Steven Roberts: Trump is subtracting, not adding

There’s an ancient and accurate political adage: Elections are about addition, not subtraction. That’s especially true this year, since the last two presidential contests have been extremely close. The decisions of a few swing voters in a few swing states have decided both outcomes, and that’s likely to happen again.

But it’s clear that Donald Trump is following a very different strategy. His aim is to solidify and energize his most fervent supporters, the true MAGA believers, while ostracizing voters he derides as RINOs — Republicans in Name Only — who don’t pledge total fealty to his personal preeminence.

The Republican primaries reveal the validity of another verity: For every action in politics, there is a reaction. A limited — but significant — number of Republicans despise the MAGA movement and are determined to defect in November.

Trump may own the Republican Party, but he does not own individual voters. This is a divorce based on irreconcilable differences strongly expressed by both aggrieved antagonists.

Trump’s opponent, Joe Biden, is an uninspiring and at times even feeble candidate who has troubles of his own with younger, more liberal and nonwhite supporters. But the cleavage in Republican ranks could provide him with a critical advantage in the handful of states that will decide the election.

Nikki Haley’s departure from the GOP race, combined with Biden’s highly partisan State of the Union address, signal the start of the general election campaign, almost eight full months before Election Day. “Typically at this moment,” writes the Associated Press, “candidates will shift their message to speak to a broader swath of voters — especially moderates and independents — that play a more influential role in general elections compared to the hardcore base voters that decide primaries.” Trump, however, “is showing little interest — or ability — to embrace a more inclusive or moderate tone.”

Far from being “inclusive or moderate,” Trump seems determined to do the opposite, to purge his party of heretics. Using his derisive sobriquet for Haley, Trump thundered in January: “Anybody that makes a ‘Contribution’ to Birdbrain, from this moment forth, will be permanently barred from the MAGA camp. We don’t want them, and will not accept them.”

In another assault on his foes, Trump vowed: “We’re getting rid of the Romneys of the world. We want to get Romneys and those out.” He was referring to Sen. Mitt Romney, an ardent Never Trumper who is retiring from the Senate, and Romney’s niece, Ronna McDaniel, who Trump fired as GOP party chairman and replaced with his daughter-in-law, Lara Trump.

“Trump is actively rejecting people from the Republican Party — a losing strategy in November and a recipe for extinction in the long run,” Haley predicted.

McDaniel issued a parting shot of her own against Trump: “We don’t win if we only talk to each other. We have to go out and engage independent and swing voters and sell them on our vision for this country.”

The primaries demonstrate Trump’s problem with those independent and swing voters. As Politico reported: “Trump struggled in places where a majority of adults are college-educated, including in key suburbs that doomed his campaign in 2020.”

Mike Madrid, a Republican strategist who opposes Trump, said these results reveal “a very strong trepidation” in some quarters about the party’s nominee, and adds: “The base is not secure for Donald Trump.”

A Quinnipiac poll bears him out, with 37% of Haley backers saying they’ll vote for Biden in November.

The primary results in North Carolina, a potential swing state, provide further evidence of Trump’s vulnerability. Overall, Haley attracted almost one-quarter of the vote. But she won 39% of college grads, 40% of those who oppose a national ban on abortion and 57% of moderates and liberals. Two-thirds of Haley backers said they were voting against Trump, not for her. Asked if they would vote Republican in the fall, regardless of who the nominee is, 58% of Haley voters declined to make that promise.

David Emery, a former Republican congressman from Maine, told Politico that in the fall, Trump “will get some people back who are more Republican-oriented and find it hard to vote for a candidate who’s not a Republican.” Emery estimates, however, that up to 30% of Republicans are “just not open to any argument Donald Trump might make.”

Eight months is a long time. Many unexpected events lie ahead. But Trump is subtracting voters from Republican ranks, not adding them, and if you want to win elections, that makes no sense.