Trump's challenges come to the fore, reshaping GOP race

Donald Trump's style puts a ceiling on his political appeal, pundits have long suggested. This week offered new evidence.  

Julie Jacobson/AP
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally Wednesday in Bethpage, N.Y.

This week, the popular mass e-mail that helps people build their vocabularies – “A.Word.A.Day” – featured a word that has been used to describe Donald Trump. It’s “clairaudience” and it means “the supposed ability to hear what is inaudible.”

Rolling Stone writer Paul Solotaroff has described the GOP presidential frontrunner as clairaudient – able to see into and hear the hearts of “disaffected underemployed white people” from his office on the 26th floor of Trump Tower, and to read their rage back to them “word for word, in ways that no Republican has ever done before.”

But the past two weeks suggest that clairaudience has its limits.

Losing Wisconsin by 13 points is the latest evidence that Trump’s strengths – reading voters and accurately identifying their concerns – are no longer outweighing his shortcomings.

His limitations have long been known. He speaks off the cuff. His policies lack specificity and practicality. His demeanor can be boorish. For months, the connection he has made with his core audience – in some cases, through those very qualities – has limited any damage.

But now, with only two other competitors left in the race and Trump urgently needing 1,237 delegates to avoid a contested convention in which the party will be aligned against him, his clairaudience isn’t enough. So far, he's won fewer than 50 percent of the delegates on offer; to get to 1,237, he'll need to win more than 60 percent of those remaining. In other words, he needs to expand his support.

As a result, the candidate who has broken all the political "rules" of how to run for president is at last having to reckon with them.

“He’s kind of like a guy in a barber shop that makes a lot of sense complaining about things. But that doesn’t mean he should be president of the United States,” says GOP consultant Matt Mackowiak, who has not endorsed any candidate.  

“This is the challenge going forward: Can he grow as a candidate, and can he grow as a credible nominee?”

Getting specific

No question, the billionaire has identified issues that voters care about, says Republican pollster David Winston, president of The Winston Group.

Along with Mr. Cruz, Trump criticizes lax immigration enforcement and wants to build a big barrier on the southern border.

Along with Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, Trump has railed against international trade deals that have cost Americans well-paying manufacturing jobs.

And he has made a consummate dealmaker’s complaint ­that the US is getting “ripped off” by allies who won’t contribute a fair share to NATO.

“Is Trump identifying dynamics that people care about? Yes,” says Mr. Winston, who does polling for Republicans in Congress. “So you’ve identified the problem. Great. What’s your solution?”

Until this week, Trump has been able to successfully run a primary campaign on such broad policy prescriptions (or none at all) because of his celebrity, his tell-it-like-it-is style, and the fact that there were so many candidates in the race – candidates who mostly fought each other, not him.

“With 17 candidates running, there’s not enough time to force details on tax cuts or whatever your foreign policy is,” says Mackowiak. “Now we’re down to three candidates and there’s more of a requirement for specificity.”

As that dynamic has changed, however, Trump has not grown as a "credible nominee," Mr. Mackowiak argues. He cites the billionaire’s recent interviews on policy positions in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other media. He’s laid out positions such as a nuclear-armed Japan and South Korea, possibly leaving NATO, and forcing Mexico to pay for a wall on the border by cutting off money that Mexicans in the US send back home.

Experts have called these positions unworkable or even dangerous. But perhaps more important to voters, they have revealed “how totally out of his depth he is” on almost every major issue, Mackowiak says.

'More presidential'?

So, can Trump study up and act “more presidential,” as he says his friends and family are urging him to do? 

He’s planning soon to roll out more policy speeches (his speech on US-Israeli relations was written by his son-in-law). Recently, one of his foreign policy advisers appeared on the respected PBS Newshour – but his team is made up of unknowns or people who have mixed reputations in foreign policy circles, according to Politico.

“He would need a lot more than a few policy speeches written by somebody else to be a credible candidate for president. He would need an entire personality transplant, and that's not going to happen,” says GOP pollster Whit Ayres, president of North Star Opinion Research. Mr. Ayres was the pollster for Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio, who has dropped out of the race. 

Trump has said that he will be “very presidential” once he dispenses with his competitors, Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich. He’ll be so presidential, he’s telling the media, that they’ll be “bored.”

But in Wisconsin, exit polls show that nearly 40 percent of Republicans said they would not vote for him if he were the nominee. He would need “north of 90 percent in his own party” to win a general election, Ayres points out.

Meanwhile, his controversial style and broad policy pronouncements may have won him a loyal following among primary voters, but his approach so far has also resulted in very high negative ratings among general election voters – unfavorables in the mid- to high-60s. 

One of Trump's challenges will be to find some way to drop those “staggering” negatives, explains Winston. “That’s incredibly hard to do.”

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