Iowa has now come and gone, and there’s no question that last night’s results were bad news for real estate magnate Donald Trump – who seemed to be the clear Republican front-runner before the state’s caucuses. His stumble seems rooted in a number of problems, some of which should be pretty easy to correct or overcome, and some of which appear certain to dog him throughout the campaign.
Regarding the second type of challenge, there’s little doubt now that Trump’s decision to boycott the final pre-caucus debate hurt him, especially with voters who chose their candidate late in the game, and with that overlapping group that never became hard-core Trump-ites. But that’s not to say that if he shows up at all the remaining such events, Trump is home free on this score. For I suspected that one of his concerns was being subjected to a blast of videos showing him expressing all sorts of views that don’t pass muster with Iowa Republicans – or Republicans anywhere. Both Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida got this treatment from the debate’s Fox organizers on the immigration issue – which is obviously just good journalism. But those rivals boasted solid conservative pedigrees.
I agree that many Republican voters no longer care about ideological purity. But Trump was certain to pay a higher price for prior “sins” with those who value conservative principles because his departures sound so much more egregious. And litmus test challenges will face Trump throughout the primaries, simply because staunch conservatives dominate the GOP primary electorate (much the way staunch liberals represent the lion’s share of Democratic primary votes). Ditto for ostensibly incriminating videos broadcast at debates.
In addition, whether Trump’s debate decision reflected animosity toward Fox anchor Megyn Kelly or not, his accusations of bias and other insulting comments could only reinforce fears even of voters still in his camp that he lacks the temperament to be president. Moreover, if Trump calculated that a feud with Kelly would enable him to dominate media coverage of the debate – which initially seemed like a good bet – his disappointing Iowa showing may be a sign that this act is wearing thin. It’s true that snubbing the debate might have been especially damaging in Iowa, where voters expect candidates to court them with special fervor. But New Hampshire voters demand similar treatment, so Trump may have created a hurdle for himself in the Granite State, too.
The Iowa results could also reveal another big character-related problem with Trump: The more viable his candidacy appears, the larger such issues could loom. When Trump could be dismissed as a flash in the pan, many voters arguably could become enthused and choose him in polls fully confident that their positions would be ultimately harmless protests. But as Trump ascended to front-runner status, the prospects of him actually winning the Republican nomination and occupying the Oval Office appears to have struck at least some of his erstwhile supporters and – more important – some leaners as unnerving. More troubling for Trump, there’s little evidence yet that he can pass this bedrock credibility test.
Finally, the organizational weakness that clearly hurt Trump in a retail-politics-dominated state like Iowa might have exposed a broader weakness in his campaign. Most immediately, as noted above, New Hampshire-ites also typically demand lots of individual attention from political contenders. Trump hasn’t done many town halls, much less coffee klatches, or other small meetings in the state. The vote is a week away. How many Granite State voters can he meet face-to-face during this time? And will his ground game get out the New Hampshire vote more effectively than in Iowa?
Moreover, if Trump survives New Hampshire, it’s still not clear that he can create the organizational structure needed to translate his existing popularity into support that can last through November. His business experience of course means that he’s good at mobilizing resources and completing major projects. But we’re not talking about building a casino – even in a business-unfriendly city or state. Some Republican political consultants and some portions of some candidates’ organizations will offer their talents to Trump, but will they – and former partisans of more establishment-oriented GOP contenders – work for him enthusiastically enough? Can the the true believers match the experience of their Democratic counterparts (who might of course be dealing with an enthusiasm gap of their own if Hillary Clinton wins that party’s crown)? Visible organizational weakness in turn, could aggravate Trump’s gravitas problem?
Nonetheless, other Trump issues seem correctable or surmountable. As I’ve written, Iowa was highly unlikely to be Trump country. His “New York values” were destined to be a problem whether his rivals brought them up or not. Although the kind of evangelical voters who dominate Iowa Republican ranks may be a more complex group than previously judged, Trump never had much to offer them on social issues. Further, Iowa isn’t the epitome of prosperity suggested by many political reporters, but the state is one of the few in America that’s benefited on net from the trade policies blasted by Trump. His economic populism will undoubtedly play better in economically weaker New Hampshire and across the nation, and this message will become increasingly convincing unless the slowing economy revives suddenly and strongly. Moreover, Trump’s Republican competitors are anything but problem-free themselves – including the not-easily-solvable kind.
Finally, as with anyone who has achieved major success, Trump no doubt has a reasonably steep learning curve. As his critics love pointing out, notwithstanding his “winner” mantra, his business ventures have suffered bankruptcies and other big setbacks. That he’s still prominent and uber-wealthy attests to the ability to adapt and adjust – as his opponents implicitly concede with their chameleon charges.
At the same time, Trump has never faced a spotlight as intense as that of a presidential campaign – not to mention a deadline as tight, thanks to the still-compressed primary season. I’d be the last person to count him out. So for once the conventional political wisdom in this presidential campaign looks right on target: Iowa has completely scrambled the Republican race.