Wall Street Journal
By Janet Hook and Monica Langley
May 4, 2016
Back when few people took Donald Trump seriously as a potential presidential candidate, the New York businessman asked former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and his wife, Callista, to meet in Iowa. Over breakfast at the Des Moines Marriott Hotel in January 2015, Mr. Trump spent 45 minutes grilling Mr. Gingrich on his experience running for president.
“It was clear to me at the end of the talk that he was seriously considering it,” Mr. Gingrich said.
Yet two months later, in March 2015, three-quarters of Republican primary voters in a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll said they couldn’t imagine supporting Mr. Trump for president. He was so marginal at the time that during a candidate cattle call by the National Rifle Association the following month more people stayed to listen to Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal than to Mr. Trump.
Most Republicans remained oblivious while Mr. Trump plotted the political equivalent of a corporate takeover. With his resounding victory Tuesday in Indiana, he has seized a controlling stake in the Republican Party with the backing of shareholders furious at previous management.
Mr. Trump, having driven out the last of his rivals, is now the party’s presumptive nominee—a jaw-dropping outcome that says as much about the GOP, caught in turmoil and transition, as it does about Mr. Trump.
Ever since their bitter 2012 presidential loss, Republican leaders and the party’s grass roots have been at odds, with rank-and-file voters seething at the failure of elites to deliver, and bitterly at odds over the issue of immigration. Mr. Trump found opportunity in the rupture.
Party leaders and the other GOP candidates almost unanimously underestimated Mr. Trump’s staying power. His rivals assumed his provocative campaign would fail, an error that allowed him to run for months in a splintered field of competitors. Most were reluctant to attack, convinced they would scoop up his supporters when Mr. Trump’s campaign finally imploded.
Republicans proved vulnerable to his unconventional campaign style. As a skilled entertainment professional, he made himself ubiquitous and his audience seemed ready to forgive any outrageous comment or slip-up.
Mr. Trump set the terms of the campaign conversation by devising a communications-heavy strategy that relied on mass rallies, TV interviews and debates. That meant no polling, no analytics, little paid media, no consultants.
“This election isn’t about the Republican Party, it’s about me,” Mr. Trump said in an interview this week. “I’m very proud I proved an outsider can win by massive victories from the people, not from party elites or state delegates.”
Having dealt the GOP establishment its biggest defeat in decades, Mr. Trump said his mission wasn’t to change the party. He also doesn’t appear interested in whether the deeply divided GOP can muster the kind of institutional support its presidential nominee normally receives.
“I’d rather have a unified Republican party, but I’m not sure that’s as necessary to the voters, to see people getting along,” he said. “They are voting for a person, not a party.”
A year ago, few people regarded Mr. Trump as a serious candidate. Coverage of his candidacy for a while appeared in the entertainment section of the Huffington Post, a liberal website that treated him with disdain.
In the months before Mr. Trump declared his candidacy, many dismissed his pre-campaign maneuvering as a bid for attention, in part because of his past flirtations with the notion.
But Mr. Trump said he kicked himself for not running in 2012, and on New Year’s Day 2015, he recalled telling a friend, “If the country keeps going in this horrendous direction, I have to run.”
The moment had its roots in the 2012 defeat of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a searing political experience that sent the party into a tailspin.
The Republican National Committee, in an autopsy of its failings that year, concluded the party needed to do more to reach out to Latino voters and moderate its position on immigration policy.
Party leaders also ripped up the primary calendar and changed rules to avoid the long, bitter primary season they believe hobbled Mr. Romney.
What followed were years of mounting hostility among conservatives on talk radio, the Internet and in grass-roots networks. They turned from the long-standing ideological battle with liberals to an intraparty battle with the establishment, which conservatives increasingly viewed as distant and ineffective. That fueled primary challenges like the one that nearly toppled Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas in 2014, as well as a backbench insurgency that drove House Speaker John Boehner from office last year.
“Republican candidates could not hear what Republican voters were saying,” said Randy Evans, a Republican National Committee member from Georgia who is neutral in the presidential race. “They just couldn’t hear it.”
But Mr. Trump heard. He began planning his White House bid just weeks after the Romney loss.
Mr. Trump trademarked his “Make America Great Again” slogan in November 2012. He road-tested his attacks on illegal immigration in a 2013 speech to the Conservative Action Political Conference. He traveled to Iowa, home of the first contest in the nomination process, to campaign in 2014 for Republican Rep. Steve King. He asked Dave Bossie, president of the conservative group Citizens United for advice on staffing and took his recommendation to hire Corey Lewandowski as his campaign manager.
