In this week’s politics chat, we consider the “Dump Trump” movement, fueled by Donald Trump’s chaotic campaign. The transcript below has been lightly edited.
David (Firestone, managing editor): Suddenly we’re seeing wildfires on the interstate to Cleveland. Some anti-Trump delegates are hoping to use the convention rules to #dumpTrump, and they’re even hiring lawyers and advisers. Is this a real thing, or yet another Bill Kristolline fantasy?
Harry (Enten, senior political writer): I think Clare can speak to the seriousness more than I can, but I can say that this isn’t just Kristol spouting off. Yes, he has his fantasies, but there’s more than just a handful of delegates who are talking about this stuff. Probably not close to a majority, but more than a handful.
Clare (Malone, senior political writer): I was at the beach on Friday when all this broke and not checking the internet. This story … surprised me when I finally came back to civilization, let’s say that.
Nate (Silver, editor in chief): I don’t think it’s a real thing yet. I’m debating whether it’s on the verge of being a real thing or on the verge of being on the verge of being a real thing.
I think it’s a verge-and-a-half away, roughly.
David: OK, let’s just assume for a moment that it might be real. How would it even work? How can you bend the rules to negate the wishes of millions of GOP voters?
Clare: I think it’s going to be REALLY difficult, even if they pass the proper rules that would allow people to “vote their conscience” (maybe I shouldn’t use scare quotes for that), for those “Dump Trump” people to get enough Trump-sympathetic delegates to defect, which they would need if they want to swing things.
Nate: In a technical sense, it isn’t that complicated. It’s a party meeting, and the delegates to the meeting can rewrite the rules basically however they want. If they want to dump Trump, they can.
The questions are whether it would be at all wise to do so and whether enough delegates on the floor — and in advance of that, on the rules committee — would want to do so.
Harry: The way this works, in my opinion, is if you can get the voters to agree with this. That’s the problem in the first place. Whether you like Trump or not, he earned a majority of delegates. How can delegates change what seemed to be an honest process?
Clare: They will be essentially disenfranchising the primary voters, which, if I were a GOP delegate, I would think long and hard about. It’s a bit of a political/moral question, isn’t it? The rule of the people versus the rule of the elites! Is this the 18th century or what?! We’ve been having the same arguments for centuries now. It’s just that we have Taylor Swift-dating-conspiracy theories to distract ourselves with these days.
Nate: Yep. The voters chose Trump. And it wasn’t all that close in the end. You could argue the case up through mid-April or so, when he was squeaking by with some pretty narrow pluralities. But Trump won a majority in every contest from New York onward. That was a pretty clear mandate from the voters.
David: I’m a little worried that the media is seizing on these stories because we’re all so desperate for the drama of a floor contest. Trump deprived us of our dream!
Harry: I think that’s a great point, David. You know there was all that talk about a contested convention, and it made folks like Nathaniel, Clare, you and me giddy. Then after that faded, some people latched onto the idea of a contentious Democratic convention. Now that seems like it’s not going to happen. So here we are, back to Trump again.
Clare: I think you might be onto something there, too. Cleveland seems pretty locked to me, but people love a good Trump headline. And to be fair to these Dump Trumpers (oof, bad name), a lot of them are diehard Cruz people or party activists who are sincere in their efforts. But when it comes to the evaluation of their actual plan, well … it seems less plausible than it is interesting. We might just be looking for some red meat for the interwebs.
Yeah, Harry — I lost so much of my brain space learning delegate rules, all for naught!
Nate: Part of it is also a sort of denial/coping mechanism, I think.
Clare: Are we all working through some stuff? Should we do an office retreat to a spa? Take the cure in Bath?
Harry: I say we should just get some ice cream and call it a day.
David: On the other hand, it’s not hard to see why delegates might be considering changing their minds. The campaign Trump has run in the last few weeks seems stunningly unprofessional. And the news that he can’t be bothered to even raise money must be scaring even a few of his diehards.
Nate: Trump’s had a rough start to the general election, to be kind, and in some ways is confirming anti-Trump Republicans’ worst fears about what sort of candidate he might be. But that doesn’t mean you can wave a wand and stuff the genie back into the bottle. A very luxurious bottle, the best bottle, I might add.
