Contra ‘Too Late’

Published March 4, 2016

National Review Online

Mitt Romney made a compelling and urgent case for why the Republican party’s soul is at stake in this election cycle. And speaking of Romney, his experience in 2012 illustrates why those who are shrugging that it is too late to stop Trump are mistaken.

Attempting to stop Trump is not some underhand effort to steal a prize that he has already won. “Trump is winning fair and square, so why should the nomination be grabbed from him?” asked former education secretary William Bennett. It’s a fair question, but here’s the answer: He hasn’t won yet. Not even close. Only 15 of the Republican primaries or caucuses have been completed. Most years, things wrap up early, but that doesn’t mean it’s illegitimate to battle on. The 2008 competition between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama didn’t conclude until June.

Further, while Donald Trump has clearly won a plurality of votes so far, he has also failed to consolidate the party behind him. Yes, he has excited some voters to participate, but he has motivated many others to turn out for his competitors. Sixty-five percent of Republican primary voters so far have chosen someone else. More importantly, huge percentages of non-Trump voters — 74 percent in some Super Tuesday exit polls — said they would be dissatisfied if Trump were the party’s nominee.

Trump’s momentum has clearly been slowed since Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio teamed up to undermine him at the last debate. In the critical swing state of Virginia, for example, two February polls had shown Trump with 40 percent support. In the event, he got 34.7 and would have lost to Marco Rubio if John Kasich had not played spoiler. Pre-primary polls in Oklahoma and Alaska had shown Trump leading, but he lost both to Ted Cruz.

In the Nevada caucuses and every Super Tuesday state except Massachusetts, late deciders broke heavily against Trump.

Those who say it’s hopeless to launch ads against Trump at this stage of the process overestimate how much voters know. A recent poll found that 55 percent of adults had never heard about Trump University, Trump Mortgage, and other disqualifying aspects of the con man’s past.

Because the media have prostrated themselves before Donald Trump — offering him millions of dollars of free airtime — the only way to go over the media’s heads is with paid advertisements.

Too late? Hardly. It’s still two weeks until the critical winner-take-all primaries in Ohio, Florida, Illinois, Missouri, and North Carolina. Consider what happened between Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney in 2012.

Following his huge victory in South Carolina, Gingrich was polling at 41 percent in Florida in late January. Romney trailed at 28 percent. In just over a week — a week that featured a sustained and ferocious air war against Gingrich — Romney was able to overtake and defeat him. On January 31, Romney got 46.4 percent to Gingrich’s 31.9.

Trump’s vulnerabilities are too numerous to itemize in this space, but the two main themes that beg for attention would seem to be 1) undermining his reputation as someone who “tells it like it is” and 2) casting doubt on his temperamental suitability to gain control of the world’s largest nuclear arsenal.

The rise of Trump is often attributed to the corruption or failure of the institutional Republican party. On the contrary, the response to Trump will test whether the Republican party is beyond saving.

Trump undermines nearly every good thing that the Republican brand stood for. If he is the nominee, the party will cease to represent respect for the rule of law (he openly threatens to undermine the First Amendment in order to punish press critics), free markets (he promises high tariffs and a trade war), fiscal responsibility (he opposes entitlement reform), protecting the unborn, opposing tyranny (see Putin, etc.), and human decency.

A Trump presidency is unlikely, since the press, which is coddling him now, will unload the full “oppo” file after the nomination, along with millions of ads from Hillary Clinton. But the key question for primary voters is: Will they permit the Republican party to become the Trump party — i.e., trafficking in lies and threats, stoking ethnic and international tensions, endorsing Code Pink conspiracy theories, flirting with another Great Depression, and degrading public life by the example of a degenerate?

It’s not too late to stop it — but nearly.

— Mona Charen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Copyright © 2016

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