It has been an extraordinary month for Donald Trump. It’s hard to believe that just six weeks ago, as the post-mortems following his loss to Ted Cruz in the Wisconsin primary, pundits were actually concluding that the chances of a contested convention had increased dramatically, and that Trump could not win if the convention went beyond one ballot. But even after proving them wrong as the presumptive GOP nominee, he still has a tough climb to the White House.
More than just racking up victories, Trump, through an amazing bit of political jujitsu, managed to turn the liability of his perceived weaknesses in playing the delegate hunting ground game into an asset. His claim that the system was “rigged,” which probably struck many as nothing but sour grapes (politics, it is said, is a contact sport), resonated with a broad swath of the public. More important, his argument that the system, in general, is rigged was a brilliant stroke, reinforcing the claim that he is the outsider, fighting for the average person. And even though that may prove to be a powerful message in the fall campaign, and one the Democrats may do well to heed, most observers still correctly peg Trump as the underdog, as support among his own party is just now starting to take shape.
Over the past two weeks, reluctant Republicans have begun the job of eating crow. Former vice president Dick Cheney has come out in support of Trump (a fact that must frustrate to no end neocons like Bill Kristol), as have numerous GOP congressional committee chairs, former House Speaker John Boehner, and governors (Nikki Haley and Bobby Jindal among them). Such support, coming late in the campaign, could be a major boost in a tight race, and more helpful than a weak endorsement in May or June. And while there are almost certain to be other supporters, some will never come around, such as George W. and Jeb Bush, but it would not be surprising if even they end up, toward the end of the campaign, providing some kind of tepid endorsement, particularly if Trump reaches out to them.
Trump can help himself immeasurably by developing at least somewhat more depth on issues like health care, foreign policy, and the economy. He has to be able to go beyond mere slogans and quick sound bites, especially with his lack of political experience. If he can stay close to Clinton going into the first debate, which will likely take place in late September, a better-than-expected performance could provide a huge boost going into the final weeks of the campaign. Trump is helped by the fact that his expectations for a debate with Clinton are going to be extremely low. So anything he can do to demonstrate that he has at least a basic grasp of key issues will help enormously in establishing his credibility with the electorate, especially as many polls, though tightening, still show Clinton ahead.
Trump has the opportunity to first help himself by reassuring nervous Republicans about his basic competence. That can be done, in part, through carefully crafted speeches, but also by making it known who is in the running for appointment to high-level positions in a Trump administration. Naming candidates for key foreign policy, national security, and economic policy portfolios could be extremely helpful. Typically, such announcements by a presidential candidate would be greeted with a yawn, but in Trump’s case, the first presidential candidate since Eisenhower not to have held elective office, they could be crucial.
Such announcements would pale next to his selection of a VP choice. Those stakes are extraordinarily high for Trump. The most obvious possibility, if he would accept, is John Kasich, his former rival for the nomination, governor of Ohio, former congressman, and former executive branch official. Kasich would help put Ohio in play, and no Republican has ever won the presidency without also carrying that critical midwestern state. If he concludes that he needs help with the female vote, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, Tennessee congresswoman Marsha Blackburn, or Washington congresswoman Kathy McMorris Rogers would be real possibilities. Susanna Martinez, governor of New Mexico, would be another viable choice, as she would add a much-needed Hispanic dimension. Other possibilities include former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has been an articulate defender of Trump since the beginning of the year, and who pundits have described as campaigning for the second spot on the ticket. One difficulty with Gingrich, though, is that such a combo would mean having two septuagenarians on the ticket, as Trump turns 70 before January 20 of next year. Another possibility is Ted Cruz, although Cruz’s behavior since dropping out does not bode well for such an alliance, and he might not even bring that much to the ticket, since recent polls show Trump actually doing rather well among conservative rank and file, if not with conservative intellectuals and so-called opinion leaders.
What we do know about Trump is that he is a showman, and showmen like surprises. So it would be wise to expect a few head fakes over the next several weeks, and for Trump’s selection to be a major surprise. Two possibilities that come to mind: Tim Scott, U.S. Senator from South Carolina who also has deep ties to movement conservatives, and retired general James Mattis, who held the post of U.S. Central Command, replacing David Petraeus, in 2010. Mattis is known to be brilliant, something of an intellectual, and with a deep grasp of geopolitics. He was also apparently courted by some conservatives earlier in the year in an effort to find someone to run as a third-party conservative challenger to Trump.
The next few weeks will surely be interesting, as the final denouement to the Democratic race unfolds, along with the likely conclusion to the Clinton email controversy and the runup to the party conventions in July. The greatest spectator sport in the world is just getting started.
Dr. Euel Elliott is a professor of public policy and political economy and the associate dean in the School of Economic, Political and Policy Sciences at the University of Texas at Dallas. He is the author of the soon-to-be published books, Paths not Taken: The What Ifs of American History from the War for Independence to the Bush-Gore Election and Adventures of Maia Neeri of the 24th Century.