David: He has a million dollars of cash on hand. (OK, $1.3 million.) As our own Walt Hickey pointed out, the musical “Hamilton” made in two weeks what Trump pulled during May. How is this guy going to compete against the Hillary Clinton machine?
Clare: Well, this is where the earned media strategy is really tested, right? And as I said on the podcast the other day, I’m honestly befuddled as to what Trump’s general election campaign will look like. Is he going to visit all those factories and coal country places he’s always talking about? Do they even have enough B-roll of him shaking hands with the hoi polloi to make a decent campaign issues ad?
Harry: Why has this chatter started again? I go back to what I wrote on Monday about why Trump fired his campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski. Trump stuck with him until the polling started to stink. And I think plenty of Republicans see the polling, see Trump isn’t a big-time conservative and wonder, “Why the heck should we nominate this guy?”
Nate: Well, the cynical interpretation is that he stumbled into a strategy which, by some combination of gut instinct and sheer luck, just so happened to be a perfect strategy for the unusual circumstances of the Republican race in 2016, where you had 17 candidates running, a party leadership in disarray, a plurality of the electorate inclined to buy into racially coded messages, and so forth. But that Trump strategy isn’t very adaptable, and that it wouldn’t be a good strategy under very many other circumstances.
David: Still, it’s one thing to man the dump truck, and another to come up with an actual alternative. How do you start a convention rebellion without a candidate to lead it? And who might that candidate be?
Clare: I read something about how there are some GOP-ers who are considering the strategy of putting big-name spoiler candidates of the Republican persuasion on the ballot in certain states in the hopes of ruining Trump’s chances and thus throwing the whole thing to Clinton (e.g., Tom Ridge in Pennsylvania). This seems a bit… cannibalistic if you’re a Republican, but I suppose it speaks to the desperation in certain corners.
Harry: Well, this is the funny thing, right? Trump isn’t all that popular with Republicans. CNN had a poll out on Tuesday showing only 51 percent of Republicans would choose Trump versus 48 percent who would choose another nominee, but you cannot beat someone with no one. This white knight probably couldn’t unite Republicans. There are many reasons not to like Trump if you’re a Republican.
Nate: We have to mention that #nevertrump failed repeatedly at earlier points when the path was less uphill. And there were a lot of reasons for that, but the main one was maybe the failure to consolidate around an acceptable alternative. That’s no less of a problem now, and maybe more so.
Moreover, whichever candidate was picked would face a potentially huge penalty from all the Trump voters who were super pissed off about their guy being ousted. You can’t take polls from a couple months ago showing Kasich beating Clinton, for instance, without discounting them significantly to account for the fact that Kasich can only become the nominee if there’s a coup at the convention.
David: Could someone possibly arise from the ashes of the primaries? Just thinking about that dark period of 17 candidates sends a shiver down the national spine.
Harry: Who would the candidate be? Unless it’s Jim Gilmore, I don’t think any of these candidates have the power. (Note: Even my favorite, Gilmore, probably couldn’t do it.)
Clare: My god, it seems unlikely, but the Cavs won the NBA championships against the Warriors, so anything is possible (gratuitous Cavs ref? Check!)
I wonder if Dump Trump had started like … two months earlier, if it might have had some traction. Or even, a month earlier.
Nate: I’d think Ted Cruz and Paul Ryan are the two most obvious alternatives.
Cruz did a lot of work back in March and April at state conventions to ensure favorable delegate slates. A lot of the people in the hall will be loyal to him, personally. Enough to oust Trump? That’s not clear, and we’re doing some reporting on that. But they’ll be way more loyal to Cruz than to any other candidate, apart from Trump.
And I say Ryan just because he’s the de facto party leader and really sort of the last man standing if everything goes REALLY haywire. If Trump dropped out on his own volition, it might be Ryan, for instance.
But Cruz is more likely, I still think, for some of the reasons I explain here.
Clare: Paul Ryan, if he’s smart, won’t sully himself with any Hail Mary nomination attempt this year.
David: Cruz will probably be hanging out at Clare’s parents’ house near Cleveland, just waiting for the phone to ring. But to your point, Clare, Ryan is still as diffident as ever, insisting he’s not the guy. I take it you’ve never really believed that, Nate?
