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National Politics|By Amy Walter, January 27, 2016

I have no idea what is going to happen in Iowa and New Hampshire. If the polls are correct, Donald Trump is on his way to victory in both states. On the Democratic side, Iowa is a coin-toss and Bernie Sanders wins big in New Hampshire. But, I also have little confidence that this is how things will work out. I honestly wouldn’t be surprised by anything.

Yet, the one thing that does surprise me is the complacency and/or rationalization by many Republican strategists - folks who have spent years toiling in the trenches to win control of Congress and the White House - to the possibility of a Trump nomination.

Look, I get why many Republicans, when forced to choose between Trump and Cruz pick the billionaire businessman. Trump is certainly more charming and personable than the Texas Senator. A masterful re-inventor and marketer, Trump has been able to expand his brand and appeal beyond the traditional GOP “lanes.” For many Republicans, Cruz represents an obvious - and predictable - road to a loss in November: a conservative and ideologically rigid message to a shrinking base of voters. Meanwhile, Trump represents the audacity of hope, an opportunity to appeal to a crop of voters who’ve either sat on the sidelines or voted Democratic in the past. Even many Democrats worry that they don’t have the playbook to deal with Trump.

But winning over GOP voters is NOT the same as winning a national election. Let’s look at some important points:

1. Donald Trump is NOT teflon: One of the most enduring misconceptions of this election is that Trump can say or do anything and not lose support. That is only half true. He has been able to turn around his image among GOP voters, but his image among the rest of the electorate is terrible. The most recent NBC/WSJ poll finds his disapproval ratings among all voters to be 58 percent. Almost HALF of all voters (47 percent) have a VERY negative opinion of him. To put that into perspective, Hillary Clinton is at 37 percent VERY negative. Not great, but better than his.

2. Donald Trump has NOT been tested: Another piece of conventional wisdom that is widely thrown about - and yet totally wrong - is that negative ads against him don’t work. He is Superman, goes the thinking, and nothing, not even kryptonite can stop him. Yet there have been no serious sustained attacks against him. Marco Rubio has gotten more oppo run against him than Trump. That changed this week when Ted Cruz and his SuperPAC (s) started an all out assault on Trump on the Iowa airwaves. It may be too little too late for Iowa, but it’s also the first serious attempt at defining and assailing the frontrunner.

3. Donald Trump does WORSE among swing voters: In the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, Trump does worse than Cruz, Rubio or even a “generic Republican” among white women, suburban women, moderates, and independents. Interestingly enough, the one group he does better with than Cruz or Rubio is Latinos. Still, Clinton leads among all three GOPers by more than 30 points among Latino voters.

HRC vs. Generic R HRC vs. Rubio
HRC vs. Cruz HRC vs. Trump
White WomenGeneric R +10Rubio +11Cruz +8Trump +2
ModeratesHRC +11HRC +8HRC +16HRC +24
IndependentsHRC +2Rubio +7HRC +5HRC +11
White College EducatedGeneric R +1Rubio +1HRC +8HRC +12

NBC/Wall Street Journal Poll - January 2016

If you don’t believe the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll (a Fox poll out earlier in January put Trump up 3 points over Hillary), you have to believe that his past statements and over-the-top antics won’t catch up with him. Which brings me to point #4.

4. Trump has little room to pivot: The other theory of the case for Trump is that he can skillfully re-invent himself in a general election like he did in the primary. That, however, is going to be much more complicated. First, it’s going to be hard for him to simply walk away from the litany of offensive statements he’s made over the course of the last few months. While Trump’s GOP opponents are going soft on him, the Democrats and their allies will not. We should all expect to see Trump’s “greatest hits” about Mexican rapists and the mocking of a disabled reporter to be on a constant loop for the fall. Moreover, the more he tries to moderate, the more he risks losing those who are attracted to him today. How will those attracted to his “no-nonsense,” and “tell-it -like-it-is” style react when he starts to sound like a more traditional and calculated politician?

5. Democrats will work to undercut his appeal to blue collar Democrats: One thing that I hear from worried Democrats and hopeful Republicans is that Trump can peel away and/or turnout blue collar whites to a degree we haven’t seen since Ronald Reagan. This is why you will see Democrats push a similar argument against Trump that worked so well against Mitt Romney: Trump only cares about himself and his money and not you and your family. As Ross Douthat wrote recently in the New York Times, the way to “stop Trump” is to “tell them about the bailouts that saved him from ruin. Tell them about all his cratered companies. Then find people who suffered from those fiascos - workers laid off following his bankruptcies, homeowners who bought through Trump Mortgage, people who ponied up for sham degrees from Trump University.” After a barrage of these attacks will Trump still be seen as the “fighter for the little guy” or just another big bully looking to profit from playing the system and regular Joes as suckers?

Unlike Romney, Trump has an (apparently) unending supply of money that he’s willing to use, which would allow him to defend himself and fight back. And, as we’ve seen thus far, his instincts on what will hurt his opponents have been impressive. Of course, that assumes that he’s only taking incoming fire from one source. It is likely we’ll see a lot of new groups formed with the sole purpose of undermining Trump.

Given how wrong so many of us were about Trump’s staying power in the first place, it’s understandable why so many are wary to write him off as either the nominee or a general election winner. However, let’s not mistake his progress thus far as simply one of his own creation. Trump’s success has also been built upon the failure on the non-Trump “establishment” to coalesce around their own standard bearer. He’s also faced almost no serious attacks by his opponents.

To be sure, Hillary Clinton is vulnerable. She’s got a serious trust deficit. She’s failed to ignite the passion and imagination of the young voters who helped vault Obama to victory in 2008. But, how is a guy with even higher unfavorables the right pick? At a time when the GOP needs to expand its base beyond white voters, how is picking someone who is most closely associated with nativists going to help get the GOP to 270 Electoral College Votes? For every blue collar and disaffected voter Trump may pick up in Western Pennsylvania, he could lose two or more women in the Philadelphia suburbs. Clinton may have an enthusiasm problem, but a good foil is exactly what she wants - and needs - to help get the reluctant Obama voters to the polls. Trump is not a perfect foil, but he will do just fine.