The Trump Card

Donald Trump is upending the GOP presidential nomination process, but can he keep his lead?

Donald Trump
Donald Trump

They call themselves “Trumpanistas.” A group organized to sing the gospel of Donald Trump in his bid for president drew just a handful of supporters last month at its first meeting, held at an inexpensive Italian restaurant on the edge of NoMad. They were not deterred by their small number.

A white-shoe lawyer, a medical resident and a security consultant joined the group’s organizer, Bradley Maurer, to discuss how to support Trump’s self-styled campaign.

Maurer, an outreach coordinator at LaGuardia Community College’s science and technology program, and the other Trumpanistas told The Real Deal that the billionaire developer’s disdain for professional politicians and his no-holds-barred manner lured them in.

“Look at where our genteel leaders have gotten us,” said Victor Du, a doctor-in-training at North Shore LIJ hospital.

The discussion mostly focused on strategizing about how to get Trump on the Republican ticket here in New York State and on how to draw coveted “swing voters” to the cause. But the late New York GOP primary, set for April 19, means the Empire State will likely have little say in who becomes the actual nominee.

Since declaring his White House bid in June, Trump has seemed an unstoppable (if unlikely) force where it matters most. The website Real Clear Politics, which aggregates polling data, shows him with a 13 point lead among national GOP voters over his closest rival. And in the ever-important state of Iowa, he’s up by nearly 8 percent among Republican voters. And in New Hampshire, he’s closing in on a 16-point lead with likely GOP primary voters.

But history suggests that his lead now might not hold. Many past presidential candidates who surged early in the polls had lost steam by the time the first ballots were cast.

Long road to nomination

The vote tallying for the grueling race begins Feb. 1 at the Iowa caucuses.

Their first-in-the-nation status frequently casts Iowans as kingmakers. In 2008, for instance, the state’s Democrats backed the candidacy of a still relatively unknown senator from Illinois with the unusual name of Barack Obama, over household names like Hillary Rodham Clinton and Joseph Biden.

While the packed Republican field spent this summer crisscrossing the Hawkeye State trying to gain traction, Trump brought his own form of showmanship to the race. At the Iowa State Fair last month, for example, he arrived in his own personal helicopter, then used it to give rides to children. He has refused to do many of the most typical things a candidate does: issue detailed white papers on major issues, temper his language or try to project the image of a “regular guy.” However, showing up at the Iowa State Fair suggests that he’s taking the race just as seriously as his opponents.

“He seems to be the one who’s trained for this,” said Republican pollster John McLaughlin, who advised Trump four years ago when he briefly considered a presidential bid for the 2012 contest.

“He’s made a living over the past few years on reality TV,” added McLaughlin, who is unaffiliated with any of the current candidates. “This is kind of like a reality campaign. Maybe he’s the one most qualified to get his points across.”

Yet despite his grip on the polls, Trump’s candidacy is still viewed by many with more than a little skepticism.

One reason political professionals are dubious is Trump’s policy points, or lack thereof. The New Yorker’s tough talk on immigration and his bullet-pointed plan to secure the Mexican border have social media appeal, but he’s avoided substantive discussions on how he would execute these or other proposals.

He’s also ruffled the feathers of the GOP establishment, notoriously dissing the party’s 2008 nominee Sen. John McCain, attacking any competitor who gets within earshot and even butting heads with Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus. That may make beefing up campaign staff and recruiting get-out-the-vote operatives typically needed to win the primary marathon difficult.

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And in perhaps the ultimate show of defiance to the party machine, Trump was the only candidate at the first Republican debate last month who refused to rule out running as an independent, should he fail to win the party’s nomination.

Indy streak

The idea of Trump banking on his populist appeal to run as an independent gives establishment Republicans knots in their stomachs.

It brings back memories of Texas businessman Ross Perot’s 1992 campaign, which some credit with helping Bill Clinton beat President George H.W. Bush, and consumer advocate Ralph Nader’s bid in 2000, which many blame for siphoning votes from Vice President Al Gore and handing the White House to George W. Bush. Those campaigns serve as cautionary tales of how third-party candidates can throw monkey wrenches into an election cycle.

There is even a conspiracy theory circulating online that Trump’s bid is actually a “false flag” operation, and that he is working in conjunction with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s campaign to derail the Republican Party. Blogger Justin Raimondo, of the site, supported that viewpoint. “It’s all an act, one that benefits his good friend Hillary Clinton and the Democratic party that, until recently, counted the reality show star among its adherents,” Raimondo wrote in a post shared on multiple websites larger than his own. “Indeed, Trump’s pronouncements — the open racism, the demagogic appeals, the faux-populist rhetoric — sound like something out of a Democratic political consultant’s imagination, a caricature of conservatism, as performed by a master actor.”

More serious critics point out that, outlandish remarks aside, Trump’s lack of political or governmental experience are what ultimately make his candidacy a mere distraction from the presidential race.

“Unless you were the Supreme Allied Commander of World War II, it’s highly unlikely you’ll be elected president with no experience in public office,” said Larry Sabato, the non-partisan director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

Dwight Eisenhower, Sabato pointed out, was the last non-politician elected president. And Trump, he said, is no Eisenhower.

“If he were serious, he could’ve used that first debate as a way to project a presidential image, but he didn’t,” Sabato said. “He’s the shiny new object. … Last time in 2012, there were lots of new shiny objects, and they each got their turn.”

Sore loser laws

Should Trump fail to win the Republican nomination and seek to run on a third-party line or as an independent candidate, he will face multiple hurdles, including running up against what’s known as “sore loser laws” on the books in many states.

“He should avoid filing in certain [Republican] presidential primaries” if he wants to run later as an independent, said political analyst Richard Winger, publisher of Ballot Access News, who pointed out that while nearly every state has some kind of sore loser law, they vary by degree. “There are four states that say you can’t run if you lose in a party’s primary.”

Mississippi, South Dakota, Texas and Ohio would all bar Trump from a second shot if he failed to win the GOP nomination. In fact, he appears to have already disqualified himself from an independent run in the all-important Ohio, where the first Republican debate was held.

Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted’s office has decided that since Trump filed with the Federal Election Commission as a Republican and participated in the GOP debate, he is already prohibited from running in that state on another political line.

In a bit of not-too-distant political history, Winger pointed out that in the 2012 race, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson initially declared his candidacy as a Republican and participated in GOP debates in South Carolina and Florida, before switching to the Libertarian Party ticket. He would go on to get on the ballot in 48 states.

That might give some hope to Trump, should he decide to pursue that route. Because there’s nothing he dislikes more than being called a loser.