It’s indisputable that Donald Trump’s presidential campaign has reached its lowest ebb of the 2016 election. Trump is trailing Hillary Clinton badly in both swing state and national polls and continues to do battle with Republican leaders.
What’s less clear is whether — and how — Trump can bounce back from his current deficit.
I spent an hour on Thursday answering question on Quora — love that site! — and one that stood out to me touched on this very issue. It read: “How could Donald Trump change his strategy to secure a win in November?”
I’ve got four quick and painless steps that I think would at least get Trump back to single-digit competitiveness in most polls with Clinton. Here they are:
1. Endorse Paul Ryan
Before he does anything else, Trump needs to unite the Republican Party behind him. And he needs to do it quickly. His unwillingness to endorse Ryan is entirely about making the Wisconsin Republican wriggle and/or exacting some sort of payback for Ryan’s decision not to immediately endorse Trump following his May 3 Indiana primary win. Either way, it’s not smart. Ryan is going to win on Tuesday and he’ll never forget that Trump very publicly refused to endorse him. Neither will lots of other rank and file Republicans still trying to figure out if they can get on board with Trump.
This is the sort of stuff Trump has to eliminate. Making decisions based on personal pique rather than what’s good for his candidacy and the broader Republican Party is the road to a massive loss. Way back on June 7 — amid another crisis of confidence in his campaign — Trump said the following: “I understand the responsibility of carrying the mantle. I will never let you down.”
That’s what he needs to abide by. Endorse Ryan today. Tell anyone who will listen that he is a great conservative and a future leader of the party.
2. Stop talking so much
Trump seems to have an unending willingness to talk to the media — despite his insistence that we are “the most dishonest people.” Trump is calling into shows, appearing on set or sitting down with a reporter constantly.
What that means for Trump is that he is always either stepping on his preferred message of the day or making some sort of other news entirely. Trump is his own worst enemy in this regard. He has repeatedly taken a good news day or news cycle and turned it into a bad one simply by talking — and talking.
The more a political candidate talks, the worse they tend to do. While this isn’t universally true — John McCain talked forever during the 2008 primary campaign and it helped him — it’s definitely true for Trump. He struggles to stay on message pretty much all the time — more on that below — and so the more he talks, the more variant messages he puts out there.
3. Find a message. And stick to it.
Trump’s approach during the Republican primary was to try a series of attacks (and nicknames) against his rivals until one stuck. And, one always wound up sticking — “Little” Marco, “low energy” Jeb and so on. A general election is a different animal; you can’t just throw 100 messages out every day and hope one lands. You need to decide the two or three things you really want to emphasize on a given day, week or month and then talk about them every day, all day.
For Trump, that should be: a) the need for real change in Washington and politics b) the need to elect him to ensure a conservative-minded Supreme Court and c) Clinton can’t be trusted. That trio of issues/messages would resonate with a broad swath of the country. And, in most of his speeches and interviews, Trump mentions one, two or even all three of them. The problem is that he also mentions 200 or so other things, making it very hard for a would-be voter to cut through the clutter.
Trump’s message is being shot out of a machine gun right now — it scatters everywhere. He needs to strip down the process massively; take it down to its roots and find the few things that sit at the heart of both his appeal and the unease with Clinton in the electorate. Then say that and only that for months.
4. Stop picking dumb fights
There is no strategy in which Trump’s almost-week-long back-and-forth with the Khan family was a good idea. A family who has lost a son in combat is someone with whom you empathize, not attempt to demonize. This fight was a political cul-de-sac from which Trump had no reasonable exit strategy. And that was patently obvious from the get-go.
Trump’s natural inclination is to attack when threatened. Always. He doesn’t believe in taking the high road. Ever. But, any candidate (or adult) knows that there are fights you want or need to have and those that you should avoid because they aren’t ones you can win. Trump seems convinced that the fight is enough — even if he loses, because, in his mind, he never loses.
The Khan episode should be instructive to Trump. Rather than his current tack of blaming the media for covering it unfairly, he should instead use it as a teachable moment. Pick fights you can win. Walk away from all the other ones. No matter how hard that is for you.
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Chris Cillizza