for gaffes; he lost because he was running against an incumbent president in a growing economy. Which is just another way to say that—given worse growth in 2012—there’s a strong chance we would be writing about Romney’s upcoming re-election campaign.
Trump won’t help the GOP’s eventual nominee, but—barring a third-party run—it’s hard to imagine a world in which he’s dispositive. Trump might pull down the party’s popularity or put the nominee in an awkward spot, but a qualified nominee and a strong campaign should neutralize any “Trump effect” on the electorate, by mobilizing supporters, activating partisans, and persuading (some) undecideds.
As always, the most important variable for the election—and for Republicans in particular—is the economy. If it’s good, and if it pulls Barack Obama to a strong finish in 2016, then Republicans can expect another four years in the wilderness. If it’s weak, then they can look forward to a win. As it stands, the economy is just OK, and the public is itching for a change. Even with Trump in the mix, that’s a good sign for the GOP.