After a week of watching the Donald Trump Political Circus in Indiana, it seems clear that he has two things going for him above all else as we head toward November.
First, there is the undeniable connection he has established with many of his supporters. Few politicians who’ve made a career in the profession have enjoyed anything close to the bond he has with a die-hard band of loyalists who seem unlikely to abandon him no matter how empty his policy promises and how inflammatory his rhetoric.
Second, and this might be even more important, is the belief in the minds of so many critics that he is a primary phenomenon who will have no chance of selling his campaign to a broader general election population. I’ve heard this time and again from Democrats and moderate Republicans. But after watching Trump cruise through Indiana with a relatively disciplined campaign, one that sent his opponents into a tizzy, it seems that too many people are underestimating his skills and appeal.
I hope I’m wrong. My God, do I hope I am wrong. I’ll proudly wear the badge of the silly pundit who panicked and cried wolf if Trump is dealt a resounding defeat in November — a defeat that makes clear this country will not tolerate a leader who has exploited anger and pain in uniquely hateful ways.
And I certainly am not predicting a Trump presidency. What I am saying is that anyone who dismisses that possibility is underestimating his campaign. And few things are better for a politician than being underestimated.
Here are 10 points that left me thinking Trump has a chance:
1. I walked out of Trump’s rally last week in Carmel and tweeted, “Almost 25 years of covering politics. Nothing compares to a Trump speech.” That was not a compliment but rather a reminder of the power of something that is new and different. This is particularly powerful in politics, with so many voters so tired of predictable, talking-point politicians. When voters are fed up, they are often willing to take a chance on something or someone that might seem unthinkable. And make no mistake about it, millions of voters on both sides of the aisle are fed up. If they want something different — well, what is more different than Donald Trump?
2. Yes, his message is based in fantasy and thin promises. But that message is the clearest, most easily digestible of any we’ve seen in a long time in presidential politics, right up there with “Yes, we can.”
“Believe me, folks, we’re building a wall,” Trump said to wild applause last Monday. At another point: “We’re going to go out and make our country so great again.” And then: “It’s going to be America first, on every deal.”
Shake your head if you want. I do. But his is a crisp message. And it’s a lot easier to sell a crisp message than a nuanced or fuzzy one.
3. Republicans are coming around. Polls show that more and more Republicans are comfortable with a Trump nomination. All those promises from moderate GOP voters promising to never vote Trump? Well, we will see how strong those promises are a few months from now. But if you want to see how more Republicans have come to view Trump, consider the case of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence.
Sure, he endorsed Ted Cruz, but only after praising Trump so elaborately that it almost seemed the endorsement was going the other way. If Trump gets glowing words from Pence, a religious conservative who is facing a tough re-election battle, that’s a clear sign that Republicans are growing more comfortable with him.
4. For many Trump supporters, this is nothing short of a cause, just as Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign was in the minds of many of his backers. What does that mean? A level of energy, support and volunteerism that can propel a campaign. Now, it should be noted that Trump might inspire an even greater cause on the other side. But any candidate who can draw a crowd of 12,000 in Evansville and about the same number in South Bend shouldn’t be underestimated.
5. In his campaign appearances Trump is funny, interesting and willing to veer from the script — if there is a script. This makes his speeches compelling TV, overshadowing his rivals and their ties to stump speeches. Time after time, voters I met over the past week pointed to Trump’s charisma and larger-than-life persona. I’d like to think that voting was a rational act based on policy. But come on, who among us hasn’t cast a vote that was driven by charisma, charm or something a lot more superficial than a policy paper?
6. Like that mean kid in middle school, Trump finds the area of vulnerability in an opponent and exploits it masterfully, attaches a nickname or a label to a rival that comes to define them. Just ask Jeb Bush, who will never rid himself of the “low energy” mantle, or Cruz, who was crushed by the “Lyin' Ted” slam.
I know, name-calling should not be a qualification in a presidential candidate. But time and again in recent months, it has worked. And when others have tried it, as Cruz did in the closing days of the race, it bombs.
7. So far, Trump has proved himself able to brush away controversies that would crush other candidates. In Indiana, he paid no price after praising Mike Tyson, who was convicted of rape here. Compare that with the grief Cruz took for accidentally referring to a “basketball ring.”
Bottom line: Other candidates still have to live in fear of one verbal misstep or one over-the-top statement. But because Trump is a renegade candidate with a lifetime full of such offenses, he seems immune to damage.
8. I have a theory about presidential elections: The candidate who is more comfortable in his or her own skin usually wins. Running for president is a brutal endurance test. It’s hard enough to withstand the pressure without having to twist yourself in knots in an attempt to appeal to a certain political mood. I have a lot of complaints about Trump but, as he campaigned this past week, he sure seemed to be comfortable playing himself.
9. Indiana voters made clear the attraction of a political candidate who is willing to poke the eye of the establishment and to tread where other candidates fear to go. At one point in his Carmel rally, for instance, Trump pointed to those who say he isn’t a true conservative because of his views on trade. “Who cares?” he said. “We want to straighten out this country.”
Can you imagine another Republican candidate in a primary, and in one of a state’s most Republican counties, saying “who cares?” to complaints about his conservative credentials? And here’s the thing: When he made that comment, the crowd went wild.
10. The Indiana primary continued the trend of the stop-Trump movement failing to find the right strategy. Questioning his morals didn’t work. Questioning his business practices didn’t work. Questioning his conservative credentials didn’t work.
The question, of course, is whether Hillary Clinton can do a better job than all of the Trump rivals who have failed before her. I certainly hope she does. But as the Trump show moves on, count me as one who isn’t willing to underestimate The Donald’s appeal.