“‘No one remembers who came in second.’”
--Donald Trump, December 2013, quoting professional golfer Walter Hagen
Donald Trump discovered firsthand Tuesday night that money, and the name recognition that often goes with it, aren’t always enough. The billionaire attention addict lost the Republican Iowa caucuses, placing second behind Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (28 percent to 24 percent), despite the patina of inevitability The Donald has gone to great lengths to create since he began his quest for the presidency eight months ago.
He paid the price on Tuesday, committing some serious unforced errors, including the kind of neophyte move that would have gotten contestants bounced from his “The Apprentice” TV show: Not knowing what he was doing.
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That levitation license got pulled by the people of Iowa on Tuesday night.
Then, not missing a beat, Trump resorted to the kind of behavior that he can’t stand in other people: Being a sore loser.
"Ted Cruz didn't win Iowa, he illegally stole it. That is why all of the polls were so wrong any [sic] why he got more votes than anticipated. Bad!" Trump tweeted Wednesday morning — moments before he tweaked the tweet by deleting the word “illegally.”
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IT GOT WORSE. Then he demanded a do-over. He tweeted: “Based on the fraud committed by Senator Ted Cruz during the Iowa Caucus, either a new election should take place or Cruz results nullified.”
This is Donald Trump in Butthurt World, a new territory for the king of tough talk and real estate, and it’s aroused a still-building narrative that The Donald’s campaign is in serious trouble — in open water surrounded by sharks, or in the middle of the desert circled by vultures.
WTF happened? You can chalk up Trump’s Iowa defeat — the only word in the language for it — to three glaring missteps that his handlers, proxies, advisers and campaign toadies should have seen coming from a long way off:
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He skipped the Iowa debate. Even for a man with an ego the size of Trump Tower, when you’re campaigning for the presidency, it’s necessary to do the fundamentals, which means paying the proper respects to the people you presume to lead. Politics 101 says that when you’re campaigning in Iowa — a state proud of its status as an early litmus test for the viability of presidential contenders — you don’t miss an opportunity to make a connection.
Doing that, he missed his last, best chance to make his case for being president before the people of the Hawkeye State — many of whom were prepared to vote for him. It was a huge and unnecessary slap in the face of voters prepared to make a difference in his campaign. It told Iowans, like nothing else could, that their concerns, their interests, and ultimately their support, didn’t matter.
Woody Allen once observed that “80 percent of success is just showing up.” Trump should have taken his fellow New Yorker’s advice.
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But with Donald Trump, that meant their having to contend with a meme of ugliness that Trump cultivated with all his heart.
From vilifying Mexicans, Muslims and Muslim Americans, presiding over beatdowns of protesters at his own campaign rallies, and generally never taking an opportunity to look like the statesman he thinks he wants to be, Trump reveled in the role bestowed on him in the latest issue of Esquire Magazine — Hater In Chief. It was, reportedly, a title that Trump embraced. It was apparently something the good people of Iowa wanted nothing to do with. Not enough of them to get Trump a win, anyway.
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For even the most casual student of American politics, this is so basic it beggars the imagination how you think you start or run a campaign without it. The ground game — the army of volunteers, drivers, doorbell ringers, people working the phones, senior citizens planting the yard signs, interns living on pizza and adrenaline, the freakin’ true believers on the ground in the state you want to win — is indispensable to a modern, well-oiled presidential campaign. Simply put, you won’t win without it. You can’t win without it.
And not only did Trump not have a good ground game ... until recently, and by his own admission, he didn’t even know what a ground game was.
If anyone wants to know how not to campaign for the presidency, or any other public office, Trump’s post-mortem appearance Wednesday, on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” was instructive.
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Wait, it gets better. “I think in retrospect we should’ve had a better ground game, I would’ve funded a better ground game,” he continued. “But people told me my ground game was fine. And I think by most standards it was.”
Feature that, folks. In the course of two or three sentences, Trump went from admitting he didn’t know what a ground game was to stating, with typical Trumpian certitude, that “by most standards” it was “fine.” This also probably said more than Trump intended. It confirms the suspicion that Trump talked himself into believing that, with his outsized personality, his commanding presence in the media, his money, he didn’t need a ground game. Trump thought he was the ground game.
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TRUMP WENT ON to reveal more of the utter ineptitude he used to accuse “Apprentice” hopefuls of, right before he fired them. He was asked about Iowa’s unique caucus approach to vetting presidential hopefuls.
“The caucus system is a complex system that I was never familiar with,” he told Joe Scarborough. With a straight face. “I mean, I was never involved with the caucus system. Don’t forget, Joe, I’m doing this for the first time. I’m like a rookie. And I’m learning fast, and I do learn fast.”
Not fast enough.
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With three screw-ups that glaring, that breathtakingly obvious, it wasn’t as much a surprise that Trump lost as it was a surprise that anyone could think any other outcome was possible.
The Trump campaign is now presumably enlightened, ready to move forward to New Hampshire’s primary next Tuesday. But this is a lesson he won’t soon forget.
Anyway, until New Hampshire, he can console himself with an alternate view of second place: Rather than losing to another loser, at least he lost to the guy who won it all. Or he can go on being The Donald: Defensive in defeat, certain of his powers and his wealth and their ability to give him whatever he wants.
Either way, he can’t get away from the obvious: Second place happens for a reason.
Image credits: Trump: Associated Press/Matt Rourke. Trump Esquire cover: © 2016 Hearst Communications Inc.