The conventional wisdom in the wake of Trump’s meltdown over the past two days is that his campaign is finished. Republicans are disinviting Trump from their events, saying they won’t vote for him, or even asking him to withdraw. But no matter how bad it looks, it’s not entirely clear how much this story actually damages Trump.
The notion that this incident is the coup de grace for Trump’s campaign rests on the presumption that there’s a large swath of people in the electorate who are reasonable, of serious mind and undecided between the two candidates. It presumes that even after all of Trump’s previous gaffes and offensive statements, these voters remained undecided as to whether he has the temperament for the Oval Office. It presumes they didn’t already know how Trump behaves toward women, despite Trump’s decades as a celebrity in which his overt misogyny was repeatedly on public display. It presumes that their reservations about Hillary Clinton are strong enough to have allowed them to consider voting for Trump in spite of his behavior prior to yesterday’s revelations, but weak enough that they might vote for her now.
That there are many such voters in the electorate is doubtful at best. The few who do exist are the ones who pay so little attention to politics and vote for reasons so orthogonal to the vast majority of coalition-based partisans, that it’s hard to say what other impulses may or may not drive their decisions between now and Election Day.
Trump voters, broadly speaking, come in three basic types. The first (and most numerous) is partisan Republicans who would vote for any Republican because their concern is less about which individual sits in the Oval Office, than about getting their preferred policies enacted. They want lower taxes on the wealthy, restrictions on abortion, and strict constructionists on the Supreme Court. They would vote for Darth Vader as the GOP nominee if it meant more Scalias on the Supreme Court and a chance to enact the Ryan budget.
The second type of Trump voter is what Hillary Clinton called the “deplorables”: these are people (mostly older, less educated white men) who thrill at every racist and sexist thing Trump does because they feel disempowered in a world where women and minorities are treated more as equals. These folks certainly aren’t going to back away from Trump.
The third type of Trump voter is the change voter: people who have a vague sense that the country is far off the wrong track, don’t know or care much about actual policy, but want as much disruption as possible. These people don’t care about the norms of government or discourse, and they aren’t concerned about making irresponsible choices. They thrill at seeing serious people wring their hands and freak out about the prospect of a madman in the Oval Office, because they’re ignorant enough about the consequences and angry enough about the status quo that they feel a madman might be just what the doctor ordered.
Are any of these types going to vote against Trump based on his disgusting comments from 11 years ago? Probably not.
Where this hurts Trump is with Republican rank-and-file voters who didn’t vote for Trump in the primary, already dislike him and may simply stay home in November. It’s less of a persuasion problem for Trump than a turnout problem. But most of those voters will still likely trudge to the polls come Election Day.
Now, it’s certainly true that Trump can’t afford any backslides at all. Even before his mess he was down in the polls by an average of five points, and the electoral college map looked grim for him. So any setback puts victory even farther out of reach–but it was already mostly out of reach anyway.
Trump’s only chance depended on some outside event, major Clinton gaffe or debate knockout. That’s still the case, and while unlikely it could still happen.
But the notion that this incident rendered a viable campaign hopeless is mostly wishful thinking on the part of a pundit class that still pretends the electorate isn’t as bitterly divided as it really is.