Trump is the New Palin

Whether you love him or hate him, it doesn’t matter. He’s bluffing.

After John McCain showed the bad judgment to make Sarah Palin a national figure in 2008, every few months a flurry of excitement/panic about Palin’s political future would erupt in the media. She was anointed the early Republican front-runner in the 2012 presidential cycle, to the point that Ross Douthat devoted a whole column to denying her front-runner status. When that speculation faded (because by the spring of 2011 she’d made no moves to build an organization in Iowa or New Hampshire), she went on a national bus tour to fan the flames again. She didn’t officially bow out until October, 2011.

Then she was going to run for the Senate in 2014, but that didn’t pan out either. This January she said she was “seriously interested” in a 2016 run, and proclaimed herself “ready for Hillary” at the Iowa Freedom Summit. But in a year when it seems that every Republican with a pulse is running for president, Palin isn’t.

I’ll take some credit for seeing through the Palin hype. After the 2010 mid-terms, I looked ahead to 2012:

Unlike New York Magazine, I don’t expect Palin to run. I expect her to keep people guessing for as long as she can, but to find an excuse to back out.

Sarah wants to be famous and make a lot of money and not work very hard. (If that’s a vice, a lot of us have it.) Teasing about running for office served those goals well, but actually running would require effort, not to mention answering the lamestream media’s gotcha questions, like “What newspaper do you read?

And that brings me to Donald Trump.

Trump is not exactly Palin — he loves hostile questions, for example — but the same phenomenon is at work. He really has no interest in being president, and when the campaign gets serious he won’t be there. So if his candidacy is getting you either excited or riled, don’t waste your energy.

Like Sarah Palin, Donald Trump lives off his image. That image is all about leadership, so of course he wants to be seen in terms of the ultimate leadership job, President of the United States. If you buy Trump’s image, you think he’d be a great president: making the tough decisions, banging heads together until everybody gets in line, cutting through the BS of the vested interests, and doing the common-sense things we all know need to get done. Who wouldn’t want to call up ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and say, “You’re fired”?

It’s a great fantasy. But actually being President? What a headache that would be. Even the Donald’s hairpiece would go grey.

In previous cycles, bluffing about running for president has served him well. But Trump understands something that seems to have escaped Palin: To keep people interested, you have to keep raising the bar. Except for a small group of rabid fans, the public has lost interest in Palin, because we’ve seen it all before. So she can hint about running, but until she starts acting like a serious candidate — building an organization, appearing in debates, pushing some signature issues beyond the buzzword stage, and so on — nobody is going to pay much attention.

If Trump hinted about a 2016 race and then backed away from it, nobody would pay attention to any future bluffs. So he raised the bar: This time he actually declared his candidacy, and he’s giving speeches and interviews. He’s still not building an organization in primary states or raising money for a serious campaign, but he’s on top of the recent polls (with 18% of Republicans in a very divided field), and he’ll probably be on the stage in August when the first debate happens. Chances are good he’ll get a lot of attention during that debate and be in the headlines the next morning.

A big piece of the current bluff is that he doesn’t need to raise money: He’s very, very rich — as he keeps telling us — and so he can self-finance.

And that’s where the bluff is going to break down. The kind of campaign he’s run so far — flying around and giving speeches — isn’t very expensive. The big money in primary campaigns goes two places: Early, it goes into hiring staff and opening campaign offices in early-primary states, and then later it goes into TV advertising. He’s not doing either.

The kind of money Trump has spent so far — and foregone as business partners run away from him — is a recoverable investment. He’s building the Trump brand, which will net him future earnings in book sales and TV ratings. The campaign — at least the way he’s run it so far — will keep his act fresh for years to come.

By November, though, a serious candidate will have to start putting serious money into Iowa and New Hampshire. Not thousands, millions. TV time on the Boston stations that cover southern New Hampshire is not cheap. The idiosyncratic process of the Iowa caucuses requires a ground game. And if you survive the Iowa/NH/South Carolina winnowing in January and February, you just need more money to compete nationwide in March.

