Trump’s Big Gamble: Gimme or Gimmick?

The Briefing, Vol. III, Issue 42-

This week:

  • Trump’s big gamble.
  • Cruz’s rise is no fluke.
  • Gun control gimmick makes a surprising appearance in Obama security address


When a president decides to address the nation on national security, it is a solemn occasion. It is usually something that unites American’. Last Sunday’s address, occasioned by the terrorist attack in San Bernardino, Calif, should have been that sort of speech. It made sense for the chief executive to address the citizenry after such a shaking and shocking example of Islamic State inspiration of a mass shooting.

What made a lot less sense — and what makes Obama seem a much smaller figure than history demands — was his willingness to insert plain political gimmicks into such an address.

In recent weeks, Democrats have adopted a rhetorical proposal about keeping people on the terrorist watch list (who face no charges and have not been convicted of anything) from buying guns. The policy is nothing more than a rhetorical gimmick — there is nothing more impossible in U.S. policy than to deny constitutional rights to people not even accused of a crime. Yet somehow, Obama chose to mention this as if it were a serious proposal in his national address.

If this is how he wants to roll, then it’s up to him. He is, after all, the president of the United States. But this is not the way to unify the country in the face of a threat. It signifies what many have believed about Obama’s presidency — that it is a prolonged campaign, filled with lots of blow-hard rhetoric, and little in the way of substance.

President 2016

Trump-CruzWe have reached peak Trump — not in the sense that Trump has peaked in the polls (although he has done that too), but in the sense that he has finally out-Trumped himself.

Trump’s proposal to bar all Muslims from the U.S., including all tourists and visitors (not to mention refugees), goes too far in at least one sense: Even people who might support it in principle as a security measure will likely recognize it coming from him as a political gimmick, much like Obama’s proposal to bar people on the terrorist watch list from buying guns. And a political gimmick it is, in both cases.

The idea of barring people from the U.S. based on their religion is simply too far afield. It would never pass congressional muster. And there’s no good way to sidestep this by simply barring immigration from predominantly Muslim nations — that would fly in the face of the fact that Muslims with European citizenship appear to be more likely to radicalize.

In short, the outrage over the proposal might be amusing, but the proposal remains ridiculous. To be sure, those who seem most outraged about the statement that Islam is incompatible with The American Way are also likely to believe Christianity is incompatible with it. Even so, it’s just not something that can be supported by anyone who consistently believes in the idea of religious freedom — and especially not the part Trump had to walk back, about barring Muslim U.S. citizens from returning. (Once again, his dabbling with that idea demonstrated that he has no idea what his policy people are doing, because he doesn’t know anything about policy and cannot be bothered to learn.)

If you were wondering at all why Trump chose this moment to make his Muslim-free proposal — well after the San Bernardino massacre — look no further than Ted Cruz. Cruz is rapidly overtaking Trump in Iowa, and multiple new polls of the state add legitimacy to Cruz’s new frontrunner status there. In this context, Trump rightly sees that he needs to put all his money on a long bet, before Cruz finally eclipses him for good. The question is whether it’s a winning bet or a desperate gamble. We sense that it’s the latter.

The most important indicator was this weekend’s Seltzer poll, universally accepted as the best poll of the Hawkeye State. (Recall, for example, that it was the only one to predict Joni Ernst’s comfortable victory for Senate in 2014.) The poll showed Cruz rising to 31 percent and a full 10 points ahead of Trump. What’s more, Ben Carson still had 13 percent support in third place — that will fall, and with it the non-Trump candidates are likely to rise.

This begins the trend we expected two weeks ago when we wrote that Trump had reached his ceiling, and that the collapse of Ben Carson’s support would likely propel others ahead of him. And remember, once Trump has lost Iowa, it will affect the results in all of the state races that follow.

Trump has not yet fallen behind on the national level, but there are good reasons to think it will happen even before he loses in Iowa. The new NBC/WSJ poll showed Trump in the lead over Cruz nationally 27 to 22 percent, with Marco Rubio behind them at 15 — a result that is in line with our previously stated beliefs about Trump’s ceiling.

When combining voters’ first and second choices, Cruz topped Trump, 40 to 39 percent, with Rubio close behind at 33. That’s obviously not a precise measure of anything because it’s more than 100 percent –remember, it’s combining first and second choices. But what this shows is that Trump is the second choice of far fewer voters than either of the two Cuban-American candidates. (Jeb Bush, by the way, receives fewer first or second-choice voters than any of these.)

The poll then asked voters whom they would support in a field with only five candidates — a field that looks more like what we’re likely to have after Iowa — and here’s what they got:

Screenshot 2015-12-13 at 11.13.50 PM

The upshot here is that although Trump leads, he clings to an increasingly narrow lead. And that 13 percent remaining support for Ben Carson — and frankly, the 9 percent for Bush, whose overall operation has spent over $50 million with nothing to show for it — will have to migrate somewhere else in the next seven to ten weeks, by the time Iowa and New Hampshire are over. Put together, that’s enough even now for Cruz and Rubio both to finish ahead of Trump. And the Carson  support will most likely not go to Trump, who as we recently noted has been extremely petty toward the still-well-liked (but less-supported) Carson.

Trump has responded to Cruz’s rise by attacking him, as one would expect. The criticisms are curious in that they reflect precisely the sort of thing that critics say today about Trump: “The way he’s dealt with the Senate — where he goes in frankly like a bit of a maniac — you never get things done that way,” Trump said Sunday. “You can’t walk into the Senate and scream and call people liars and not be able to cajole and get along with people. He’ll never get anything done. That’s the problem with Ted.” Well, perhaps that is the problem with Ted, but he’s not making a very good argument here that anyone willing to vote for Donald will accept.

Cruz has very wisely remained unwilling to attack Trump directly. This is smart politics of the sort Trump didn’t get when he was the nominal frontrunner. When you’re really winning, you don’t want to hurt your chances by personally going negative on another candidate.

Cruz may or may not end up being the final flavor of the month in Iowa. Our belief is that he can definitely win the caucuses, whereas Trump would have a much better chance if the New Hampshire primary came first. Cruz is more than hype — he has a strong operation in Iowa and has garnered the most important endorsements from the social-conservative and immigration-hawk wings of the state party. That’s what matters in Iowa. Efforts by the ethanol lobby to stop Cruz in his tracks will either backfire completely (remember, the Iowa caucus is dominated by conservatives) or they will help other candidates besides Trump, since Trump voters don’t really care about such issues.

The important question in Iowa is always who exactly comes out to caucus. Remember, caucus-going requires giving up an entire evening. It is not at all like showing up to vote in a primary. As a result, the fields of Iowa are littered with the remains of candidates who, like Trump is doing now, base their hopes on bringing out large numbers of first-time caucus-goers. Think of Howard Dean and Ron Paul, both of whom promised to bring out tens of thousands more caucus-goers than they ultimately got.

The candidates who have succeeded in Iowa (think Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum and others) have usually been the ones who made the best inroads with established caucus-goers. On the Republican side, that is precisely where Cruz is making inroads.