The Republican Party establishment would love to turn to Donald Trump and say "You're fired" but they can't. Trump does not need them. But that does not mean he is a shoe-in to win the party nomination or presidency. The Koch brothers can relax.
Donald Trump may be surging in the polls and leading the Republican field for now, and he may even do well in the coming Republican debate. But ultimately he will not win the presidency as a Republican or third party candidate.
Trump’s frontrunner status perplexes political pundits and journalists. It should not. For the last few decades, Trump’s signature mark has been his self-promotion -- hotels, books, product line, television show. Trump is brand, no different than Coke or McDonalds, and his early lead reflects that. His popularity is name recognition, reflecting the old adage that any news coverage is better than none.
With a crowded field of 16 declared Republican candidates, Trump stands out -- as did Ventura in Minnesota -- as the anti-politician, someone with both better name recognition, and a mastery of the media his opponents simply don’t have. He has a personality that contrasts against a backdrop of bland politicians.
Trump taps into anger and resentment, especially among white men and the uneducated, and he provides a voice for the people who see their world crumbling and are looking for someone to blame. Trump thus speaks what so many Republicans have been thinking, he is just honest in actually saying it. In that sense Trump is exactly what the Republican Party has come to represent, but now when the GOP is faced with the honesty of their own rhetoric looking them in the face, they almost cringe for what they have unleashed over a generation is an ideology of xenophobic, racist, misogynist, and poor-hating language. This is what the GOP has become and this is Trump stands for. He strips aware the veneer of the Republican Party, demonstrating that when honest, its rhetoric is unelectable.
Finally, Trump, like Ross Perot in 1992 has money; Money to finance his campaign as the endorsed party candidate, or as a third party challenger facing the legal hurdles of getting on the ballot across the country.
Despite these advantages, Trump’s fleeting popularity illuminates his campaign’s problems. Trump’s first place surge is 20 percent of a party where, according to 2012 exit polls, only 32 percent of the population identifies as Republican. His surge represents barely 7% percent of the potential electorate in 2016. The GOP in general faces a demographic problem: their Caucasian, Christian base is old, dying off, and shrinking each presidential election. Republicans need to win minority voters, who with each election are a greater percentage of the electorate. yet the GOP struggle to do so with their message. Trump’s immigration comments make it even harder for him to succeed among minorities.
There’s another issue at play in Trump’s pseudo-success. Politics is like selling beer -- it is the about telling a story or having a narrative. Clearly, Trump knows how to tell a story to sell a brand, but so far he lacks a narrative or reason for his presidency. He has yet to explain why he is running, what his vision for America is, or what he hopes to accomplish. Candidates with narratives, even bad ones, beat candidates without them. Without a narrative, Trump will be unable to mobilize whatever base he has. His popularly is all in polls, not in real people, his is not a grassroots campaign. Ultimately, successful politicians have to deliver voters to caucuses, primaries, and general elections. Ninety percent of life, as Woody Allen famously said, is showing up. Trump confuses media presence and name recognition with people mobilization -- the same mistake Hillary Clinton made in her 2008 run against Obama.
Trump faces three additional liabilities. First, politics is about passion. It is not simply candidates being passionate, but voters or supporters being passionate about the candidate. Passion is what makes people volunteer, door knock, phone call, give money, and show up to vote. Trump taps into voter anger and resentment, but not voter passion. Voters are only mobilized if they are passionate about the candidate; That is missing with Trump.
Second, part of that passion comes with likeability and relate-ability: do voters like you, do they think you can relate to them, or vice versa. Trump lacks all this. His disdain for middle America is evident--the Trump brand is not for Joe Six Pack. Trump is an arrogant billionaire born into money and privilege and whose most famous quote is “You’re fired!” Trump’s signature line will doom him when voters decide they do not want a president who is synonymous with firing people. Mitt Romney learned that in 2012.
Finally, with 20 plus years in the limelight, Trump has little room to redefine himself. He was always a controversial figure, described as arrogant, a buffoon, or worse. He always had high name recognition but that came with high negatives, and they are only growing. Trump will have a difficult time reversing these negatives, expanding his base, and winning over swing voters. Polls already show Trump doing poorly in swing states among swing voters, and it will only get worse.
Trump is having his moment but it will not last. But even if he does get the Republican nomination he will not be able to translate his business brand and name recognition into a viable presidential campaign; The voters will eventually say "You're fired!" to Trump.