Nate: Look, I think all of this talk is far-fetched. As Harry said earlier, it would be different if there was evidence that the majority of GOP voters wanted to dump Trump. Or that Trump himself didn’t want the nomination.
Harry: Yes, I think we need to keep in mind that this probably isn’t the final presidential election ever. Why risk trying to alienate a Republican electorate that voted for Trump? It’s silly considering that right now the economy is OK and Obama is fairly popular.
Clare: I think a lot of this stuff is a coping mechanism of political types — makes them feel like they’re doing something productive as they see Trump’s polling slipping and his finances looking subpar.
Nate: Right. At some point, what’s the best way to Stop Trump? Well, you endorse Hillary Clinton … or Gary Johnson. Those are drastic measures, but no less drastic than trying to deny the will of your own voters. Then you campaign like hell for your congressional candidates.
Clare: Bush is out on the trail for House candidates! He’s taking Nate’s advice.
Harry: Let me ask a question: Why is it then that the betting markets have Trump at only about an 85 percent chance to win the nomination? What are people seeing that we aren’t?
Nate: It’s a very hard thing to model, Harry. My intuition is that 85 percent is considerably too low on Trump. In fact, those betting markets now give Trump almost as much chance of not being the nominee (15 percent) as of becoming president (18 percent), which seems wrong!
Clare: I thought numbers didn’t lie, you guys.
Nate: It’s a hard thing to model. I just very much doubt that those markets reflect any inside knowledge. (Among other reasons, because there’s nowhere near enough money to be made from them. It’s not very attractive to bet $100, and tie up your money, for the chance to win $5. but betting $5 for the chance to win $100 is pretty fun.) Instead, I think they reflect a slightly amplified version of the conventional wisdom.
BTW, those markets also give Hillary Clinton about a 5 percent chance of not being the Democratic nominee, which also seems way too high.
Harry: Perhaps we should divide each of those numbers by 5? So Trump has a 3 percent chance of not being the nominee and Clinton a 1 percent chance?
Nate: I don’t mean to disparage political betting markets, which are an incredibly useful resource that we cite all the time, but in terms of the amount of money at stake, they’re small potatoes as compared to sports betting markets, or other ways to gamble on the outcome of the race. (Think Trump’s going to be president? Buy defense stocks, canned goods and real estate in Vancouver.)
There’s also some evidence that these markets historically have a long shot bias, i.e., they overrate the probability of unlikely events.
Clare: Because … they’re gamblers.
David: Aren’t donors gamblers, too? And doesn’t Trump’s abysmal money haul suggest that they’re not willing to gamble on Trump?
Clare: I’ll take David’s excellent transition bait: Yeah, donors are gamblers in a sense, but perhaps Trump just seems too much of a wild card. One moment, it seems like maybe he could polish up, professionalize, and the next moment he’s whipped out his dog whistle and is polishing that.
Harry: Well, all I know is I don’t gamble. I have an addictive personality.
Nate: But to some extent, Clare, that whipsaw coverage of Trump is another reason to be skeptical of #DumpTrump efforts. He’s “only” down 5 or 6 points and people have overcome those sorts of margins before. The conventional wisdom may shift back to more of a glass-half-full mentality within a few weeks.
Clare: Right, I think people’s knickers are in a twist right now, though, because this is one of the first times in a long while that we’re seeing Trump down in polls. There’s some sticker shock attached to that.
Harry: I think David gets at the point here. The polls are one thing. It’s also that there’s no logical reason for a gambler to think he can come back in his or her eyes.
David: There’s all this talk that Trump is too lazy or proud to fundraise. But that seems like just a piece of the problem. He’s built a political base that doesn’t have a lot of disposable income to donate, and the hedge-fund guys don’t really have a big problem with Clinton.
Clare: Insert Bernie Sanders campaign line here.
Nate: I mean, I could come up with a compelling-sounding two-paragraph explanation for why Trump has pretty much no chance whatsoever. And I could come up with an equally compelling explanation for why he really has a pretty good shot. The conventional wisdom tends to careen between those two extremes, because there’s a lot of information to process and Trump is so unusual in so many ways.
The truth is probably somewhere in between, of course. Trump has an uphill battle, and a landslide is possible, and we probably shouldn’t pretend he’s just a “normal” candidate. But it’s awfully early and it’s much too soon to rule anything out.
