Is the Trump Campaign Collapsing?

Despite a wild ride over the last week, the nominee can count on a solid, fervent base. His problem is reaching out beyond those backers.

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

The Donald Trump campaign is unraveling.

The Republican nominee has spent the last week feuding with Gold Star parents, calling the election rigged, and lying about letters while threatening to skip debates. He has picked fights with firefighters, called out a baby for crying during an event, arguably blamed victims for sexual harassment, and recommended appeasing Vladimir Putin by ceding Crimea. (That is, once he made clear that he understood that Putin had seized the Ukrainian region.) The president of the United States flatly declared him unfit to serve. Even though it seemed impossible, Trump seems more and more untethered from standard norms and messages each day.

Trump continues to hit Republicans harder than he’s hitting his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton. In an interview with The Washington Post, Trump refused to back Speaker Paul Ryan or Senators John McCain and Kelly Ayotte, all of whom face primary challengers, in their races. All three have backed Trump, through gritted teeth, but he seems determined to retaliate against them for criticizing him. In fact, distance from Trump might not be such a bad thing for any of them, but the symbolism—a Republican nominee refusing to endorse top figures in the Republican Party, all of whom have endorsed him—is telling. In the same interview, he threatened in the future to launch super PACs to oppose Ted Cruz and John Kasich, two Republicans who have refused to back him. Meanwhile, he continued to relive his primary-election glories on the stump, and to escalate his fight with the press. With all of that going on, who has time to attack Clinton?

The result has been a GOP backlash against him that has gathered increasing force. One group, including Ryan, McCain, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have opted to criticize Trump harshly, but haven’t withdrawn endorsements. Others are jumping ship. Meg Whitman, an executive who ran for California governor in 2010 and was finance chair of Chris Christie’s presidential campaign, just announced she’ll vote Clinton. So did Richard Hanna, a U.S. representative from New York.

Post-convention polls show Clinton enjoying a bump that pushed her back over the top of Trump. As Nate Cohn and Philip Bump argue, there are reasons to suspect she’s building a durable lead, and not just a quickly inflated one. On FiveThirtyEight’s election forecast, Clinton’s chance of winning has soared from underdog territory to a 68 percent likelihood over the last week.

How are Trump staffers taking it? The campaign insists all is copacetic. But some reporters are hearing others things anonymously:

With characteristic finesse and diplomacy, Trump has laid out the problem for Republicans. They’re kind of stuck with him now, unless they want to throw their lot in with Clinton.

“Even if people don’t like me, they have to vote for me. They have no choice,” he said in Ashburn, Virginia, on Tuesday. “Even if you can’t stand Donald Trump, you think Donald Trump is the worst, you’re going to vote for me.”

With that in mind comes the second point: Even if Trump is unraveling, does it matter?

It isn’t news that establishment Republicans hate Trump; they kept trying (not very effectively, and not with much organization, but still) to derail him. Take Meg Whitman. She’s a moderate California plutocratic Republican anyway, and she’d been rumored to be leaning Clinton since June. To the Trump crew, she’s the kind of crony capitalist who represents everything rotten in the Republican Party anyway.

Sure, things look bad for Trump now—the last few polls have been dire. But how often has a candidate trailing at the beginning of August found that the race was effectively over? Bob Dole was never especially close to Bill Clinton in 1996, but he did make a late surge. In 1984, Walter Mondale, who even turned down a security briefing because he knew he’d lose, was down by 12 points, far more than Trump. Gerald Ford was down more than 30 points in the summer of 1976 but managed to close the gap to a near photo-finish. You’d have to go back to George McGovern in 1972 to see a candidate who was well and truly finished off long before the voting. Trump is closer than all of these candidates.

The case that Trump’s travails matter more hinges on changes in the American electorate. In those past years, voters were more easily movable. In today’s partisan landscape, most voters are already committed to a party, even if they claim to be independent. That means both candidates start with a fairly high floor, somewhere in the forties. But because of that polarized landscape, there are also fewer voters up for grabs. A small portion of the electorate are true swing voters, and the big key is managing to drive up turnout among your base and leaners.

That’s where Trump might be in trouble. He seems to be still be operating in his primary-election mindset—a weird one, in which picking fights with party leaders is beneficial, but that’s more or the less the strategy that propelled him to victory. That helps to explain why he keeps harping on people like Cruz and Kasich. (Although don’t forget that Trump personally invited Cruz to speak at the RNC, where he delivered a speech that included a refusal to endorse Trump.) During the primary, Trump was able to construct a rock-solid base of fervent supporters. They’re the ones who keep packing his rallies over the last week, dismissing stories about Trump’s volatility as liberal media lies and excusing his overreaches, like the fight with the Khan family, as evidence that he won’t bow to political correctness. That base of support is one that most Republicans didn’t believe existed before this year, and he has expertly assembled it. But it’s also not enough to win a general election. To do that, he has to start expanding his support into other groups. That’s where the sort of meltdown he’s been having over the last week could be a problem.

Look at it this way, though: What’s amazing is how much Trump could still do. For example, as Bump lays out, Trump has next to no staff, has barely reserved any television time, and isn’t building much of a turnout operation. He’s way behind, but he could still start taking all the normal steps of a national campaign today—and it would presumably only help. He could probably even put some some serious cash behind that effort. On Wednesday, Trump’s campaign reported $64 million in cash, plus another $16 million in conjunction with the Republican National Committee.

To get anywhere on that front, though, he’d have to stop picking fights with Republicans, stop alienating gettable voters, and begin focusing on the real work of the campaign. The first 14 months of the campaign haven’t offered any indication that he has the interest or ability to do that, but it’s never too late to start.