It's painful to say this about someone whose head is so big that it's a wonder it doesn't detach from his body, but the lesson Donald Trump needs to learn from coming in second place in the Iowa Republican caucus Monday night is that he shouldn't change a thing about himself or his campaign. From a moral perspective, Trump's a monster, but when it comes to winning the Republican nomination, he's fine just the way he is.
This isn't a popular opinion, as least amongst those conservative pundits that represent the Republican establishment. Instead, the argument is quickly forming that Trump's inability to pull it out in Iowa shows that his king-of-the-world act is failing him, as pundits, especially mainstream conservative pundits, hoped for months that it would.
It seems hard to argue this morning that Trump's skipping of Iowa debate was a smart move.
— Brit Hume (@brithume) February 2, 2016
On Fox News, the talking heads were swift to declare that Trump had shot himself in the foot by not showing up to the debate.
"Trump missed an opportunity to make his closing arguments, and it looks like he's paying a price for it here," Kirsten Powers argued on Fox after the results came in.
"Can we definitively say that not going to the debate hurt Trump?" Bret Baier, on Fox News, asked analyst Stephen Hayes, who was quick to agree that it had.
The Marco Rubio campaign, eager to establish the candidate's electability, has also been pushing the line that Trump blew it by refusing to show up at the debate.
This might all seem very intimidating, but it's also important to be wary of advice being offered by people who want you to lose. Trump, if he wants to win, would be wise to blow all these people off and continue doing exactly what he's doing so far.
Trump didn't really lose the Iowa caucus so much as Ted Cruz won it. Cruz presented himself as the second coming, locked up most evangelical endorsements, and had the most influential evangelical leader in the state barely concealed endorsements for Cruz in church bulletins that were passed around at Sunday services. In a state where Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee won the last two caucuses and where 64 percent of caucus-goers identify as "evangelical" or "born again", Cruz's win is the least surprising of all possible outcomes.
But Iowa simply isn't a representative state. Evangelicals alone aren't enough to push someone over the top, which is why the winner of the Iowa caucus doesn't predict diddly-squat about the eventual outcome. If anything, the fact that it was closer to a three-way tie than a clean win for Cruz (or loss for Trump) shows that nothing has really changed, fundamentally, about this race. It would be wise of Trump to keep looking at national polls rather than giving too much weight to a small, unrepresentative state.
It's true that this is still up in the air and Trump could still lose the nomination, of course. There is no surefire way to win this thing, though. Perversely, the safest course for Trump is to continue to be himself, a no-holds-barred guy who just says and does what he wants, knowing that people will continue to love him for it.
There is no reason to think that doubling down on the religion stuff is a good idea for Trump. Iowa is about as it gets, Jesus-freak-wise, and Trump actually did pretty well there. He doesn't need to win all the evangelical voters. He just needs to win enough of them that he can put together a real coalition with other stripes of conservative voters he does better with. He showed he can do that in Iowa and has every reason to believe he'll get a bigger share of the vote from here on out.
The only truly viable option for Trump is to continue to sell himself as the outsider who will fix what the conservative base thinks is wrong with the party. That's the only attribute that distinguishes him from the herd, and he's really good at selling it, as well. Skipping a debate sends that signal strongly, for instance, whereas going to the debates and playing nice makes you seem more like everyone else.
Sure, it could turn out that the voters decide that while it was fun to fantasize about an off-the-wall candidate, they would prefer a more mainstream one who has a better chance in the general election. But there's also no way that Trump will win if that impulse becomes the deciding factor. Even if he cleaned up his act, started acting more humble and learned to play by the rules, if the voters decide at the last minute that what they really want is a mainstream candidate, they are going to vote for Rubio. There's no way to fool them into thinking Trump has become that guy.
Trump's only selling point is that he's an, ugh, maverick. He can't, at this late date, successfully portray himself as anything else. So he should play up the brand he's established the best he can and hope that the voters find it as exciting when it comes time to vote as they do when they're answering a phone poll. Doing what is working for him in the polls is still a better bet than trying to guess at some unmeasurable hypothetical last minute change of heart that voters will have in the voting booth. He might not win playing the Trump game, but he will definitely lose if he shifts strategies this late in the game.