Donald Trump’s latest, offensive comments have shocked media and other presidential candidates. It is unclear why, given his track record this election cycle, and the polling boost (or at a minimum, stability) he has enjoyed with each iteration of bombastic rhetoric. Despite Trump’s relative success despite policy ideas that lack political correctness, sensibility, or, often, a constitutional basis, Republicans are increasingly distraught about the man nicknamed “The Donald.”
Yes, some Republicans—perhaps many—are unnerved by the substance of his vitriol. However, beyond that, many Republicans are rightly worried about the political optics and fallout of this candidacy. The GOP is finally recognizing that divisive language, polarizing commentary about entire groups of people, and the vilification of “otherness” can be overdone in ways that damage the party significantly.
Republicans are waking to an alarming reality: Donald Trump is Hillary Clinton’s best surrogate. Huma Abedin, John Podesta, Jen Palmieri, Robby Mook, heck even, Bill Clinton can’t do for Hillary Clinton what Trump has done. In a matter of weeks, he has taken attention away from Clinton’s summertime “-gates” (email servers, Benghazi, etc.), has thrown her opponents in disarray, has focused every ounce of media attention away from her most viable competitors, and has become the incendiary face of the party. Donald Trump might be America’s headache, but right now, he is any Democrats’ pain reliever.
Beyond damaging the GOP brand, Trump is capitalizing on a minority of Republicans who think like him: those comfortable with the disparaging of ethnic groups or entire nationalities; those happy to objectify women; those content with religious tests to enter the U.S.; those satisfied with empty catchphrases in lieu of policy specifics. Donald Trump is not just “their man.” In many ways, he is them. But these supporters remain not just a minority of the American voting public, but even a minority of the Republican Party. (It is important to remember, despite being the GOP frontrunner, Trump can’t hit 40 percent support.)
Self-identified Republicans make up a minority in the U.S. And it is a poor political strategy to appeal only to a minority of the minority when running for president. Yet, Trump is doing something even more politically devastating: he is alienating everyone else. It is not just that his comments appeal to one group—others find them deeply offensive and unsettling. Case in point: it takes a real effort to get Dick Cheney, Hillary Clinton, Paul Ryan, and Bernie Sanders all on the same page. Trump’s comments on a prohibition on Muslims’ entry into the U.S. did exactly that.
The reality is this: the Republican nominee must grow the party. To beat Hillary Clinton in November, there are two magic numbers, 5,000,000 and 63. Five million is approximately the margin of victory Barack Obama held over Mitt Romney in 2012. In the Electoral College, Republicans have to switch 63 votes in order to make up the 126 vote margin that reelected the president.
The question to any Republican: name someone who said to himself in 2012 “I really like Barack Obama’s message and want him reelected” and also thinks, “this time, Donald Trump’s message resonates with me.” Now find 2.5 million more people willing to switch their vote from Obama to Trump. But it gets worse, Trump’s incendiary words about Latinos and women will like turn (some) members of those groups away from a Trump candidacy. The GOP struggled mightily with those groups in 2012 and it may only get worse in 2016 with a Trump candidacy—increasing the number of votes Trump needs to find.
In addition, comments like “building a wall” or an interest in banning Muslims from the U.S. come with tremendous economic costs. Business losses, frayed international financial relations, destabilizing foreign policy, increases in worldwide market uncertainty—all possible consequences of a hypothetical Trump candidacy have an additional political cost for the GOP. Such effects (or perceived, possible effects) could push 2012-era, pro-Romney, socially liberal, pro-business Independents and Republicans to take a second look at a Clinton candidacy.
Such a scenario is a nightmare for the Republican Party and one that is rapidly coming into focus as each day passes with Donald Trump atop the polls. If Trump were to become the nominee, his words will alienate Muslims, women, and Latinos, and may make pro-business moderates consider Clinton as a more palatable option. If so, the political mathematics and demographics will build a wall around the White House—and the Republican Party will pay for it.