Trump’s Strategy Is Backfiring

His tanking ratings show that there is such a thing as bad publicity.

trump screenshot cable.
Donald Trump discussing Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren as broadcast on CNN.

Screenshot via CNN

Donald Trump doesn’t believe in bad publicity. It’s why, over the past week, he’s worked to dominate the general election’s news cycle the same way he dominated the Republican primary’s: through attacks and controversy. He has succeeded in yet again blanketing cable news, blocking Hillary Clinton from anything like equal time.

The idea is that this will sink Clinton and boost Trump the same way a similar stream of outrageous statements and attacks kept Trump’s Republican opponents from building steam with voters and overtaking him in the polls. But there’s a problem with this strategy: The same saturation that helped Trump in the primary has harmed him with voters writ large. If Trump means to run the same campaign he used to win the GOP nomination, he’ll flounder and lose.

First, let’s recap the past few days in Trump news. On Monday, he released an Instagram video accusing former President Bill Clinton of sexual assault. A few days earlier, in an interview with the Washington Post, he resurrected conspiracy theories around the 1993 death of White House official Vince Foster, which was ruled a suicide by both law enforcement and subsequent investigations. Despite this, fringe voices on the far right have long argued that the Clintons—who were friends of Foster—were involved in his death. Trump called these theories “very serious.”

On Tuesday, Trump attacked New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican, for “not doing her job,” an unusual move for a party nominee. By Wednesday, Trump was also fending off attacks around his charitable giving, or lack thereof; not only did he lie about his $6 million fundraiser for veterans’ causes (he didn’t raise nearly that much), but he never gave a promised $1 million out of his own pocket. And on Thursday, Trump continued a previous thread by mocking Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren for her one-time claim of Native American heritage, calling her “Pocahontas” and attacking her for her “big mouth.”

To sum up, in less than a week, Trump generated enough offensive rhetoric and bad behavior to fuel a month’s worth of negative coverage.

If all publicity is good publicity, then it’s possible this helps Trump succeed in the general election and keeps Clinton from moving the campaign toward her turf—the realm of plans and issues. Or at least, that’s the theory. The numbers tell a different story.

The latest national poll from NBC News and the Wall Street Journal asks respondents to give their feelings on the remaining candidates, from “very positive” to “very negative” and provides a long-term view as well, with results from as far back as the 1990s. In February 2011—well before Trump announced his campaign—26 percent of Americans said they had a “very or somewhat” positive view of the real estate mogul, 29 percent said they had a “very or somewhat” negative view, and 40 percent were neutral. By the time Trump entered the race for president in July 2015, after years of sharpening his divisive presence on the national stage, just 16 percent were neutral, versus 26 percent with a positive view and 56 percent with a negative one.

What does Trump look like a year later after consolidating most Republicans behind his banner? Just 29 percent of Americans have a favorable view of the real estate mogul. Fifty-eight percent hold a negative one. Just 12 percent are neutral. Look to other polls and you see the same stasis. In June 2015, according to YouGov, 32 percent of Americans held a favorable view of Trump versus 60 percent who felt the reverse. Today, those numbers are 35 percent versus 61 percent, with the largest gains among Republicans (68 percent have a favorable view) and the steepest declines among self-described independents and Democrats. Among the former, Trump’s unfavorability rose 15 percentage points to 66 percent. Among the latter, it rose 7 percentage points to 87 percent.

Which is just to say that over the past year, Trump’s attention-at-all-costs strategy has done nothing but tank his ratings among the public at large, Republicans excepted. This, even after he’s cinched the nomination and won over the vast majority of Republicans. Yes, Clinton’s ratings are also low (although better than Trump’s), but she’s also fighting a contentious primary. If and when the Democratic Party unifies, her popularity will go up accordingly as Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents find reasons to like Clinton. And once the race achieves this equilibrium—two nominees leading two united parties—the popularity gap will likely look even worse for Trump, as he will remain a historically unpopular candidate, while she will return to being a modestly unpopular one.

All of this raises a question: If the media didn’t make Trump popular—if it’s actually done the reverse—then how did he win the Republican primary? One answer is that Trump has broken the rules of politics—he’s killed the dungeon master, changed the character sheets, rewritten American politics into a game of his own making. This isn’t just wrong, it buys into the myth of Trump as a force of will and power who can reshape reality to his liking.

The better explanation, the one that treats Trump like an important force but not a dispositive one, is that Donald Trump won the Republican primary because the Republican Party is broken. Years of disdain—for moderation, for compromise, for governance, expertise, and conventional qualifications—have merged with long-exploited currents of bigotry to produce an electorate primed for a man like Donald Trump. Republicans put a Trump-like figure on the 2008 presidential ticket, backed Trump-like figures in the 2012 primaries, and even solicited Trump himself for an endorsement that same year. It was only a matter of time before Republican voters clamored for the real deal.

If you trace Trump to institutional failure within the Republican Party, then it’s hard to say he can scramble the general electorate like he did the primary one. For all of its problems, the two party contest isn’t dysfunctional; Democrats will fight hard to stop Trump. CNN taking the bait and airing his bluster 24/7 isn’t going to help him.

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.