With New York billionaire Donald Trump poised to win at least 200 convention delegates Tuesday in 12 primaries and caucuses across the country, Republican officials are fearful the party is inching toward nominating a presidential candidate they say cannot win the general election.
Although many GOP officials are convinced Trump could be denied the nomination if the race were simply between him a more establishment Republican such as Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, they are resigned in the short term to watch Rubio, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Gov. John Kasich and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson compete for separate slices of primary voters already opposed to Trump’s candidacy.
By doing so, Trump is on the verge of emulating Wendell Willkie, a onetime president of a large utility company — and until 1939 a registered Democrat — who defied the conservative Republican political establishment to win the party’s 1940 nomination before losing in the fall to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
But unlike Willkie, a fervent internationalist backed by such pillars of the Eastern establishment as the New York Herald-Tribune and Time Magazine’s Harry Luce, Trump has taken a wrecking ball to the Republican elite and its allies. Instead, he has delighted working class Americans with his take-no-guff attitude and his pledge to make “America great again.”
“Whether you agree or disagree with what he is advocating, he certainly presents the image of a strong leader,” said Merle Black, a professor of political science at Emory University in Atlanta.
“For a lot of the people who are dissatisfied with the way the country is going right now, that’s a major part of his appeal,” Black said. “He doesn’t seem to be afraid of anybody.”
Yet Trump’s caustic style — just last week he denounced former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney as “a fool” — has alienated not only a sizable number of Republican primary voters, but a majority of people who will choose the next president in November.
A Gallup poll in January showed 60 percent of Americans have an unfavorable opinion of Trump. Like conservative Republican Barry Goldwater in 1964 when he lost 44 states to President Lyndon B. Johnson, Trump may not be able to stitch together a wide coalition to defeat former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the favorite for the Democratic nomination.
“He’ll get beat in the general election,” said former Sen. George V. Voinovich, R-Ohio. “He’s got a group of people for him, but the numbers from all the polls I have seen is Hillary will beat him. So we lose the election and that concerns me.”
Two polls released last week by Quinnipiac University vividly display Trump’s strengths in the primary and his potential weakness in the general election.
In a survey of 759 Republicans likely to vote in the March 15 Ohio primary, Trump led Kasich, 31 percent to 26 percent. But in a separate survey of 1,539 registered voters in Ohio, Kasich leads Clinton in Ohio by a margin of 54 percent to 37 percent compared to Trump, who barely edges her by two points.
“Show me what demographic group Trump wins that Romney lost last time?,” asked Bernie Moreno, a Rubio donor from Greater Cleveland and whose family came to the United States from Colombia in 1971. “Women? I don’t think so. Hispanics? Romney got slaughtered because he opened the door (in 2012) about deportation.”
Others are less certain. John Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron, said the “conventional wisdom is he’ll probably lose, but the conventional wisdom was that his campaign would be over in three weeks.”
Trump, he said, “does tend to defy the normal rules of presidential politics.”
In sharp contrast to Willkie in 1940, who campaigned vigorously on helping Great Britain in its struggle against Adolf Hitler, Trump’s model is closer to the ultra-nationalist and isolationist populism espoused by TV commentator and former Republican presidential candidate Pat Buchanan.
In particular, Trump has capitalized on deep anger held by many working-class people and tea party conservatives against not only President Barack Obama, but a global economy that appears to work against them.
Holding Republicans equally at fault, their anger has also been fueled by the 2008 financial collapse on Wall Street that triggered the worst recession since the 1930s. Home values plunged, millions of people lost jobs, median household income fell by 6.5 percent, and taxpayers spent nearly $800 billion to stabilize the financial system.
Yet Trump’s description of America’s malaise is contradicted by a blizzard of facts. Taxpayers recouped virtually all the money from the 2008 rescue package and Americans are saving billions of dollars because of the plummeting price of gasoline. Unemployment is just 4.9 percent and real average hourly earnings increased by 1.1 percent during the past year.
Although some now see his nomination as inevitable, in reality he has won just 82 of the 1,237 delegates he needs to be nominated this summer in Cleveland. But that could change in a hurry this week.
Trump on Tuesday could triple his delegate total when 12 states with 595 delegates — including Texas, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Virginia, Oklahoma and Tennessee — will vote.
Should Trump sweep many of those states, it will intensify pressure on Kasich, Carson and perhaps Cruz to give Rubio the chance to take on Trump. “The general sentiment is Kasich does not have a path to the nomination,” said one high-level Republican, who asked not to be identified. “But the longer he stays in the longer he helps (Trump).”
Yet Kasich’s backers reject such claims. “There is a 40-to-50-to-60 percent likelihood that something will unravel with Trump and then people be looking for an alternative and the two main alternatives are Rubio and Kasich,” said Terry Casey, a Republican consultant in Columbus who has worked in the past with Kasich.
“Kasich has gone from one percent (in the polls among) 17 candidates to among the top four,” Casey said. “There is still a ways to go, and on both sides there are twists and turns that will happen.”
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