At the start of the annual Indianapolis 500 auto race, the announcer famously intones: “Gentlemen, start your engines!” Apparently, this year’s designated Indy pace car driver – billionaire real estate mogul Donald Trump – already has. While most of the 2012 GOP presidential field has barely reached the starting blocks, Trump’s off and running – or just about. The speculation about a possible Trump presidentisal bid started last October, when unknown sources – most people say Trump, though he denies it – started polling New Hampshire voters about their attitudes towards “The Donald.” No one’s released the results of that survey, but ever since, Trump has raised his visibility and started floating the idea publicly – first, during a surprise appearance at the bellwether Conservative Political Action Conference, where he denounced China, trashed CPAC veteran Ron Paul as unelectable, declared himself a “lifelong Republican” and dyed-in-the-wool social conservative – against gay marriage, even – and all but dared his audience to back him.
That was followed by a fawning hour-long interview with Larry King’s CNN replacement, Piers Morgan, and a succession of appearances as a guest commentator on Fox Television News. Trump says he’ll make a “final decision” about his presidential candidacy in June and that his decision “is going to surprise a lot of people” – which means, of course, that he’s serious about running.
Most progressive analysts haven’t really taken the prospect of a Trump candidacy seriously. After all, Trump, ever the shameless hustler, and media whore, has threatened to run in the past, usually at a time when his popular TV series, The Apprentice, was nearing the end of its season, or when a jolt of publicity might assist one of his new business ventures. Some top politicians, including former New York Mayor Ed Koch, who knows and likes Trump, says the man who once called Rosie O’Donnell “ugly, in fact ulgier on the inside than she is on the outside,” is still just kidding, and others say he’s bored, but some of his closest associates insist that he’s serious this time, and the accumulating evidence – including his politically astute decision to accept the prestigious Indy pace car invitation – suggests that indeed, he is.
So what makes Trump’s latest bid anything more than another grandiose publicity stunt?
For one, the state of the GOP competitition, which, with the expected entry of Tea Party diva Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R-MN), and that vitriolic gay-basher Sen. Rick Santroum (R-PA), is growing more bizarre by the day. The most electable candidites — those favored by the party establishment, especially GOP mastermind Karl Rove – including former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, are reluctant to serve as sacrificial lambs in the GOP’s increasingly long-shot bid to unseat a powerful incumbent like Obama. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who still leads most GOP polls, including in Iowa, confessed that he was intimidated to run against Obama, given the president’s unprecedented war chest (estimated at roughly $750 million, well beyond Dubya’s previous historical record) and his combined establishment and social media machine.
It’s not that Obama isn’t still vulnerable – he clearly is. But some key trends are pointing in his favor, and GOP strategists, beneath their optimism, know it. The economy, though languishing, is improving, and unemployment, at least officially, is likely to fall below 8%, and perhaps even lower, by election time. A similar drop in the unemployment rate got Ronald Reagan re-elected in 1984, after his own presidency looked headed for disaster with the economy mired in a deep recession just two years earlier. The same was true of Bill Clinton in 1996. But the fact is, history shows that it’s quite hard to unseat an incumbent executive. Most presidents, once elected, do tend to serve a second term, in part because ever since FDR, they’ve been constitutionally term-limited anyway, and most voters, ever the risk-averse moderates, aren’t keen to change horses – or at least the top jockey – especially when there’s war on, whioch there usually is these days. The first George Bush and Jimmy Carter are the only exceptions in modern times, in fact.
Trump, of course, has no political experience, much like H. Ross Perot, another iconoclastic businessman who ended up wowing the political establishment by running neck-and-neck in the polls with Clinton and the first George Bush for nearly six months in 1992, before bailing out under a barrage of media criticism, the same kind of crirtcism – or worse – that would probably greet Trump should he actually win the GOP nomination, and begin holding his own with voters. Most political observers continue to dismiss that as improbable, despite the fact that early polls show Trump running extremely well not only against the GOP competitition (he was a close second behind Mitt Romney in a poll last week), but against Obama himself.
In fact, in a poll jointly sponsored by Newsweek and Daily Beast, Trump trailed Obama 43-41, with a whopping 16 percent undecided. One extraordinary survey result – in fact, a separate poll had Obama further ahead – doesn’t make Trump electable, but it’s a tribute not only to his extraordinary name recognition – especially compared to the likes of a Tim Pawlenty or Haley Barbour – but also to a deep, underlying sentiment among voters that the country is “on the wrong track” and thatneither party’s leadership, including Obama, seems to have the answers.
One commentator has referred to Trump’s ability to play to voter disgust with America’s current Carter-like malaise as “plutocratic populism,” which nicely captures Trump’s unique ability to project extreme, indeed, unreachable wealth, combined with seemingly genuine concern for the “little man” – the masses of aspiring middle-class consumers that Trump rarely sees, except in the audience demographics for his television shows. It’s fitting, perhaps, that Trump is driving the pace car at the Indy 500, and not at NASCAR, where the fan base is larger and more working class-oriented Well over 90% of Indy fans are whites and well over 50% earn $50,000 or more per year, and 22% earn over $100,000 per year. Indy also appeals to older white Americans: the key demographic is 45-64 year olds. So Trumo clearly has his priorities stragith: on the eve of his expected campaugn kick-ff, he’s making a big publicity splash before the GOP voter base, the one he needs to catapult him toward the nomination.
And the broader masses? For now, they can wait, but donlt expect Trump to restrict himself to the country club set. In a recent Gallup poll, Trump’s favorability/unfavorability rating was 43% to 47%, with 10% undecided. That’s actually an improvement over the past year, while other GOP contenders have seen their ratios decline. But more important, perhaps, is that among two key slices of the electorate, younger voters, and those with “some college” but still lacking a college degree, Trump’s favorabiltiy ratio is positive, by a substantial margin, in fact. That means Trump’s strongest appeal is with those aspiring to a bettter life, but perhaps, still frustrated by their lack of progress in getting there. Historically, all great political movements – and candidacies – are rooted among those whose “rising expectations” are dashed. If Trump can find a way to craft a message that appeals to these voters – students struggling to pay their loans, small businesses squelched by high taxes, waitress Moms with kids, and other course disenfranchised minorities – he may just have a shot at building something larger than himself.
Ross Perot clearly did, but in the end, the public demands and the pressure nearly overwhelmed him, and his burgeoning movement sputtered, a victim of its leader’s foibles. Trump, who once considered picking up Perot’s third-party mantle but who decided he could never win outside the two-party system, is far more accustomed to public criticism than Perot ever was. But he’s even more prickly and gaffe prone – and judging from his tentative embrace of the “birther” cause, may not have the political ear he needs to go the distance. Trump’s a compelling and forceful speaker, and alone among the current crop of GOP wannabes, he may be the only one with the sheer presence, and physical stature – to say nothing of the money, according to forme political adviser Roger Stone, Trump could spend as much as $2 billion on his bid – to go up against Obama. But he still hasn’t learned how to stop talking, let alone how to listen, and no politician, certainly no neophyte, can survive for long on pugnacious bombast alone.
Still, for a Republican aprty that’s largely ceded this election to Obama, it seems, Trump’s big mouth and anti-Obama fervor could make him a convenient patsy of sorts. If Trump’s will to spend his his own fortune, he’d leave Rove and Co. with the resources to zero in on recapturing the Senate, where a shift of just 4 seats could consolidate Republican control of the states for years to come. And in 2016, with Obama gone, and no heir apparent, GOP chances for the White House will improve dramatically.
STEWART J. LAWRENCE is a Washington, DC-based an immigration policy specialist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org