Mr. Trump in an interview with The Wall Street Journal this year said that from the start he approached the campaign like one of his business deals, by “thinking big” with a national strategy and aggressively publicizing his case.
A skeletal campaign staff was assembled in early 2015, and by May last year he had tentatively decided to announce his intentions. His initial goal was to land among the top four or five candidates. Most Republicans, Mr. Trump included, viewed former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush as the clear favorite.
The Trump campaign launched in mid-June with an explosive premise: Whatever the risk to the party, he would give immediate voice to the economic fears of voters and their hostility toward people living in the U.S. illegally.
Donald Trump during his announcement in June 2015 of his intention to run for president.
Donald Trump during his announcement in June 2015 of his intention to run for president. Photo: Christopher Gregory/Getty Images
At his campaign announcement, he promised an end to illegal immigration, reinforced by his incendiary assertion that Mexico sends rapists and drug dealers to the U.S.
Mr. Trump’s hard line on immigration was just the first of many departures from the GOP’s post-2012 goals and its traditional conservative orthodoxy. He bashed international trade agreements dear to the party’s business allies and free-trade gurus. He talked tough about international terrorism, but showed an anti-interventionist streak that worried the party’s hawks.
Through it all, Mr. Trump smashed expectations by surviving fire storms over remarks that would have sunk others. He questioned the war-hero status of Republican Sen. John McCain. He insulted women and his rivals in vulgar terms and was slow to disavow the endorsement of a white supremacist. Instead of hurting him, Mr. Trump’s swagger seemed to swell support.
Mr. Trump saw the strength of his message during his first campaign swing through New Hampshire in mid-July. He was booked to speak at a VFW hall with a capacity of 200. Some 3,000 people came to see him.
“People were standing on rooftops, clapping, yelling,” as his car drove up, Mr. Trump recalled.
Voter hunger for a break-the-furniture political figure became broadly apparent. In state after state, exit polls showed, a majority of GOP primary voters said they felt they had been betrayed by Republican politicians. Among those voters, Mr. Trump cleaned up.
Mr. Trump was the best-known Republican candidate and for a time led a crowded field with 30% of the vote. Rivals refrained from attacking him for months, each with his own reason, giving Mr. Trump room to grow.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz held back because he expected to inherit Trump voters when the businessman finally sank. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, an establishment favorite, gave him a pass as part of broader campaign strategy of laying low.
Members of presidential candidate Donald Trump’s staff on Tuesday night watch rival Ted Cruz announce he was dropping out of the race.
Members of presidential candidate Donald Trump’s staff on Tuesday night watch rival Ted Cruz announce he was dropping out of the race. Photo: Lev Radin/Pacific Press//Zuma Press
Those who did attack Mr. Trump early on—Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry—learned Mr. Trump’s brutal response. He gave out Mr. Graham’s cellphone number and ridiculed Mr. Paul and Mr. Perry. They were among the first to drop out. Mr. Trump called himself a “counterpuncher,” daring others.
When Mr. Bush pushed back—trying on Trump-style schoolyard tactics—it sullied the political brand Mr. Bush had been trying to sell: the optimistic political leader, the adult in the room. The same thing happened to Mr. Rubio just before he dropped out of the campaign. He took the bait, got down in the mud with Mr. Trump, and regretted it.
Mr. Cruz seemed to catch a wave of anti-Trump sentiment when he won the Wisconsin primary. That prompted Mr. Trump to reassess his campaign. A business friend recommended Paul Manafort to bring in operational structure and GOP-establishment contacts that the Trump campaign had long criticized.
Wisconsin turned out to be too little too late for anti-Trump forces. Beginning with the New York primary, Mr. Trump enjoyed a series of landslide victories.
Mr. Trump’s phone began ringing soon after his New York win with calls from party regulars, including a couple of former candidates, his son Donald Trump Jr. said.
As he took the congratulatory calls, Mr. Trump smiled and winked at his family who had gathered at the candidate’s Manhattan penthouse.
“That was the moment when my father, and all of us, felt that the establishment elite began moving his way,” Mr. Trump Jr. said.
Fittingly, Mr. Cruz ended up his closest rival. He was perhaps the only other candidate who seemed to understand from the start the need to speak directly to voter disillusionment with not just Democrats but the whole GOP hierarchy.
But Mr. Cruz couldn’t trump Mr. Trump.
“The Republican base was so disgusted, so angry that they were looking for someone to kick over the table,” Mr. Gingrich said. “Cruz, as a Princeton- and Harvard-educated lawyer, could describe the table. But Trump walked in and really kicked it.”
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