If you’ve seen the news, opened social media, or generally lived anywhere other than a desert island for the past few months, you’ve inevitably seen a plethora of presidential polls that all say the same thing:
Donald Trump is losing to Hillary in every swing state and a good number of red states. Badly.
Like, we are talking Barry Goldwater 1964, in your guts you know he’s nuts, badly.
Republican strategists from across the ideological spectrum range from cautious optimism that it’s not all over to circling the wagons around down-ticket campaigns.
According to The Hill, Mr. Trump told an audience Tuesday in battleground Colorado, “I don’t believe the polls anymore.”
Now don’t get me wrong, it’s a candidate’s job to be optimistic, even in the face of a lost cause. It’s the candidate’s job to keep believing that the party will bounce back from every setback. That’s not what I’m talking about.
I’m talking about the culture that Trump’s attitude is reflecting and validating. And that culture seems to have precious little interest in selling what the undecided voter is buying.
The hardcore supporters of Donald Trump love it, and he feeds off of how much they love it.
We have lived for so long in a world of media bias and spin that, for millions of people, the media just doesn’t count. When you hear for the millionth time that the anchor has an agenda, the reporter took the quote out of context, and the whole media industrial complex cares more about their opinions than the truth.
Then it shouldn’t surprise us when the media stops mattering to a whole demographic of people, even when it comes to simple facts like the overwhelming weight of opinion polls. This may seem completely reasonable to loyal Trump supporters, but to anyone else, pretending the media doesn’t matter just looks desperate.
Trump’s most diehard supporters are either unwilling to admit or incapable of grasping one simple concept:
When your candidate says or does things that offend large numbers of people, his poll numbers go down.
Radical, I know.
If this is difficult, perhaps we should rehash the basics of an election.
There are five demographics to consider in any election:
Your base – they’ll vote for you no matter what. Your goal is to inspire them to engage with your campaign, volunteer, tell their friends, donate, etc.
Your disaffecteds – they tend to vote for your party but for whatever reason (they supported your primary opponent, you’re too moderate, you’re too extreme, they don’t like your face, who knows). They don’t like you and you need to win them over in the general election so they don’t vote third party or stay home.
The swing middle – they’re the true independents. They might or might not vote, and if they do, they might vote for either party.
Their base – they’ll reliably vote for your opponent. Everything that applies to your base applies to them in equal and opposite terms.
Their disaffecteds – same as yours, just for the other side. Think Bernie Sanders supporters who are so disappointed in Hillary that they are undecided about voting for Clinton, not voting, or voting for Jill Stein.
No matter how you cut or combine those groups, you only win if you have pluralities in enough states to add up 270 electoral votes (barring a Twelfth Amendment crisis for the time being). The way you win pluralities in those states is very complicated. It involves something along the lines of winning more votes than the other person.
Throughout this campaign, Donald Trump has hung his hat on the base. His base of supporters love him. They support him loudly. They show up to his events en masse. They even break the occasional small donation record.
But when it comes to, well, any other group of people, the whole thing sort of falls apart.
Trump won his nomination on the passion of his most ardent supporters, and found himself spending the general election season trying to win over his disaffecteds. Literally doing anything he can to convince social conservatives, evangelicals, libertarians, Ted Cruz supporters, Catholics, Mormons, southern Democrats… pretty much any group that’s been voting red since Ronald Reagan, that they absolutely must vote for him to stop Hillary.
Of course this is all critical, but there’s a serious problem with making this the sole focus of the campaign. Every disaffected vote that you win from your side is worth just half of a vote you win from the swing middle.
Every vote you convince to turn out on your side brings your total up one. But every vote you convince to go your way instead of the other way brings your total up one and the other side down one.
Thus far, Trump has had some trouble winning over anyone who doesn’t already love him, and that’s an trend that’s going to have to change if we don’t want a Clinton presidency. It’s not that underdogs can’t turn polls around. Heck, Americans love the underdog, but you have to show them why you deserve their support.
Whether Trump can change the tone of the election remains to be seen, and I will certainly be watching for that in Wednesday’s debate and beyond.
Trump knows that many of his supporters don’t care what the polls say, for better or worse. But writing off the entire media is and its scientific polls is not how you win over the moderate middle. It’s how you convince them you’re insane.