On Friday in Cincinnati President-elect Donald Trump began what was originally billed as a “victory tour” of states of he won, but was renamed as a more genteel and polite sounding “Thank you tour.” However, after Friday’s speech, it’s clear the original title was correct. Trump went after old foes like Evan McMullin and John Kasich. The tour is shaping up to be a multi-state gloatfest that will give Trump an opportunity to rub his victory in his opponent’s faces. Trump also called for unity in his speech because nothing says unity like re-litigating the most divisive Presidential election the country has had since 1860.
One line in Trump’s speech is particularly telling and that’s the one where he boasts about winning by “ a landslide.” Many Trump supporters make the same boast. Rarely has the quote of Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride been so apropos, “You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Historically, Trump’s victory wasn’t a landslide (defined as “an overwhelming majority of one votes for one party in an election,”) either in terms of popular or electoral votes. Trump lost the popular vote and won 306 electoral votes. In Trump’s defense the media has called a lot of wins landslides (such as Obama’s win in 2008) which really weren’t.
For perspective, in the eighteen Presidential elections held between 1920 and 1988, the winner won 380 or more electoral votes fourteen times (and thirteen times won more than 400.) So winning 306 electoral votes is no landslide. One might as well talk about the Kennedy landslide victory of 1960 if you want to crow about a Trump “landslide.”
Trump is president-elect because he won the three Rust Belt states of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania by a combined margin of little more than 100,000 votes. He’s president because of strategic blunders by the Clinton campaign such as not campaigning in Wisconsin, deciding to project overconfidence in Michigan so Trump wouldn’t try to compete there rather than competing there themselves, and ignoring former President Bill Clinton’s urging to reach out to working class whites. If any of these blunders had been avoided, Hillary Clinton could very well be president-elect right now.
In one way, this doesn’t matter. These errors weren’t avoided and Trump is as much president-elect as if he won 450 electoral votes. In another way, it matters immensely because Trump’s rhetoric and actions are out of touch with political reality: He didn’t win a landslide mandate, he won a narrow victory against an almost equally unliked foe. Many voters who voted for Trump did so with grave reservations. Exit polls show that 12% of voters (or more than one in four Trump voters) voted for Trump despite doubting his honesty and thinking he lacked the temperament to be President of the United States. These voters were voting against Clinton rather than for Trump.
The late Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill (D-MA) recognized that in every freshman class, there were incoming Congressmen who arrived in Washington not because they won, but because the other candidate lost. He would tell them in orientation, “Some of you were elected by accident but none of you will be re-elected by accident.” The same is true of Trump.
Trump should take a page from George W. Bush’s playbook. Bush is the only President to be elected without the popular vote to win re-election. Bush entered the presidency with humility, acknowledged he lost the popular vote, and publicly set the goal of earning the trust and respect of those who didn’t vote for him.
Donald Trump can’t do this, because he and many members of his party are living in the fantasy world of “The Trump landslide.” The truth is that the majority of Americans didn’t vote for Trump and even many that did didn’t much care for him or trust him. Right now many of these Americans are giving him a chance because they really hope that he’s not as bad they think he will be and certainly not as bad as they fear he may be.
Trump would do well ditch his national ball spiking tour and get down to the massive tasks of justifying the support of reluctant supporters and winning over enough skeptics to avoid crashing and burning and taking the rest of the Republican Party down with him.