The self-fulfilling conceit of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is that he is winning because he is winning. Much of Trump’s extemporaneous stump speeches focus on his roost at the top of polls of Republican primary voters. He contends ad nauseam that the United States is in decline and does not “win anymore.” You’re expected to accept the premise and choose not to ask for specifics about what has been lost in the ill-defined contest. “We’ll have so much winning, you’ll get bored with winning,” Trump adorably quipped. There is a note of adolescent charm in such whimsy, and it is no doubt a compelling pitch to an electorate depressed after eight years of anemic economic growth, stagnant wages, debacles abroad, and divisive cultural squabbles at home. Tragically for Trump, however, he might soon be robbed of his claim to be the bearer of endless victories. This leads us to the big question: Can the Donald Trump campaign endure a loss?
Glancing at the national polls, that question seems an academic one. Trump’s position in primary surveys has been remarkably consistent across surveys this autumn. A late September NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll pegged Trump’s support at 21 percent of the GOP electorate. That same survey one month later finds Trump at 25 percent support. An ABC News/Washington Post poll in early September revealed Trump receiving the support of 33 percent of the GOP vote. Today, Trump’s support comes in at 32 percent. This phenomenon is observable across multiple surveys; while the rest of the field is jockeying for position, Trump’s lead remains stable and steady.
That is not the case in Iowa, however, where the first survey of the GOP electorate in over a month has found Trump now trailing his nearest competitor, Dr. Ben Carson, by a substantial 8 points with 28 to 20 percent support. The latest Quinnipiac University survey is not the first to register Trump’s decline in the state – a dip in his support across a variety of surveys began to become pronounced at the end of the summer. In the first week of September, the last Quinnipiac Survey of the Hawkeye State found Trump netting 27 percent of the Iowa GOP vote to Carson’s 21 percent.
So what changed in Iowa over a month that has not been observed nationally in a corresponding fashion? The answer is negative media.
In the national press, the fascination with the Trump phenomenon has continued unabated. Fox News Channel host Sean Hannity hosted Trump this week and teased his audience on Twitter by noting that the celebrity candidate “predicted the 9/11 attacks a year before they happened.” “The other beneficiary of this could be Donald Trump,” said CNN anchor Erin Burnett on Tuesday at the close of a segment on Vice President Joe Biden’s decision not to run for the White House. As to how that benefits Trump, your guess is as good as mine, but she was more likely grasping at a transition to live coverage of an empty podium in Iowa where Trump was set to speak. Stay tuned, dear viewer; we’ll cover it all live.
No other candidate in the race on either side of the aisle has generated this level of saturation coverage, favorable or otherwise. Nationally, however, this coverage has not been balanced by the tested craft of negative political advertising. That is not the case in Iowa where the conservative Club for Growth launched a $1 million television campaign targeting Trump in mid-September. The ads hit Trump over his support for property seizures under eminent domain, for having described himself in the past as more of a Democrat, and for his penchant to say whatever he thinks his audience wants to hear at the time. Both ads make a point of calling Trump “just another politician,” chipping away at his carefully crafted image of a straight shooter who is above the political fray.
The latest Quinnipiac survey suggests this campaign might be bearing fruit. While that survey finds that voters still believe Trump is trustworthy (by an increasingly narrow plurality), is the most competent on issues, and has the requisite experience to be president, there is one question that reveals he will have a hard time making the pitch to Iowa voters. On the matter of whether or not he “shares your values,” 52 percent of likely Republican caucus-goers said no. Only 42 percent said yes. By contrast, 83 percent of likely GOP caucus-goers in Iowa said they believed Dr. Carson shared their values and just 11 percent disagreed.
Trump has manufactured rebounds in the polls before, and his campaign has been anything but predictable. But this latest decline should prove sobering for Team Trump. They must now face the real prospect that the presidential primary season opens for Trump with a loss, and a significant one at that. For a campaign predicated on its prohibitive ability to load up the “W” column, the bloom would almost certainly be off the rose following a second place or possibly even a third place finish in Iowa (recall that America went to bed on caucus night in 2012 under the impression that Mitt Romney had secured a narrow victory in the Hawkeye State).
Trump faces a choice: he can chose to ignore this trend, hope it goes away, and pretend in his speeches that every poll still shows him in the lead. The alternative is to quietly attempt to stop the bleeding, which means finally investing in the early states, and particularly in Iowa. For a campaign that has primarily sought to reimburse itself for travel expenses and the production of “Make America Great Again” trucker caps, this would be a marked shift in tactics, and one that would betray the fact that the race has become a contest.
Lingering in Trump’s mind must be this question: Does he want to do this? Does he want a protracted and costly fight, one that might nevertheless result in a humiliating loss? What happens when the “winner” suddenly finds himself clawing uphill in order to narrowly secure the hard-fought status of runner-up? Trump is, at root, a businessman. He recognizes diminishing returns when he sees them. Staring down the barrel of a loss, one that could lead to a cascading series of similar losses, does Trump take the course of a politician and absorb them or does he pursue the strategy of a businessman and cut bait?