Welcome, voters, to the new, improved Republican race for the presidency. At one time, there were close to 20 politicians to follow, but post-South Carolina, it’s more like the final rounds of The Apprentice, with many fewer nervous strivers to keep track of and rising interest from viewers.
Does that help Donald Trump? Conventional wisdom says no, the empty suit won’t be able to stand the scrutiny. But what if it does help, in the way that everything helps Donald Trump, even the pope calling him un-Christian and the Bushes coming out to campaign against him?
After Trump called out former President George W. Bush for his disastrous invasion of Iraq, he was warned that the 43rd commander-in-chief is popular in South Carolina. Trump responded with three words that proved prophetic: “So am I.”
Trump then proceeded to make a few new enemies — the Vatican, Apple and those who suspect that Trumpcare might be a lot like Obamacare — but he also got himself under control.
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On the Sunday morning news shows, fresh from his South Carolina triumph but not triumphant, he rolled out Trump 5.0. Has he grown in his candidacy from incorrigible jerk to gracious winner? It grieves what’s left of the Republican establishment to admit in a whisper that Trump has become a better candidate. It could be resignation: Accept that which you cannot change. No Republican has won New Hampshire and South Carolina without going on to win the nomination.
On Face the Nation, the new Trump looked tanned, ready and rested as he spoke from Palm Beach, where he’d flown for a good night’s sleep in one of his many gold-encrusted beds. When asked if it was his nomination to lose, he generously said it was not. “I’m dealing with very, very talented people, smart people, good people.”
He tempered his remarks that Texas Sen. Ted Cruz had lied, enlisting Sen. Marco Rubio to help: Rubio “actually said the same thing, and he said it during the debate, that he was lying.”
And Trump made peace with the Vatican, admitting that he’d been bellicose: “I was in a state of shock, because I have never seen the pope talk about something as unimportant as Donald Trump.”
Rather than saying his latest victory showed that he had bested the pope, he preferred to call it “probably a neutral.” On Iraq, he kept the Bushes out of it and gave as succinct a summary of the debacle there as any candidate. That’s a lot to get done in a few minutes.
This relative humility is all the more remarkable as there’s no mistaking his accomplishment:
He’s consolidated the blue-collar wing of the Republican Party and brought in some Reagan Democrats. He didn’t carry the most religious of the religious right, but he won other evangelicals. He used his victory lap on national TV on Sunday to widen his net. Women don’t trust him? On Meet the Press, he cited one of his rivals who vowed to shut down Planned Parenthood, regardless of whether the group provided important services: “I know one of the candidates — I won’t mention names — who said we’re not going to spend that kind of money on women’s health issues. I am.”
By comparison, Rubio, who came in second, looked as if his mother had just woken him, splashed some water on his face, and sent him off to school. He could pivot now and go after Cruz — leave hard-core evangelicals to the Texas senator, keep the evangelicals with a college degree, and become the more moderate anti-Trump. Instead, he seemed to be focusing on forcing Trump to be more specific.
Rubio is barking up the wrong tree by demanding specifics from Trump and hoping that will disillusion his voters. They don’t want specifics, they want sentiment. It’s enough to stick it to The Man who hasn’t delivered for them. This angry cohort wants it known that they’re on to the scam. Just as taxis, hotels and the media have been disrupted by innovators, so politics is going to be for the depressed Trump voter.
Cruz, meanwhile, promised not to go negative, nor hold Rubio’s youth and inexperience against him. He crowed about his third-place finish as if he had won. Cruz, who claims to be the most religious, is narrowly focusing on evangelicals, but he shares those with Rubio and Trump. He argued that he won first place among young people and working-class voters, but South Carolina exit polls showed that Trump won 45 percent among voters with a high school education or less, compared with 37 percent for Cruz. Trump also won 40 percent of the voters who have some college education or an associate degree to Cruz’s 24 percent.
Exit polls also revealed that Trump’s voters decided on him months ago. Statements that would kill another candidate only made him stronger (for example, musing whether it might be a good idea to execute Muslim terrorists with bullets dipped in pigs’ blood, a technique that, according to a discredited legend, was used by General John Pershing to quell an insurgency in the Philippines). Rubio pressing Trump for a 10-point plan to make America Great Again is like throwing a spitball at a battleship. It’s going to take a crowbar — thousands of them — to pry those voters away from Trump.
The now-defunct Spy Magazine used to feature a graph called Asset Adjusted Height, which showed how various famous, but short, men gained stature when standing atop their wealth. Trump makes the guy crushed by globalism feel taller. It’s going to be hard to defeat that, even if you think you have God on your side.
Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.
(c) 2016, Bloomberg View