Chatter grew loud in the media Monday about what a withdrawal by Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump from the 2016 contest would look like. But the talk likely represents wishful thinking of NeverTrumpers and a deliberate attempt to inflict more damage to the party’s prospects, according to political experts.
Trump himself has not indicated that he is considering stepping aside amid two weeks of sliding poll numbers. The assumption that Trump is doomed, or somehow in a worse place than other recent GOP nominees, is itself doubtful. The RealClearPolitics average of polls gives Clinton a 6.8 percent edge currently, significantly less than the 7.6 percent RCP deficit that John McCain carried into Election Day 2008.
“If he did step aside, it would be chaos in the Republican Party and would leave virtually no chance of winning the presidency.”
With twelve weeks and all the debates left to go, Trump may yet turn things around, get on message, and prosecute the case against Hillary to come back — but while he’s down, the speculation of an exit has increased.
Matt Latimer, who served as a speechwriter for former President George W. Bush, wrote last week in The New York Times that running mate Mike Pence should persuade Trump to drop out. “Morning Joe” host Joe Scarborough wrote in The Washington Post that a “bloody line” had been crossed. A Politico survey of GOP strategists from 11 swing states earlier this month indicated that 70 percent wanted Trump to get out.
The drubbing Trump has endured in the media has had an effect on rank-and-file voters: Nearly a fifth of registered Republicans said he should drop out, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released last week.
Several political experts said Trump’s exit would have one huge beneficiary — Democrat Hillary Clinton.
“If he did step aside, it would be chaos in the Republican Party and would leave virtually no chance of winning the presidency,” said Chris Arterton, a George Washington University political scientist.
In modern presidential politics, there is only one close precedent — the Democratic Party’s 1972 decision to dump running mate Tom Eagleton after the Missouri senator was revealed to have undergone shock treatments to combat depression. George McGovern went on to lose in a landslide that year, carrying only the District of Columbia and Massachusetts.
At this point, only Trump could remove himself from contention. If he did step aside, the Republican National Committee would choose a replacement. The party could elevate running mate Mike Pence, turn to one of Trump’s vanquished rivals from the GOP primaries — or choose someone else entirely.
Each would carry its own risks. Kyle Kopko, a political science professor at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, said Pence is well-liked among party officials and has the conservative credentials to pass muster among activists. And, he added, Pence has been playing the traditional part of a presidential nominee on the campaign trail —leaving the attack-dog role to Trump. But Kopko noted that the Indiana governor is not that well-known among Americans and would lack legitimacy from not having won a single primary or caucus vote.
“If it were Pence, that would be an issue,” he said. “Trump picked him. No one voted for him.”
Kopko said going with a former candidate like Sen. Ted Cruz or Gov. John Kasich would mean turning to someone who could not even beat Trump in the primaries. He added that those choices would likely antagonize Trump supporters. The same goes for a party elder like Mitt Romney, the 2012 nominee who led efforts to recruit someone to mount an independent candidacy against Trump.
“It’s going to be a tough bridge for them to cross,” Kopko said.
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Kopko said much would depend on how Trump exited. If it appeared he was bowing out willingly for the good of the party and offered a full-throated endorsement to his replacement, he said, the GOP’s chances would improve. If he criticized his replacement or urged supporters not to support him, it could be a disaster.
Either way, Kopko said, it would hand loads of ammunition for Democrats to paint their opponents as a floundering party in crisis.
“‘Republicans can’t even run an effective campaign. They can’t even keep someone on the ticket. Vote Democrat 2016,'” he said, envisioning Clinton’s line of attack. “The ad essentially writes itself.”
Eddie Zipperer, a political commentator who teaches at Georgia Military College, said replacing Trump could work only because of Clinton’s flaws.
“Hillary Clinton’s negatives are so high and the number of scandals floating around are so high, it is possible that could change everything,” he said. “That’s the less likely scenario. The more likely scenario is … Trump supporters would be furious and whoever came in would lose them.”
There is precedent for a party replacing its nominee on the eve of an election and pulling off a victory. The Democrats in 2002 pushed scandal-plagued Sen. Robert Torricelli out of the race in New Jersey. Former Sen. Frank Lautenberg came out of retirement to fill in and won the election, holding the seat for the Democrats.
But that was in a Senate race in a heavily Democratic state — a far cry from the white-hot spotlight of a presidential campaign.