For Republicans, a powerful practical argument against nominating Donald Trump should be that it’s unlikely he could win in November. Both candidates have been known to over 90 percent of Americans since last May, and Hillary Clinton has beaten Trump in 50 of the 55 national polls taken since then. In the latest RealClearPolitics average of recent polls, she leads by an average of 11.2 percentage points and even hits the critical 50 percent level of support. Trump supporters stubbornly claim that polls taken at this stage of the race are meaningless. E-mail after e-mail from them sends me a chart showing that Ronald Reagan trailed Jimmy Carter for much of the 1980 campaign, but wound up winning a solid ten-point victory.
Trump boosters are not the first supporters of a weak general-election candidate to latch on to the 1980 example. In 2012, the Washington Examiner’s Byron York reported that “Romney aides believe strongly that this race will play out like the 1980 campaign, in which President Jimmy Carter led Ronald Reagan for much of the race until Reagan broke through just before the election.”
Alas, the analogies between the 1980 election and today are either tenuous or outright wrong. As Dan McLaughlin of RedState exhaustively demonstrates, the linkage doesn’t hold.
One reason is that because the number of polls taken in 1980 was much lower, much of the early evidence of Reagan’s weakness that year came from a single polling firm — Gallup – that dramatically understated his final winning margin. An average of several polling firms would probably have painted a different picture. Also, President Carter’s stratospheric polling numbers in early 1980 were in large part a reflection of the country’s rallying around its leader during the Iranian hostage crisis — support that gradually eroded as Carter failed to resolve it.
As for Reagan’s dramatic surge late in the campaign, it occurred because he swept undecided voters, not because he converted Carter voters to his side. In a race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, there will be few undecided voters. It’s certainly true that Clinton has high negatives.
In this week’s Fox News poll, an astonishing 64 percent of voters think she isn’t honest or trustworthy, and 58 percent have a negative opinion of her. But Trump’s numbers are even worse. He trails Hillary in the Fox poll by 49 percent to 38 percent, largely because his unfavorable rating is 65 percent. (Trump even beats her in the deceit sweepstakes, with 65 percent thinking he isn’t honest or trustworthy.) When asked whether Trump is “scary,” a full 49 percent of voters agree — versus only 33 percent who feel the same way about Clinton.
If Trump’s toxic negatives continue to remain that high, he remains a clear and present danger to the rest of the GOP ticket down-ballot. I attended a meeting of a group of conservative activists and political professionals in Washington this week. It included several Trump supporters, but the consensus was that a Trump candidacy would lead to a GOP loss of between two and five Senate seats, possibly erasing the GOP’s Senate majority and any ability to influence a Supreme Court confirmation.
Josh Kraushaar, the political editor of National Journal, bluntly concludes that “Trump’s nomination has the potential to reverse the gains that Republicans have spent the past six years building up… . You’d think that party leaders would be raising holy hell to protect their hard-earned gains. Instead, they’re whistling past the graveyard.”
The argument that Trump boosters make – that, like Ronald Reagan, he can overcome the hostility of the media to beat Hillary Clinton — doesn’t impress Reaganites who worked with the Gipper.
Stu Spencer managed Ronald Reagan’s gubernatorial campaigns, and Ken Khachigian was a chief speechwriter for Reagan. Last year, they discussed comparisons between Trump and Reagan as follows:
Despite the acclaim he achieved in his motion-picture, television, and political careers, Reagan was never boastful… . It was America that was great, not him – a studied contrast with Mr. Trump’s overwhelming self-absorption.
We find no similarities other than both Reagan and Trump came out of the entertainment industry. We knew Ronald Reagan. We served alongside President Reagan. Ronald Reagan was our friend. And, Mr. Trump, you’re no Ronald Reagan.
The burden is still on Trump voters to show that their man can defy history and political gravity and win in November.