Is the Trump train really off the rails?

In marketing, it’s often said that if the product you’re selling is fundamentally flawed, it’s only a matter of time before it gets found out.

Usually, that point comes when customers literally aren’t buying it any more.

There are plenty of people right now who would have us believe that Donald Trump’s presidential campaign may have reached that tipping point.

EJ Dionne, for example, in the Washington Post, wrote recently that “this time, it – really – is the end of Trump”. He went on to warn against falling into the trap of believing that what’s been happening – in this case Trump’s ability to shake off reverses – will continue.

Dionne was writing as the GOP front-runner had struggled through one of his worst periods since launching his campaign last June.

In the wake of the Brussels attacks, Trump sat down for lengthy foreign policy interviews with both the Washington Post and the New York Times. They did not go well.

He also claimed he could eliminate the $19 trillion national debt in eight years.

Then, Trump’s controversial campaign manager was charged with battery after an alleged assault on a reporter earlier in the month.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin’s talk radio hosts appeared to unite against the candidate, who had to walk back a provocative statement on abortion that further alienated women voters.

An effective ad by an anti-Trump PAC featured women reading quotes from him.

Earlier, he and his nearest rival Ted Cruz had been drawn into a mean-spirited back and forth about their respective wives, which – bizarrely – ended up with Cruz borrowing a line from the Michael Douglas movie The American President.

It all culminated in a clear win in the Wisconsin primary for Cruz, even if there was some discussion afterwards about whether the spectre of a draft movement for a local favourite son had a part to play in the outcome.

(This political ad subsequently didn’t do much to calm conjecture about Speaker Paul Ryan’s possible plans, either for this year or next time around.)

As the focus of the contest has shifted towards the technical jostling for state delegates to the nominating convention – a process that has been taking place largely under the radar of most voters – the Post reported on the Trump campaign’s “stumbles” while MSNBC said its “amateurishness” was catching up with it, calling its organisational efforts “chaotic and overwhelmed”.

The practical result is that it’s more likely than ever that when the party gathers in Cleveland in July, it won’t be settled who its nominee in November will be. At the same time, while Trump is set to go into the convention with the most delegates – if somewhat short of the 1,237 required to clinch it on the first ballot – he also brings “unprecedented” unfavorable ratings.

And yet…

The next Republican primary is in New York on April 19, where there are 95 delegates at stake. For Trump, it’s home turf and in the latest poll he holds a 54-22 lead, not over Cruz but over John Kasich. Mind you, Cruz has had issues in the state since his attack on “New York values”.

cruz

Until Trump’s Wisconsin meltdown, the massive spending on negative ads against him – well in excess of $60 million-worth by various groups – didn’t appear to have had any effect. To put it in context, though, ads in general don’t seem to have worked despite greater spending than ever before.

After some rougher treatment from the press, Trump’s free media windfall continues. The latest estimate puts the value so far of his round-the-clock exposure at something like $2 billion.

But while CBS boss Les Moonves recently spilt the beans (a very Trumpian phrase) on network attitudes to Trump, telling a conference that his campaign “…may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS”, there were signs of structural change. Two of the major talk shows said they would no longer let Trump call in for on-air interviews, while the weekend of April 10 was the first since November that he hadn’t appeared on any of the Sunday programmes.

On the Democratic side heading into April 19, Hillary Clinton, the former Senator from New York, leads Brooklyn-born Bernie Sanders by double digits. Two Clinton ads for the Empire State show her with one eye on a likely general election opponent.

While that first ad didn’t mention Donald Trump by name, a new one this past weekend specifically pushes the line that she’s the Democratic candidate “tough enough to stop Trump”.

Clinton lost Wisconsin and then Wyoming to Sanders as his run of success continued, but overall it didn’t significantly dent her lead in terms of delegates. Sanders’ latest ad attacks “Washington politicians who side with polluters over families.”

His recent fundraising surge has also ensured that the Democratic race will go on for a while longer, perhaps even up to the DNC convention in Philadelphia.

But the big unknown is going to be Cleveland.

With Trump warning there might be riots if the GOP tries to strip him of the nomination, at least it seems convention-goers won’t be armed after the Secret Service stepped in to defuse a petition for open-carry at the arena.

But even if there are no guns, one other contentious issue was averted. As Marc Bona at Cleveland.com points out, you can’t have a proper political convention without beer, and thankfully a crucial trademark dispute has been resolved.

So, to answer our own question, is Trump’s train off the rails? Not quite yet. But it’s certainly in a new phase. And a convincing win in New York could easily mean no one asks that again for a while. For now, though, the vulnerabilities are showing and the closer we get to a contested convention the more fraught, petty and vicious each confrontation will likely be.

If this Trump campaign has shown us anything it’s that we should never be surprised.

FirstWord’s Steve McGookin first covered a US presidential election in 1988 and says that this one is easily the most fascinating yet. He’ll be writing here regularly about political ads and the candidates’ media-messaging strategies until election day in November.

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