Donald Trump is finally running for president, and the polls tell us he’s no joke—contrary to what his GOP rivals would like to believe. Last week’s Suffolk University survey has him second in New Hampshire, trailing Jeb Bush 14 to 11 percent. It wasn’t a fluke, as a national Fox News poll taken over roughly the same period also has Trump in second place to Bush, 15 to 11 percent.
To 2016 Republican primary voters, Trump is a throwback they are in the mood for: the fiery non-political presidential candidate. Beyond his risible self-presentation and rambling announcement speech, Trump is a stream of this electorate’s consciousness with his lists of all the ways government has failed them, from Obamacare to the porous Mexican border to the Chinese cyber-hacking. Not since Ross Perot has an outsider come on the scene prepared to harness so much voter disgruntlement. In an election cycle that seemed on cruise control for Bush vs. Clinton, that role should not be underestimated.
Bush – the only rival Trump attacked by name in his kick-off speech – laughed when first asked about Trump’s candidacy. But he won’t let himself do it again. Much of the nearly $100 million he collected for his super PAC before officially becoming a candidate may need to be reserved for defense against Trump in New Hampshire, a state Bush can hardly afford to lose given his uphill battle in Iowa. Trump would seem like the only candidate more culturally estranged from Iowa than Bush, but his hiring of Chuck Laudner, the operative who managed Rick Santorum’s unlikely caucus victory there, indicates he’s not writing it off.
Other Republican candidates have to only hope that Trump focuses his ire on Bush instead of them. Trump’s lack of a political past or future leaves him completely free to torch whoever is in his sights. Chris Christie already got a taste of this when Trump bashed his signature policy proposal, means-testing Social Security, by likening it to government theft. Christie has the most to lose from Trump’s rise because it renders his personal appeal of bluntness – “Telling it like it is” is his official campaign motto – redundant in the 2016 field.
Like Perot, Trump can self-fund his presidential campaign. The financial disclosure he gave lists $300 million in cash and cash equivalents, with most of the rest of his $8.7 net worth in real estate. Those holdings are illiquid and their values are basically Trump’s opinions about them; he also won’t be allowed by law to borrow against them to fund his campaign. But $300 million is more than enough to get Trump through the GOP primary, even in a TV war with Jeb Bush. He could borrow from Perot’s playbook and buy national infomercial time slots, making a direct-to-camera appeal to voters when the multi-state primary elections start in March.
What will Trump say? So far his pitch has been mainly to the cynical side of voters, and it remains to be seen if he can do better than that. Of all the ways he sees America being embarrassed by foreign powers these days, Trump talks a lot about ISIS. He even proposed that we bomb the oil fields they control. But he also completely dismisses Iraq’s government as a tool of Iran. On his seesaw between assertiveness and paranoia, it seems like there will be more days of the latter from Trump.
He may not know it, but Trump’s real contribution to the 2016 Republican contest could be exorcising the demons of 2012. The party’s play-it-safe approach four years ago proved unresponsive to contemporary politics, from Tim Pawlenty’s refusal to double down on “Romneycare” to Mitt Romney’s own pass given to President Obama on Benghazi during their third and final debate. Trump is the anti-Romney and won’t let that reticence happen at any of the debates he’s involved in.
When he captured the Democratic nomination for president in 2008 Barack Obama conceded that Hillary Clinton made him a better candidate. Some Republican may say the same thing about Trump next year.
Rich Danker, a Washington political consultant, managed Jeffrey Bell’s 2014 Senate campaign in New Jersey.