In the last few week or so, the vibe of the presidential campaign has changed. Although the most recent polls only show the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, with a modest lead nationwide, the components necessary for a resounding Republican defeat are beginning to take shape. Republican nominee Donald Trump has been unable to improve his strong negative ratings that all but preclude him winning the election. His sadly predictable self-centered response to the tragedy in Orlando also contributed to the sense that he is not building support beyond his base, and was met with concern by many Republican leaders. In short, the Trump campaign is beginning to look like what many Republicans feared it would be during the course of the outspoken mogul’s march to his party’s nomination earlier this year.
The timing of this downturn in Mr. Trump’s fortunes and the increased evidence that he is not going to become more presidential, walk back any of his most radical positions or begin to reach out beyond his core constituencies, has come following several weeks of the Republican leadership rallying around their candidate and proclaiming that he would be doing all of those things. Losing this presidential election, an outcome that has been likely since Mr. Trump emerged as the party’s frontrunner, is not, on its own, a crisis for the Republican Party. As recently as 2012-2014, the GOP lost a presidential election and bounced back for a resounding electoral victory only two years later. However, losing this election while rallying around a candidate who not only is out of the Republican mainstream, but is as divisive, and damaging to the GOP’s longer term needs and goals, is a much worse situation; and it is one entirely of the GOP leadership’s own making.
Now the Republican Party is beginning to panic and discussions of replacing Mr. Trump as the nominee are beginning to percolate once more. It is very unlikely that those Republicans who are unhappy with Mr. Trump as the nominee will prevail in this effort. The party rules are complicated and favor Mr. Trump; the organizational skill of the #NeverTrump movement has been pathetic since it began; and the political cost of pushing Mr. Trump off the ticket now would likely cause lasting damage to the Republican Party.
The GOP is now in an extremely difficult conundrum, one that has quite devastating impacts well beyond 2016. The reality that this is a problem entirely of their own making offers little comforts to Republicans today. Establishment-oriented Republicans who were opposed to Donald Trump folded and supported him at the moment when he was at the height of his strength relative to Hillary Clinton. He had already wrapped up the Republican nomination, while Clinton was struggling to finally clinch her own nomination and was having trouble ending the pesky campaign of Bernie Sanders. Trump had hinted that he was going to change his approach and campaign themes, and discussions of an independent bid by a more conventionally conservative Republican had lost momentum.
In the last few weeks, much of that has changed. A decisive victory by Clinton over Bernie Sanders capped a few solid weeks in which the former Secretary of State wrapped up the nomination. Sanders proved that he was not going to change his approach and could not be counted upon to conduct himself more appropriately in the general election. Additionally, a Libertarian ticket with two former governors emerged and is poling decently. Thus, many Republican leaders bought Mr. Trump when his stock was higher than it is today; and it is still likely to decline more. These Republicans will be reminded of the cost of their untimely decision regarding Mr. Trump every time their nominee makes an indefensible statement, and they are forced to defend it, or at least their decision to stand by their candidate.
Those Republican leaders who so quickly endorsed Mr. Trump after he secured the nomination have damaged their standing by supporting a candidate who has evinced strong anti-democratic tendencies with regards to the press, by encouraging his supporters to act violently and by employing racist and divisive tactics. Moreover, Mr. Trump is now very unlikely to win. For his Republican establishment endorsers, this is the worst of both worlds. Their endorsement of Mr. Trump could hurt them in the future; and his chances of winning are rapidly declining.
Disclosure: Donald Trump is the father-in-law of Jared Kushner, the publisher of Observer Media.
Lincoln Mitchell is national political correspondent at the Observer. His most recent book The Democracy Promotion Paradox, was published by the Brookings Institution Press in April 2016. Follow Lincoln on Twitter @LincolnMitchell.