Remember Mitt Romney? The guy Republican voters spent months trying not to nominate until they simply ran out of viable alternatives? The guy who spent most of the campaign pretending he had never been a moderate governor of a liberal northeastern state? The guy who ran away from his signature health care reform accomplishment lest it be seen as the model for Obamacare? Who chose Paul Ryan as a running mate to strengthen his conservative credentials? Who tried to convince his base that he was not just conservative but severely conservative?
As the campaign entered its final months, Mitt Romney had a problem. He had spent so much time doing repair work with his skeptical base that he had been unable to position himself properly for the general election. Romney had spent the summer months trying to reassure base voters who neither liked, trusted nor wanted him that he understood and would represent their interests, giving him no latitude to embrace the moderate credentials that would have had general election appeal. Romney wanted to execute a general election pivot like most nominees do but he could not risk alienating core voters who were at best reluctantly on board.
Romney was running close to President Obama but he was unable to close a gap of several points, and the voters he needed were turned off by severe conservatism. So Romney did something startling. In the first presidential debate, he jettisoned the severe rhetoric and presented himself to a national audience as someone who had always been a pragmatic moderate, as though the primary campaign had never happened. He gambled that voters who were just taking interest in the campaign would experience no dissonance about the reasonable guy they saw on their TV screens, while base voter would see him taking on the reviled incumbent and embrace Romney as the superior alternative.
Fast-forward to this week and we see a less nimble candidate who for a year has been spouting divisive rhetoric attempting to execute the same play. The most recent shake-up in the Trump campaign has elevated pollster Kellyanne Conway to the role of campaign manager. Conway may never have run a presidential campaign but she knows how to interpret data, and the numbers for Trump are brutal. His plan to ride to the White House on the backs of aggrieved white working class voters has turned off the rest of the electorate, notably educated white women who are an essential component of the Republican coalition. Trump doesn’t have Romney’s problem with his base, but he does have a far greater problem with everyone else, which is the principal reason why he is running several points behind where Romney was at this stage of the campaign four years ago. Conway clearly understands this and is looking for a way to broaden Trump’s appeal without undermining his core support.
So Trump is suddenly making gestures to voters of color and entertaining the possibility that he may not go through with his proposed mass deportation of undocumented immigrants. That these efforts have been clunky and confusing speaks to the absurdity of asking the public to engage in a bout of collective amnesia about the central tenets of the Trump campaign. Mass deportation and racial animosity are the Trump brand. But the reason why he’s attempting this approach rests with the same problem Romney faced: there is a public opinion gulf between reactionary voters and the rest of the electorate.
Most of the time, general election voters fall in the middle of a continuum from left to right, with primary voters occupying a space slightly to the left and right of that middle. Once the primaries are over, successful nominees can usually soften their positions as they edge ever so gently toward the center of that continuum where most of the voters reside. Since it’s a continuum, primary voters generally will not feel abandoned by a shift designed to broaden the candidate’s appeal, especially if nothing fundamental changes in the candidate’s message.
But what if instead of a continuum, the nominee faces a cliff? As a large share of the Republican base has become radicalized during the Obama years, it has become increasingly difficult to find a way to bridge their demands with the interests of the rest of the electorate. The problem is particularly pronounced with Trump because for over a year he has been in words and demeanor a perfect mouthpiece for reactionary sentiment. Now, when facing rejection from voters on the other side of the ravine, he is being advised to convince them that what they have been witnessing hasn’t really happened while reassuring his core supporters that of course it has.
Trump is not a clever enough magician to pull this off, and it would indeed take an illusionist to convince people that he is a kinder, gentler demagogue. His strengths as a primary candidate are his weaknesses as a general election nominee, and they illustrate the structural problem Republicans face in trying to build a winning national coalition—problems evident four years ago. Republican leaders will continue to face this dilemma unless and until they make the politically difficult choice to confront their base. They will not be able to compete as a national party again until they do.