That’s not an investment any more. It would take maybe $100-200 million to win the Republican nomination, and even more to run a serious third-party campaign in the fall if he isn’t nominated. That’s money he can never get back.

And I don’t even believe he has it. Trump’s empire has always been a precarious structure built on debt. (That’s why he’s been involved in four bankruptcies.) Whatever he might be worth on paper, he doesn’t have hundreds of millions of ready cash available to blow on a whim.

So this campaign is a more elaborate bluff than he’s run in previous years, but it’s still a bluff. Look for him to find an exit sometime in December.

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  • nancelizbeth  On July 20, 2015 at 9:09 am

    indeed a PA(l)IN!!! but they all are their own uniquely painful idiots!!!!

  • Josh  On July 20, 2015 at 10:12 am

    I would be entirely unsurprised to learn that Trump is (A) a plant in the race by the DNC to pull the Republican candidates to the right, or (B) a plant in the race by Lorne Michaels to make the whole thing absurd. At this point I probably wouldn’t even be surprised to learn that Trump is actually Andy Kaufman.

    • amanuensis99  On July 20, 2015 at 1:57 pm

      I have had the same thought– that he’s a performance artist.

  • R Vogel  On July 20, 2015 at 10:32 am

    I think there is more going on than that with Trump. By running such a boorish and obviously ridiculous ‘campaign’ attention is diverted from the other Republican candidates, giving them perfect political cover. He makes them almost look centrist in comparison. I think the hope is the actual candidates get less bloodied in the primary process than in previous cycles.

  • Trackdude  On July 20, 2015 at 1:14 pm

    “…will keep his act fresh for years to come.” That will be quite a feat as Trump’s act has been stale for years now. 😀

  • Gina  On July 22, 2015 at 12:58 pm

    I’m wondering about your point:

    “The big money in primary campaigns goes two places: Early, it goes into hiring staff and opening campaign offices in early-primary states, and then later it goes into TV advertising. He’s not doing either.”

    I read this today:

    “He’s got seven full-time staffers in New Hampshire, a sprawling office space in Manchester with walls displaying Trump photos and quotations, and a schedule that’s put him in front of hundreds of voters in the first primary state. As well: nine people working for him in Iowa, six in South Carolina, 15 people based in New York City, a number of policy consultants, a treasurer and a lawyer who specializes in ballot access issues. He’ll be back in New Hampshire for a rally Thursday.
    By comparison, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul has six staffers in New Hampshire, while former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie each have four. Christie has two staff members and a senior adviser in Iowa, and no staff in South Carolina, his campaign said.”

    So does he have campaign offices and staff or not?

    • weeklysift  On July 27, 2015 at 6:17 am

      Interesting development. Though the article says they’re focusing on producing events, not grass-roots organizing. I’ll stand by my prediction that when it’s time to put in the big money, he won’t be here.

  • Rocjard Drewna  On July 26, 2015 at 6:27 am

    I’d encourage you to check out John Dean’s analysis of Trump over at the Verdict blog at “Donald Trump Is Entertaining But When Will It End?”
    I’m still fairly certain you’re correct, but Dean points to a darker possibility.

    • JJ  On July 26, 2015 at 11:25 am

      That was an interesting article. Dean thinks that Trump is an authoritarian leader who appeals to a certain segment of the GOP. He thinks that the evangelicals in the Iowa caucuses won’t like Trump, but he might do well in New Hampshire or South Carolina. Dean thinks that the most likely time for Trump to drop out of the race will be after a poor showing in South Carolina. However, if Trump does well in both New Hampshire and South Carolina, Dean thinks he might win the nomination – but he wouldn’t win the election.

      I personally don’t see Hillary having any problem defeating Trump in the general election (I think it would be a huge landslide), but what if the Democrats pick Bernie Sanders? Would Sanders beat Trump?

    • JJ  On July 26, 2015 at 11:27 am

      Dean also notes that *500* people have registered with the FEC to run for president. OMG.

  • ccyager  On August 2, 2015 at 5:03 pm

    Cogent. So happy to have found your blog, via DaughterNumberThree, and your down-to-earth point of view. Thank you! Cinda


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