Maybe this helps explain why Trump yanked his own attack ad against Cruz this afternoon. Now, when he’s questioned about this ad from Cruz, he can claim that he tried to elevate the discourse by being nice but the sleazy professional pol — Canadian maniac cronyist pussy that he is — just can’t let go of the nastiness.
Will the ad hurt Trump? Last night I watched Cruz on Megyn Kelly’s show attacking him as a phony conservative and caught myself rolling my eyes at the thought that that’s going to work now after eight months. But I reconsidered. Cruz’s campaign is famously data-intensive; if he thinks there are still votes to be had in South Carolina by questioning Trump’s conservative bona fides, he has a good reason to think so tucked away somewhere in the numbers on his desk. Ditto for this spot, I’m sure. It’s a truism by now that nothing will cost Trump any of his core supporters — and no one understands that more than Trump himself — but there are still true undecideds out there to be won and beyond them plenty of voters who like Trump but remain open to other candidates. That’s who Cruz is aiming at. Trump probably has an absolute floor of 25 percent, but Cruz’s ceiling is higher than that floor. And for what it’s worth, there is reason to believe that ads have already hurt Trump this cycle. His polling dipped in Iowa in September when the Club for Growth began attacking him, although he eventually came back after Ben Carson collapsed. This ad, by the anti-Trump Super PAC Our Principles, ran in Iowa before Trump’s loss to Cruz there and was universally described as highly effective. It has more than half a million views on YouTube as I write this. Even Trump’s not wholly immune from a punchy critique.
One easy criticism of this spot is that eminent domain is a boutique issue, something maybe one in five Americans could define if asked. That’s true, but that’s not the point. The message here isn’t that Trump is abusing an arcane aspect of state power for his personal gain (although that message will be absorbed by dogmatic conservatives), it’s that Trump, for all of his populist bravado, tried to roll over the little guy in the person of Vera Coking to line his pockets. Trump’s critics on the right, like Liam Donovan, have been begging the rest of the field to pursue that line of attack for months. It’s not enough to say Trump isn’t really a conservative, since neither Trump nor his fans care much about that. To claim that he’s not really a populist, though — now you’re hitting him where he lives.
A billionaire real estate developer might make for an odd working class political (anti-)hero, but he has always projected the over the top caricature of what a working stiff might think being rich would be like. And his outer borough accent conveys a disarming familiarity that is impossible to fake.
So how do you chip away at this rapport? You start by shattering the illusion that Trump is a friend of the little guy. To his credit, Trump possesses an uncanny ability to perceive, identify, and harness the wants and needs of the average Joe. The problem is that Trump takes this unique insight into the working class and exploits it for his own gain.
Perhaps the best instance of this is Trump University, his for profit “education” venture that was investigated and later sued by the State of New York, which held Trump personally liable for running an unlicensed school. Personal accounts from former students are damning, describing a boiler-room operation that imparted no real estate knowledge while leaving them deep in debt. One student, a Trump supporter no less, called the school an outright “scam.” These stories, when combined with the slick Trump U pitch video could make for a great opening salvo. The possibilities are limitless, particularly given the mountain of opposition research material that has yet to be uncorked.
The bottom line is that you need to disabuse people of the notion that Trump is on their side. This is a con, and we are the collective mark.
I thought of Trump University too when I watched this ad. I’ll be shocked if Cruz doesn’t have a spot about that already ready to roll, along with one about illegals allegedly taking American construction jobs at some of Trump’s building projects. These are all facets of the same argument, that Trump is happy to screw the blue-collar Americans who are supporting him if he can make a buck doing so. And if you don’t like Cruz’s version of these ads, no worries. You’ll see another version of them in six months from Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders as they go all-out to paint Trump as a Wall Street oligarch turned power-seeking phony populist. The only surprise in Cruz’s ad is that it took a major candidate this long to really unload on him on that point.
Then again, the media being what it is, we’ll probably spend most of the day tomorrow talking about the fact that Team Cruz accidentally cast a porn actress in its new ad hitting Rubio instead of Trump’s eminent domain record. Trump wins again!