When freewheeling presidential nominee Donald Trump steps off script … it’s usually to actually read a script.
On Friday, in Green Bay, Wisc., Mr. Trump looked at his notes and said: “… in our shared mission, to make America great again, I support and endorse our Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan.” Then he looked up and riffed: "And while I'm at it, I hold in the highest esteem Sen. John McCain for his service to our country in uniform and in public office, and I fully support and endorse his re-election.” He also said he’s backing New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a sometime Trump critic.
They were rare concessions in a Trump speech, coming only days after the New York real estate mogul, because of various campaign spats, said he “wasn’t quite there” as far as backing the trio of powerful Republicans – all of them from states increasingly in play – in their reelection bids. Yet in its simplicity the statement revealed the core of the election at hand, as Trump prepares to begin laying out his policy vision for the economy in Detroit on Monday.
After a rough week where he went from criticizing the family of a slain Muslim US soldier to ejecting a wailing baby from a campaign event, Trump managed, polls quickly suggested, to make his own path to the presidency steeper, in part by alienating critical voters and volunteers from his own conflicted party.
The result has been what amounts to a battleground state shake-up, with Hillary Clinton now dead-even or even leading rock-red states such as Arizona (which would include Trump’s proposed border fence) and Georgia, where Mrs. Clinton has a four-point lead in a state that hasn’t voted for a Democrat for president since, well, her husband won it in 1992, two years before the “Republican Revolution” dyed the state red.
More critically, key swing states – such as Pennsylvania, Florida, Michigan and New Hampshire – where Trump has counted the core of his support – are all now in Clinton's pocket. If the former first lady can win those, the other battlegrounds – Colorado, Iowa, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin – are a moot point. In fact, her lead is so significant in Colorado, its been reported that the Clinton campaign has stopped buying ads in the Rocky Mountain state.
The shifts in the 2016 presidential battleground map show Trump’s path to the White House has in some ways become more narrow, in turn forcing him to cast a broader net by looking at his first major ad buys in 17 states, many of them traditionally liberal enclaves such Maine, Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin. Those voters, however, will have to be significantly in a different mood than those contacted by pollsters in Pennsylvania, another state full of Trump voters, where Clinton nevertheless now has a double-digit lead after both party conventions.
“In the old steel towns around Pittsburgh, a lot of people are going to vote for Trump who haven’t voted before. But for every one of those people he earns, he loses suburban independents or Republicans who are not going to be able to accept the man and what he seems to say and stand for,” says Michael Mezey, an emeritus political scientist at DePaul University, in Chicago.
To be sure, for an unorthodox candidate who has already stood conventional political wisdom on its ear more times than a political scientist can count, all is not lost. Off-the-radar voters may come to the polls in droves. The ad wars have yet to begin. Events and Clinton’s low likability scores among Republicans can yet re-jigger campaign fundamentals.
Still, Trump’s rapid slide must have given some pause to even the self-confident candidate himself.
Rock-red Arizona, the state of "papers, please" immigration reforms and Trump friend Sheriff Joe Arpaio, is suddenly not a shoo-in for Trump. And by picking fights with GOP leaders, such as Representative Ryan, and Senators Ayotte and McCain, Trump risks alienating the kind of state-by-state organizational support a presidential candidate, at least by historical evidence, needs to win.
“By all conventional calculations, you need some party unity within the state to help you win, to turn out friends and neighbors, and make sure that every Republican voter goes to the polls," says Charles Franklin, a pollster at Marquette University in Milwaukee.
Some observers predicted that the week suggested Trump has peaked.
“This is what became obvious, probably fatally so: Mr. Trump is not going to get serious about running for president,” writes the Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan, one of President Ronald Reagan’s speechwriters. “He does not have a second act, there are no hidden depths, there will be no ‘pivot.’”
Yet Trump seemed to respond with the Ryan endorsement, renewed attacks on “Crooked Hillary,” and announcements that he is turning toward policy prescriptions. All those are designed to play to a Republican base in states like Wisconsin, where 98 percent of Republicans have an unfavorable view of Clinton.
At events in Iowa and Wisconsin on Friday, Trump seemed more disciplined and focused than usual, Politico reported. Trump at one point attacked Clinton as "the queen of corruption," and pushed back at charges that he doesn't have the temperament to be president."All my life I've been told, 'You have the greatest temperament,'" he said in Des Moines.
His biggest shift, though, is a pivot toward policy over pizzazz. His campaign says he’ll begin that with an economic speech in Detroit on Monday, where he will explain his vision for how to improve an American economy that just this week showed some of the most solid signs of improvements in months. The plan, campaign officials said, will focus on taxes, deregulation, energy policy, and trade.
But “the other problem Trump has, now he’s got to turn to issues, and when Trump talks about serious issues he’s boring, nobody pays attention,” says Mr. Mezey, at DePaul. “He makes news when he tosses red meat out to people … but that’s going to drive even more people away” from his message.
At the same time, he adds, “we shouldn’t underestimate the impact that television ads can have, and a lot of money is going to go into that. [Trump] can be good at that, and you can imagine his campaign cutting and pasting and producing a very, very slick thing that will be impressive.”
And it wasn't all bad news for Trump this week: A Reuters/Ipsos national poll released Saturday showed Trump only trailing Clinton by 3 points.
In his speech on Friday, Trump said that he will try to work to unite Republicans, while acknowledging differences of opinion that, polls at least suggested, had fractured the GOP voter base.
"My 80 percent friend is not my 20 percent enemy," Trump said on Friday, paraphrasing President Reagan. "We are going to be the big tent party."