Seven months ago, when Donald Trump first surged to the front of the polls, I typed some words that his supporters have tapped me on the shoulder with since.
“Relax, North Carolina,” I wrote. “Donald Trump isn’t going to win the Republican primary here.”
Now, Trump has finished a disappointing second in the Iowa primary, a result that probably has as many Republicans gleeful as Democrats.
Don’t relax, North Carolina.
Trump is still the GOP frontrunner, the leader in national polls and the states next on the primary calendar. He’s a better politician than he was in July.
But the same fundamental thing is true now as it was then: A lot more people don’t like Donald Trump than like him. His unfavorables – the people who grimace at him – are awful. They’re historically awful.
That means when you get past his base – which is bigger than a lot of us guessed early on – Trump doesn’t have the kind of supplementary support that a candidate needs to win in the long haul.
“As the field inevitably begins to thin,” I wrote last summer, “few of those voters will peel off to Trump. That will be especially true as the primaries approach.”
That’s part of what happened Monday in Iowa. Trump, whose Iowa numbers have steadily been in the high 20s and low 30s, didn’t get the bump that Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio did as lesser candidates faltered. Trump actually lost voters in the last week.
That may have happened because people tend to get more serious casting a ballot than they do answering a poll question. It may have happened because Trump violated one Golden Rule too many when he skipped last week’s Republican debate, giving momentum and undecided voters a reason to turn away from him.
The narrative on Trump since summer has been that he can’t do wrong, but it’s the opposite that’s true. Yes, his base loves him intensely no matter what he says (or others say about him) but he has fewer people on the edges who might contemplate his candidacy. Because of that, he has a smaller margin of error.
That’s why Trump in February is smartly less flammable than the Muslim-banning Trump of 2015. It’s why after finishing second Monday, he gave a short but gracious speech that surely disappointed the millions who tuned in for a tantrum. He’s a smarter candidate.
Now, he faces his first taste of life on the trail as something less than a winner. Will the campaign lose its mojo? Will Trump start to stomp his feet? Both are possible.
Remember, though, that the main Republican alternatives right now are Cruz, who is despised in his own party, and Rubio, who hasn’t had his turn yet going through the frontrunner wringer.
(And before you Democrats get too loopy on Iowa helium, remember that your moderate and electable candidate, Hillary Clinton, has unfavorables that are almost as historically bad as Trump’s. She is incapable of anything but a close election, because too many people simply do not like her.)
Don’t bet on New Hampshire clarifying things much in the next couple weeks – other than to persuade a few more candidates that it’s time to head home for “fresh clothes.” (Thank you, Ben Carson.) Soon, natural selection will reshape the race, as it always does. Voters will have to pick their second choices. Or they’ll decide who they’re definitely voting against.
That’s Donald Trump’s biggest challenge, same as it was last summer. I still don’t think he’ll win the Republican primary here on March 15.
But it’s more of a hope now than a certainty.
Peter: @saintorange; firstname.lastname@example.org