Harry: Remember, Dukakis led at this point over Bush by a fairly wide margin in 1988.
Clare: I mean, in some ways, if Trump remains at this big of a fundraising deficit, this election is going to become about the power of pop culture and cultural id (Trump) vs. traditional campaigning as a persuasive force to change minds. Which is going to be more compelling? TV ads, or the reputation and aura of a single individual? (This is if you subscribe to the theory that Trump’s is a singular, personality-driven campaign in a way that’s pretty unique.)
David: The Lewandowski theory.
Clare: Right. This is like a live-action American Studies course. The power of advertising versus the power of reality TV. (This is not the de Tocqueville portion of American studies, sadly.)
Harry: The reason Trump can win is because among other reasons Clinton is quite unpopular.
Nate: In a sense, both candidates have work left to do. Clinton’s only at about 43 percent in the polls right now. Of course, Trump’s only at 37 percent, which is a lot worse.
Harry: I think that’s perhaps the biggest sign that there could be some interest in a Dump Trump. Some polls, like the CBS News poll, had him winning only 73 percent among Republican voters. Now a number of polls are better than that, but to see a major party candidate running for president getting only 73 percent of his own base is something else.
David: Presumably, she’s going to have to do more than just give speeches like today’s, where she tried to scare voters with a vision of Trump ravaging of the economy. When does the inspiration phase begin?
Nate: At the conventions, in large part. Which, by the way, is another reason that #DumpTrump is risky. There’s a good chance that a DumpTrump effort would fail to actually dump Trump, and yet turn the convention into a total dumpster fire.
Find something new, internet.
Harry: Clare, I think you have an illness and the only cure is more dumpster fire.
David: And yet the dumpster was not consumed.
Clare: THAT is real deep, David.
Maybe Reince and the rest of the GOP establishment should reclaim the meme and take comfort — the party will survive!
David: What if Trump hires a decent speechwriter and actually moves the convention delegates? As you say, Nate, the conventions are the moment to begin making your case. Could he still pull that off?
Harry: Many bad candidates became good ones after successful conventions. I’m thinking Bush in 1988 or Clinton in 1992.
Nate: On the one hand, convention bounces have gotten smaller over time and voters already have a very strong impression of Trump, which makes it hard to move the needle. On the other hand, he has a lot of room to grow and the media will be eager to write the Trump comeback narrative after several weeks of very critical coverage.
Harry: There’s one thing Trump has said that I agree with: People love a winner. And being a winner equals being successful. The question of course is how does that happen? How does Trump turn from a loser to a winner? The first step, of course, is to truly unify that base. The other step, I think, is for Trump to shred the cartoon version of himself. Many people in the middle aren’t paying attention yet. Or at least not to a great degree. The problem is that Trump is so well-known. His words are repeated over and over again. That makes me a bit skeptical that a convention can really give voters new information.
Nate: The other thing, though, is that it’s the Republican convention … and Trump isn’t particularly conservative, and isn’t particularly Republican. He’s certainly not a good match for some of the movement conservatives that Cruz recruited to be convention delegates. That’s why it’s so … surprising/amazing that the GOP picked him. He’s both an extremely problematic general election nominee and a problematic standard-bearer for the party in terms of upholding its policy platform.
Clare: Yeah, Harry, that strategy would require Trump to plumb some depths. I’m not saying he doesn’t have them but it’s been really difficult to get him to move past superficial talking points. I have a hard time imagining what Trump policy talk looks like. I’m sure it’s going to happen in some form or another, but whether or not it gets deep enough to persuade undecideds is something I’ll be really interested to see.
Listen to the latest episode of the FiveThirtyEight politics podcast.
Nate: I’d put it like this. I don’t know how much magic Trump can work at the convention. But it’s one of his best/only chances to reintroduce himself to America. If Dump Trump tries and fails, it could make the convention a shitshow and make it really hard for him to do that. In fact, close turns things into sorta the worst of all possible worlds, where Trump is still the nominee but the party is even more split, and good luck getting any sort of a convention bounce.
Clare: Thank you for using “shitshow” instead of “dumpster fire,” Nate.
David: Well, political writers will have a legitimate shot this year at the Pulitzer for best original drama. Thanks for joining us this week.
Clare: Screw you guys.