How Trump could win over skeptical voters

Donald Trump needs to do one simple thing to solidify the Republican nomination and become a stronger general-election candidate: modify his behavior.

Evan Vucci/AP
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gives a thumbs up as he arrives to speak at the 2016 American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference in Washington, on Monday, March 21, 2016.

Look at polling on Donald Trump – and listen to the comments of Republican voters in a focus group – and what’s his biggest vulnerability?

His temperament. Not his plan to build a wall on the Southern border. Not his plan to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants. Not his plan to rip up international trade deals.

A shockingly low 27 percent of United States voters think Mr. Trump has “the right temperament” to be president, according to the latest Monmouth University poll. Even among Republicans, less than a majority – 48 percent – believe he has the right temperament for the presidency.

It’s not hard to see why, given Trump’s public behavior – the name-calling, the boasting, the intemperate tweets. It’s also not surprising that, of all five remaining presidential candidates, Trump has the highest unfavorability rating.

Even supporters say Trump should dial back the rhetoric.

“I agree that Trump could tone it down a little bit, but I think he’s the best candidate. Be firm but don’t be obnoxious,” said Kevin Rotellio, a restaurant manager, speaking Tuesday in a focus group of 12 Republican and Republican-leaning voters in St. Louis.

When focus group moderator Peter Hart asked the voters which concerns them more about Trump, his policies or his personality, about half said personality, some said policies, and two said neither.

The take-away is this: For Trump to build on his lead toward the Republican nomination and become stronger as a general-election candidate, he just needs to modify his behavior. That’s easier than backing down from his policies.

“They didn’t say, ‘Boy, I’m totally opposed to him for this reason, I’m deeply disturbed by this position or that.’ It was all performance and style and manner,” Mr. Hart told the Monitor the day after the focus group. “Looking at it from a strategic point of view, I feel this is a low hurdle that he’s going to have to get over.”

Hart compares the challenge to dealing with a child who is clearly smart, but has a behavior problem. “If the next week he starts acting like a little angel, you brush over the past. You say, he’s grown, he’s matured, he understands the seriousness of what he’s doing,” says Hart, a veteran Democratic pollster who conducted the focus group on behalf of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

‘Two Donald Trumps’

Many observers have suggested that Trump’s presidential campaign is in some ways an act, one that he can turn on and off at will. He was, after all, a reality TV star for 11 years. Former rival Ben Carson suggested as much – describing “two Donald Trumps” – when he endorsed Trump earlier this month.

"First of all, I’ve come to know Donald Trump over the last few years. He’s actually a very intelligent man who cares deeply about America," Dr. Carson said. "There are two different Donald Trumps. There’s the one you see on the stage, and there’s the one who’s very cerebral – sits there and considers things very carefully.”

Carson also suggested that over time, the more “presidential” Trump would come to the fore.

“You can have a very good conversation with him, and that’s the Donald Trump that you’re going to see more and more of right now,” he said.

At a news conference the next day, Trump agreed that “perhaps there are two Donald Trumps,” before reversing himself and saying there’s only one Trump. But he doubled down on the idea that he has a thoughtful side.

“Perhaps people don't think of me that way because you don't see me in that forum, but I am a thinker," Trump said. "I'm a very deep thinker. I know what's happening."

Trump also alluded to the theatrical aspect of running for president, saying that wrestling promoter Vince McMahon should have put on the debates, “because they were like WWE.” Trump himself has appeared at WWE’s WrestleMania.

Whether Trump can, or really wants to, change his ways as a candidate is an open question. Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, suggests he can’t. She points to the infamous debate where Trump defended the size of his hands and other body parts, and she says that proves he can’t help himself.

“He sounds as if he’s going to be civil, he’s going to be smarter than [Marco] Rubio, he’s going to get out of the low-road references,” Ms. Jamieson says. But then Trump makes the crude comment about his anatomy. “It looks as if the impulse to counterpunch is irresistible.”

Questions about the performance art aspect of Trump’s campaign can also lead to questions about the seriousness of his policy prescriptions – i.e., whether he really thinks he can build the wall, deport all the unauthorized immigrants, and destroy the Islamic State.

Voters’ views on Trump’s promises

In the St. Louis focus group, participants were asked if Trump had made promises they didn’t expect to be kept.

“If we can’t fix the potholes and the streets, we’re not going to get the wall built,” one man said.

“I don’t think he’ll round up 11 million people and deport them,” said Trump supporter Gail Capelovitch, a college-educated data specialist.

Hart jumped in and asked how many of the 12 focus group participants think there’s never going to be a wall. Eight hands went up. The same number raised their hand on mass deportations – not going to happen.

Not everyone was prepared to give up on Trump’s promises.

“I’m holding him to the wall,” said Steve Berman, a screenwriter and strong Trump supporter. “He’s based his whole campaign on that, and I believe he’s going to tell Mexico to build it. And I believe he’s going to round up all these illegal aliens.”

Hart asked the group if there were other issues they expected Trump to carry out. “Dealing with terrorism,” said one man. “Make the military strong,” a woman said. “Take care of veterans,” said another woman.

So it’s not that issues aren’t important in this campaign. It’s that voters seem to understand that what Trump has laid out are opening bids, not hard and fast positions – and that he’s a businessman who knows how to negotiate.

“Trump does understand the art of the deal,” said Joseph Glass, a retired engineer who voted for Ohio Gov. John Kasich in the Missouri primary.

Ultimately, it seemed to Hart that these focus group voters were looking to Trump more for the authority and strength he projects and not because of policy specifics. All but one said they’d vote for Trump in November if he’s the nominee, albeit in some cases (largely women voters) with reservations.

That Trump’s appeal is style over substance could make for a Republican National Convention that isn’t racked by battles over policy.

“When you get a policy fight, that’s when you get convention fights,” says Hart. “It’s what Pat Buchanan did to George H.W. Bush, and it’s the same thing that happened with Barry Goldwater in 1964, when people said, ‘We’re going to fight to the end for this.’ ”

“I didn’t hear that” Tuesday night, he says.

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