Why you should care
Because there are 114 days till voting day.
Recent polls and various experts have observed a close race for the presidency. But in their heart of hearts, most pundits do not believe that Trump can win. Here, I differ. As the recent NBA playoffs reminded us, anything can happen.
And so, having spent most of the last year speaking with a wide variety of former presidential candidates, campaign managers and historians for OZY’s upcoming PBS television series, The Contenders, I’m laying out what a potential Trump path to victory could look like over the next 114 days. In particular, to win a majority of the current key swing states and even put a few likely Democratic states back in play, Trump would have to do seven things:
1. First, Do No Harm
Trump needed to get at least a safe base hit with his VP choice. And while it is still too early to tell, for now, it looks like he made a solid move by choosing Mike Pence. For starters, he convinced a real GOP officeholder and conservative favorite to say yes — and so avoided bringing aboard someone with meaningful baggage, like former Speaker Newt Gingrich or embattled New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. And at least for now, the mainstream press isn’t giving Trump that much flak about the homogeneity of the ticket in a majority female country that is increasingly diverse.
Which is to say that Pence should end up being a VP choice in the mold of Paul Ryan or Jack Kemp — not bold or even particularly helpful, but not hurtful, either. Given Trump’s many recent stumbles, rolling out a VP choice without major drama would be a meaningful and necessary achievement. All this assumes, of course, that the diversity critique does not gain more traction and that the Indiana governor doesn’t suffer an embarrassing reveal or fumble, as when Sarah Palin couldn’t give a good answer to Katie Couric’s question about what she reads.
2. Unleash His Inner Reagan
Say what you will about Trump’s controversial policy positions; right or wrong, his ideas have garnered the most attention of any candidate’s this season and have won him a constituency. To begin to shift swing voters, though, especially women and independents, he needs to offer a new slate of bold ideas. The meek stuff won’t do here: Sweeping and even controversial ideas from Trump on education, poverty, defense or even health care (think Alzheimer’s) would make a number of middle-of-the-road voters take another look — and even discount his wildness.
Indeed, injecting two or three new ideas early — big policies like Reagan’s tax cuts and Star Wars, or Clinton’s job training — could make new constituencies reconsider. Were Trump to go beyond controversial ideas on trade, borders and immigration policy, he might find new support in key swing states.
3. Find His Oprah
From Frank Sinatra and Jack Kennedy to Oprah and Obama, celebrities have often helped lift unlikely candidates from the margins to the White House. Indeed, even celebrities who did not formally endorse a candidate but made him seem more appealing can make a difference: Oprah’s interview with candidate George W. Bush in 2000 showed off his charming, witty side.
Of course, Trump came to the race with celebrity of his own. Still, getting a compelling celebrity to champion him — or even humanize him in reflected glow — could be a huge help in broadening his brand this fall. We’re thinking Tom Brady. Any other suggestions?
When Arnold Schwarzenegger ran for governor of California in 2003, most experts laughed. When he seemed on the road to victory, they made belated comparisons to Jesse Ventura and Ronald Reagan. But before the Terminator could win, he nearly got derailed.
Five days before the election that year, California’s most important newspaper, The Los Angeles Times, dropped a bombshell: detailed reports by half a dozen women about inappropriate behavior by Schwarzenegger when he was an actor. The bodybuilder looked in trouble until his famous wife, Democrat Maria Shriver, came to his defense, vouched for his virtue and told the press to back off a good man. Schwarzenegger ultimately served two terms.
The lesson: Family members, especially women, can play a powerful role. Though Trump has had a good deal of trouble with female voters (77 percent of women view him unfavorably), he also has a huge asset that he is yet to deploy — his daughter Ivanka. The former model-turned-entrepreneur and TV personality could potentially help many people see her father in a different, less bombastic, more inclusive light — and maybe assure some people that she would continue to temper him. Ads, events and even a star moment at the upcoming convention could make a generation of women, in particular, take a second look at Tiffany and Ivanka’s dad.
5. Go Hard After President Clinton
Trump has mastered the art of putting rivals on the defensive. Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, often seems to struggle with the public criticism that comes with the national spotlight. Sometimes a kind of post-traumatic stress syndrome, from so many political battles over the last 40 years, seems to trip her up. If The Donald can make his fellow New Yorker crazy with critique, she might choke and fail to make the creative, bold moves she needs to make.
One likely route for The Donald? Look for fresh, dirty laundry on former President Bill Clinton. It’d strike some as below the belt — after all, Bill is not the candidate this go-round and spouses are often considered off-limits — but Trump has not been shy about hitting there, repeatedly and aggressively. At some point, Trump’s attacks could slide off the real candidate, Secretary Clinton, or make the whole Clinton effort seem like an amoral sideshow. If the latter, that could significantly help Trump even with moderates who admire the Clinton economy from the 1990s.
6. Stock the Cabinet Early
In the U.S., many new presidents make much of their cabinets after they’re elected — J.F.K.’s The Best and the Brightest, or “Whiz Kids,” or even Abe Lincoln’s bipartisan Team of Rivals. Trump should get a jump on and the sheen that comes with it. His campaign could not just leak potential cabinet members, as many contenders do, but to explicitly announce them. Along the way, Trump would get a half dozen leading lights to publicly say that they would serve at Defense, State, Treasury and elsewhere. Indeed, imagine if Trump could convince a few blue-chip GOP insiders, as well as some surprising but still compelling names, to join the team. So former Secretary of State Condi Rice or Gen. David Petraeus, along with perhaps a Jamie Dimon. Unlikely, sure. But if it happened? Whoa!
7. The Full Reverend Wright
All of the above ideas could put Trump back on a path to winning. But the proverbial elephant in the room is race. Would these moves be enough to reverse a widely held perception that Trump is racist and/or supports racist policies? Two-thirds of voters between the ages of 18 and 30 believe Trump is racist, and in two key swing states, Trump is polling at zero percent among Blacks. Support for Republicans among Black voters tends to be around 10 percent, and even John McCain running against Obama, the first Black nominee, managed four percent.
Surface-level efforts are unlikely to work. So what would Trump have to do to dump this toxic baggage? One might imagine him doing a series of “Reverend Wright” speeches, pair it with credible Black and brown support, and make race a meaningful part of his new campaign. Doing so might persuade enough independent white voters and some people of color that Trump could be both fair and helpful.
To be sure, even then, most Black and brown people would be leery, even dismissive, and it’s unlikely he’d adopt the idea. But to appreciate how the impossible can become possible, it is worth remembering that 35 years ago, Black voters in Alabama embraced a repentant segregationist named George Wallace — and helped to elect the famous 1960s symbol of white hatred as governor of Alabama.
So do you buy it? Can Trump win? And if so, are these the key next steps? Send me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.