Donald Trump effectively secured the Republican presidential nomination on May 3. That was 48 days ago.
Today, Trump is no closer to uniting the Republican Party or pivoting to the general election than he was seven weeks ago. And that is, at a minimum, a massive waste of a critical period in the campaign and, at worst, a mistake that could severely jeopardize his chances of winning the White House in November.
Trump’s time as the near-certain Republican nominee has been dominated by self-inflicted wounds – the most gaping of which is his suggestion that a federal judge overseeing a case involving Trump University was biased and should recuse himself because he is of Mexican heritage. Trump doubled down on that comment, then tripled down on it – even amid widespread outrage among Republicans already concerned that their nominee was dabbling (at least) in race-baiting. Eventually, Trump released a statement insisting that his comments about Gonzalo Curiel had been “misconstrued.” He did not apologize for making the comment.
While the fight over Curiel has drawn the most attention, it’s far from an isolated incident in the story of “Donald Trump, Republican nominee.” A partial list:
– Trump’s attack on New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez (R) during a trip to the state.
– His repeated use of the term “Pocahontas” to describe Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.
– The decision to revoke the media credentials of The Washington Post – as well as at least seven other outlets.
– The reiteration of support – in the wake of the Orlando nightclub massacre – for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States, a policy that has been decried by almost every wing of the GOP.
– Telling Republicans that they need to “get tougher” and pledging that if they won’t support him, he will win by himself.
Like I said, that’s a partial list. But even in its incompleteness, the impression the list leaves is of a totally undisciplined candidate oblivious to the fact that leading the headlines is not always a good thing.
Know what else happened in the past seven weeks? The State Department’s inspector general released a report sharply critical of Hillary Clinton’s decision to exclusively rely on a private email server for her electronic communication while serving as secretary of state. That is a terrible story for Clinton – and one that is a gift to Republicans working to portray her as an untrustworthy and unreliable person to lead the country.
The IG report came out May 25. Two days later, Trump went on a 11-minute rant about Curiel to a crowd in San Diego. Suddenly, the IG report was out of the news, replaced by questions about whether Trump was a racist. That is, by definition, campaign malpractice.
That’s the most egregious example of Trump’s mistakes over the past six weeks. But, time and again, he has stolen the spotlight – and not in a good way – rather than turning it on Clinton. Rather than talk about her email problems, her inability to close out the challenge from Bernie Sanders, the misgivings that some within her party have about nominating her or almost any other Clinton-focused headline, Trump has instead talked incessantly about himself.
He is also being lapped in virtually every quantifiable measure of successful campaigns. Clinton and her allied super PAC have spent $23 million on ads in battleground states this month. Trump? $0. Clinton has approximately 10 times the number of staffers that the Trump campaign does.
And then there is the polling – long Trump’s crutch and favored talking point.
His negatives, as judged by new Washington Post-ABC News polling, are higher than they have ever been, with 7 in 10 Americans viewing him unfavorably.
Polling both nationally and in critical swing states also suggests that Trump trails Clinton.
The election is in five months, you say? Plenty of time for Trump to make up ground and fix what ails his campaign! To that, I say two things: 1) Trump has given no indication that there is a 2.0 version of himself ready to be unveiled, and 2) It might already be too late.
On the second point, Trump was handed a unique opportunity over these past seven weeks. Clinton was still mired in a primary fight with Sanders. Trump was totally free of any intraparty challengers. He had almost 50 days in which his opponent was decidedly distracted. He won’t get that chance again. The Democratic primary season ended last Tuesday. President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden have endorsed Clinton. Sanders seems to be moving to do the same.
Yes, modern campaigns last forever. But they are almost always defined by a small group of critical moments that change the trajectory of races. The past seven weeks was one of those major moments. Trump totally wasted it.
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Chris Cillizza