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Eye On Candidates
September 11, 2015

What Now? Strategic Evaluations and Re-Evaluations

Candidates for their party’s nomination in 2016 began the process with certain assumptions and strategies, all hoping their plans would work well enough to eventually put them in the White House. As the summer campaign season draws to a close, however, it’s become clear for some that earlier assumptions were wrong, strategic decisions didn’t pan out the way it was hoped, and some serious changes may be in order.

Several stories this morning highlight some of these strategic errors and shifts, including one in Bloomberg regarding Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s decision to take on businessman Donald Trump:

With Donald Trump Attacks, Is Bobby Jindal Auditioning to Be the Next Rick Perry?

Like other hapless Republicans before him, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal launched an offensive against billionaire rival Donald Trump this week. On Wednesday, Jindal released a video comparing Trump to Charlie Sheen, the actor who popularized “#winning” after being fired from his successful sitcom, Two and a Half Men. On Thursday, Jindal gave a speech at the National Press Club in which he called Trump “shallow,” “full of bluster,” a “narcissist and an egomaniac,” “not a serious person,” and lacking “intellectual curiosity to even learn.” And he followed up the speech with a video of Trump naming all the things he loves (the video ends with the famous “I love lamp” scene from the movie Anchorman)….

One month ago, during a town hall in Marion, Iowa, Jindal told the audience that “it seems like the best way to get any media attention right now is to talk about Donald Trump.” Be careful what you wish for. Attacking Trump is a good way to get noticed by the media, but may not be a winning long-term campaign strategy. “What Jindal hopes to achieve with the speech, I don’t know. He’s learned by now, I assume, that picking a fight with Trump to draw his attention doesn’t lead to any movement in the polls,” the blogger Allahpundit wrote at the conservative website Hot Air

As the headline suggests, however, attacking Trump didn’t prove to be the winning strategy for former Texas Gov. Rick Perry:

Starting in July, the former Texas governor went all in against the front-runner. He defined Trump-ism as a “toxic mix of demagoguery and nonsense” and called Trump a “cancer on conservatism.” If going after Trump helped Perry at all, it wasn't enough to get him into the first top-tier Republican debate last month, or improve his fundraising. 

In response to Perry's broadsides, Trump went from criticizing how Perry handled the border with Mexico to prematurely labeling him as an also-ran. Trump claimed earlier this month that attacking him is the reason Perry is now polling so low. As he told CNN earlier this month, “One of the things that I'm most honored about is that so far everybody who's attacked me has gone down the tubes. ... You had Perry attacking me, now he's getting out of the race.” (Perry was polling poorly before the attacks and is also, as of this writing, not out of the race.)

While taking on Trump doesn’t seem to have worked for Perry and may not work for Jindal either, a Politico story this morning suggests ignoring Trump may not be the best strategy either:

It’s not clear if voters will revert to a more conventional mindset as summer gives way to fall – but here are five stodgy 2016 strategies that have already proven to be losers in 2015.

  1. Smile and do nothing when The Donald hits you. For all his bravado, Trump grew up a cloistered, rich kid in a Forest Hills mansion. But he learned early and well the rule of the Queens schoolyard: If you smack the other kid – and he doesn’t punch back – his lunch money is yours.

Since July, Trump has rocketed up in the polls – a new CNN/ORD survey released Thursday has him at 32 percent nationally -- on the strength of his strength: He’d say something tough-sounding (Megyn Kelly stinks, Mexican immigrants are rapists, Carly Fiorina’s face is weird, etc.) the other GOP aspirants huddled together like scared seventh graders, hoping he’d pick on somebody else. In the first debate, Jeb Bush went so far as to deny a POLITICO story that described him calling out Trump in expletive-laced anger in private. Even the self-professed truth-telling Ohio Gov. John Kasich did his best don’t-taunt-the-tiger routine in Trump’s presence.

But politicians are, if nothing, professional self-preservationists. In the last few weeks, the herd has come to the collective realization that duck-and-cover isn’t going to make Trump go away. Prior to the first debate, [former Florida Gov. Jeb] Bush’s team was pushing the line that Trump’s ascent was actually good for their guy – it would shift the spotlight to someone else while Bush sharpened his political chops. That strategy ended fast, but maybe not fast enough: Bush has increasingly accused the frontrunner of being a political “insult” comic – and slammed the developer of being a Democrat in GOP drag.

The article goes on to note what it describes as failed strategies for Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul (Redefine what it means to be a “Republican”), Bush (Shock and Awe), former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (Get off my lawn), and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (Fly under the radar).

According to Time magazine, Walker is undergoing a “reboot” for his campaign, adjusting his tone and rhetoric on the stump in an effort to reverse his slide in the polls:

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is promising to “wreak havoc on Washington” if elected, sharpening his tone and rhetoric as he seeks to reverse a dramatic slide in the polls….

In a speech at Eureka College, alma mater of President Reagan, Walker will associate himself with the idolized Republican leader, casting himself as a inheritor of his legacy….

Going forward, Walker, who has so far shied away from specific policy proposals, is promising to release new ones every week.

Another Bloomberg article suggests Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who has seen his poll number slide in recent months as well, doesn’t see any need to shift his strategy:

Rubio's strategy has been to position himself as the strongest general-election candidate against Clinton without alienating any of the GOP's core constituencies—Tea Party voters, evangelicals, military hawks, and the establishment. The result has been that each faction likes Rubio, but none loves him. Unlike rivals like Bush and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, Rubio has run a largely error-free campaign, and the new CNN poll shows he has room to grow. Although just 21 percent of Republican voters said they're “enthusiastic” about Rubio, that number rises to 69 percent when including those who say they're “satisfied but not enthusiastic.”

But he's actively steering clear of attacking Trump—the closest he has come is to gently poke at his campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” by observing that “America is great” but can be greater. One reason may be that Rubio cannot risk turning the primary into a proxy war between the party's nativist and pro-diversity wings. A July CNN poll found that Republican voters support mass deportation and thwarting illegal immigration by a 63 percent to 34 percent margin (by contrast, American voters as a whole prefer a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants by a margin of 56 percent to 42 percent)….

Rubio's strategy hinges on Trump collapsing. That looks like a dubious proposition. Trump has repeatedly defied predictions of impending doom and already outlasted erstwhile 2012 front-runners Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, and Rick Perry, all of whom enjoyed their moment in the sun before flaming out. The self-funded billionaire also doesn't risk running out of money to keep his campaign running.

On the campaign trail, Rubio's central pitch to Republicans is that he's the candidate of the future. Trump is urging them to pick a different future, and so far it is working.

With the exceptions of Trump, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, and possibly businesswoman Carly Fiorina, it’s unlikely any of the 2016 contenders believe they are where they expected and hoped to be at this point in the campaign. But John Kerry, John McCain, and Mitt Romney were off-track as well near this point in their campaigns, while Howard Dean, Rudy Giuliani, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, and Hillary Clinton were in the driver’s seat. History suggests some candidates will make the appropriate strategic changes to climb back into the race, while others will either stick with losing strategies or find new ways to continue to be stuck at the back of the pack. We’ll know soon enough who fits into which group.