The good news for Donald Trump is that, amazingly, he could still win this thing (and no, I’m not talking about some sort of economic collapse, terrorist attack, or “October surprise” swinging the race). That’s because (A) Hillary Clinton isn’t a great candidate, (B) 7 out of 10 of Americans feel that the country is going in the wrong direction, and (C) it’s hard for any political party to win three consecutive presidential elections.
There’s still enough time left on the clock for Trump to turn things around — if he starts immediately.
How could Trump do it — if he wanted? Here’s my take:
1. Double down on a populist message: As much as I disagree with Trump’s economic policies, they actually resonate with a lot of Americans — when he presents them correctly. His message should be that Hillary Clinton is a corrupt insider who represents the status quo. Her economic policies and past support of globalist trade deals (from NAFTA to TPP) — and her penchant for foreign interventionism — have created a rigged system that benefits fat cats, while hurting average American workers.
Meanwhile, Trump should proactively push populist policies that level the playing field, such as one he’s actually about to float today: eliminating special tax treatment for “carried interest” income.
2. Resist the temptation to talk about anything else. Attacking gold star families is a bad and counterproductive idea on its own merits, but there’s another reason it should be avoided: It does nothing to reinforce the aforementioned populist message. Additionally, calling Hillary Clinton “mentally unstable” does nothing to advance his cause. Saying Hillary is “unstable” lacks verisimilitude, while saying she’s “an insider who doesn’t tell the truth” actually passes the smell test.
(Note: The point here is not to say that Trump shouldn’t attack Clinton, but to say the attacks should be part of a larger, coherent, message. Both Hillary Clinton and the media would prefer to talk about Trump’s rants and scandals rather than Clinton’s failings. Clinton will continue to set traps, bating Trump to respond to them — rather than stick to his populist message. Trump shouldn’t do anything to help her out.)
3. Pass the threshold test. My theory is that 2016 wants to be a change election. As stated above, the American public is hesitant to give any political party three consecutive presidential terms. What is more, many Americans feel unhappy about the direction of the nation. These factors should all favor an outsider candidate who is a change agent. And yet, Donald Trump has failed to fully capitalize on this. Instead of this election being a referendum on Hillary Clinton (who, for all practical purposes, should be seen as the “incumbent”), it has become a referendum on Trump. The reason is that he has not passed the threshold test, whereby he becomes minimally acceptable. He seems thin-skinned, irrational, and chaotic.
Most Americans are not yet comfortable with the idea of him as president. This has everything to do with his temperament. This point only reinforces everything I have written above: Between now and Election Day, Trump must run a disciplined campaign that eschews rants and cheap shots, and focuses like a laser on Clinton’s very real weaknesses.
The amazing thing here is that Donald Trump is still in this game. But to pull it off, he would have to make significant changes. The challenge is that it’s very hard for someone who has been wildly successful using one playbook to admit that he must change in order to advance to the next level.
Nothing Trump has done thus far leads us to believe he has the strategic discipline or message discipline to pull this off. For this reason, my strong assumption is that Donald Trump won’t take this advice.