Why Trump’s pivot will fail

Last week, Donald Trump said he is trying to pivot. For a few days afterwards, Trump talked somewhat differently and appeared to shift his position on immigration, the issue with which he started his campaign.

But pivoting highlights Trump’s campaign woes and probably won’t convince people who have already created impressions of him. As political scientists have found, voters form expectations based on initial knowledge. They update the information they recall about a candidate, but people rarely change how they feel.

Moreover, shifting makes Trump look like the image people have of scheming politicians rather than someone they can have confidence in when he says “believe me.”

Thus Trump is boxed in by the expectations he’s created.

Trump started as a fellow who proclaimed he’d always tell what he meant, how he wanted. His no-apologies, say-anything tone was seen in Trump’s mocking a disabled reporter, stating he didn’t respect Sen. John McCain because “he was captured,” and refusing to say he regretted his remarks about the Khans, a Gold Star family.

That approach hurt Trump with voters and political leaders. In announcing she could not support her party’s standard-bearer, Sen. Susan Collins wrote, that “the unpleasant reality that I have had to accept is that there will be no ‘new’ Donald Trump, just the same candidate who will slash and burn and trample anything and anyone he perceives as being in his way or an easy scapegoat. Regrettably, his essential character appears to be fixed, and he seems incapable of change or growth.”

More than a month after the Republican convention, Trump is in trouble in the Electoral College. According to Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia, if the election were held today, Hillary Clinton would win 348 electoral votes and Trump would garner 190. Sabato ranks Maine as a whole as a “safe Democratic” state, with its 2nd Congressional District competitive but leaning Democratic.

Facing low polls and poor election prospects, Trump fired his campaign head and brought in new personnel to run his campaign. His new CEO is Stephen Bannon of Breitbart News. One of its former reporters says Bannon turned Breitbart into an “alt-right go-to website . . . pushing white ethno-nationalism as a legitimate response to political correctness, and the comment section turning into a cesspool for white supremacist mememakers.”

According to Washington Post reporter Danielle Paquette, Trump’s new campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway’s top task is to help him do better with women voters by “nudging the Republican presidential nominee to stop insulting his critics’ looks and display more compassion.”

Operation compassion was seen the other night when Trump told rally goers that he had some “regret” with what he’d said and asked black voters “What do you have to lose?” by supporting him.

But the first element of the “show compassion” plan was undermined by the absence of an actual apology or a focus on any specific thing Trump said to any particular person. Instead, Trump offered a classic non-apology, focused less than what he said than how others might have felt about his remarks. In saying, “He has said that he wants to regret anytime he’s caused somebody personal pain by saying something that he didn’t intend to cause personal pain. And I think those who have received it privately should take that expression of regret,” Conway’s convoluted elaboration to ABC’s George Stephanopoulos was no better in expressing sincere remorse.

Trump’s poll standing among African-Americans has been dismal. Trump is below where Mitt Romney was with these voters and is in fourth place, behind Clinton, Gary Johnson and Jill Stein, with support ranging around only 1 percent to 2 percent. Those voters know Trump’s birtherism and a long history, going back to Trump being sued for housing discrimination in the early 1970s. They are unlikely to be moved by a candidate who inaccurately depicts black Americans as poor and uneducated.

It may be that Trump’s comments about black people are rather meant to move centrist voters who found him offensive and racist. But, given their expectations, they may see new rhetoric as a dubious campaign conversion.

Rather, such remarks will instead cement support from some backing Trump. After everything that’s happened in this campaign, unless he disappoints them on immigration, Trump should be able to expect their unwavering support.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.