Politics

We Asked an Expert How Trump Could Exit the Race

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump dislikes a number of things, but it's likely that the concept of losing tops this list.

Trump has established a pattern of labeling his opponents and naysayers as "losers." That raises a serious question as the election gets closer and polls turn against him:

How can Trump — who thinks of himself as a winners-vs.-losers kind of guy — deal with the prospect of losing? Exit the race before November? Concede defeat to Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton on Nov. 8?

ATTN: asked political consultant Pete Solecki — who worked on Barack Obama's and John Edwards' presidential campaigns, among others — how Trump could deal with a potential devastating loss. Here's what Solecki told us.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

ATTN: Given his brand of winners vs. losers, how could he possibly exit or concede the race without going against everything that he preaches? He's always saying he hates losers, but what's going to happen if he faces the biggest loss he's possibly ever faced in front of the whole world?

Pete Solecki: That's such a fascinating question. I guess what I would say that it's extremely unlikely that the Republican party would replace its presidential candidate on the ticket with only 89 days until the election. It would be totally unprecedented.

The closest historical analog was the 1972 presidential campaign. The Democratic candidate actually switched up their VP candidate, like, two weeks after their convention. It was a complete disaster. The campaign was already in a lot of trouble, and that really was just another sign of their doom. ...

The thing is, as we get closer to the election, ballots start getting printed, there are a few states that probably start sending out absentee ballots and early ballots in September. So if that were going to happen, it would have to happen in the next couple of weeks, I'm guessing. ... My guess is that they're stuck with him, and he's stuck with them for 89 more days.

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ATTN: He said some pretty inflammatory things when there were all these other candidates in the running. People would say, "That's it, that's the thing that's going to ruin him." But it just seemed to help Trump. That has been interesting to watch.

Pete Solecki: It's unbelievable. I'm certainly not going to claim that I thought that Trump would win the nomination a year ago. [He] criticized John McCain as a war hero. This week, he [suggested] the assassination of a president or Supreme Court Justice, it's just been crazy thing after crazy thing. He still manages to keep his floor of high 30s in national polling at least. If not around 40.

With the Judge Curiel stuff, Paul Ryan came out and said this is blatantly the definition of racism, but [he] will still support Donald Trump. It's crazy to me. I can't see him stepping back from it at this point, and I can't see them dumping him.

ATTN: How could he spin a presidential loss to his supporters? What would he say in a concession speech? His supporters have been depicted as very intense, so I'm curious as to how he is going to speak to them about this.

Pete Solecki: Taking out all of the reasons for why I would never work for Donald Trump or a candidate anything like him, [I've wondered], if this were my client, what would I advise them [to do]? The simple fact is, you're right. He'd set himself up in a position where he can't really accept this loss on the face of it. I find that to be maybe the most frightening thing at all.

I have a very difficult time imagining him giving a concession speech on the night of Nov. 8 or the early morning of Nov. 9. I am very concerned that he might be the first losing presidential candidate in history who doesn't come out and say: "We fought hard in this election. We showed the country what our values are. We came up a little bit short. We moved the conversation in the direction that we believe in, and now it's the time for us to come together, and we all hope for the best for our new president."

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That's the standard speech, and even Al Gore was willing to give that after the Supreme Court ended the recount in Florida in 2000. But I have a hard time seeing Trump saying that.

I think that's a really scary prospect for the country. As you alluded to, I think that based on his brand. Everything he has said, the way that he has conducted himself, his only alternative, ultimately, will be to say that the election was rigged. It's pretty amazing to me that here we are, three months out, and he's already sort of setting up that narrative and argument. Of course, it's totally ridiculous.

Harry Enten on FiveThirtyEight did some quick analysis and figured out that [state officials are Republican in] states with more than a majority of electoral votes. So for Trump to say that something rigged is going on is suggesting that a bunch of ... Republican secretaries of state around the country might be working together to deny him the election. I think that's crazy.

We conduct very free and fair elections in this country. If we look at the state polling, Trump is on his way to a loss for sure, or we hope, at least. I think he is trying to set things up to make Hillary Clinton the illegitimate president the same way that he tried to push this argument that Barack Obama was an illegitimate president [by pressuring him to release his birth certificate and prove that he wasn't born in Kenya].

ATTN: And Trump ended up taking credit for this the day Obama released his birth certificate. In response, Trump held a press conference and said, "Today I'm very proud of myself." He spun it so it was all about what he had done to make the birth certificate public rather than admit that he was wrong.

Pete Solecki: That's an interesting model for what we are talking about here: Where Trump manages to claim victory in the face of obvious defeat. When I thought about this question, I went back and looked at his speech after he lost the Iowa caucus in February of this year. It's interesting, because it was short, and it was conciliatory, but in that speech, he was talking about how he expected to go on and win New Hampshire and get the nomination and easily win the general election in November. It's hard for me to imagine what he could cue up as an alternative victory, or some sort of victory, in the face of a massive defeat on Nov. 8.

A lot of politicians try to say, "We moved the conversation in the direction we want. We got people to accept our policy ideas that they weren't accepting before," or "We made our voices heard," those sorts of things. But those don't seem like they'd be enough for Trump.

ATTN: What would be his next career move after losing, if he does lose? Could he manage to stay in the zeitgeist for a little longer, kind of like former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin did for several years after the 2008 election through reality TV and the like?

Pete Solecki: Obviously, if there's one thing I think we can all be sure of, it's that Donald Trump is not going to go away in 2017. One way or another, I'm quite sure he'll find a way to stick around. There are a couple of possible paths.

The obvious thing for him to do would be to remain in politics and say, "We came close this time. I'm going to continue to lead this fight, and we'll win next time." He could create a super PAC that's all about electing candidates like him and people who believe in building a wall like he does. That would be the traditional or almost obvious answer, and maybe have him run for the nomination again in four years. [But] I kind of don't see that happening with Trump.

My guess is that he goes back into TV and entertainment. Maybe that's the way he manages to claim victory from this. Maybe what he actually does, in November or months later, [he] says, "Ha, I never expected to win the presidency. That wasn't what this was about for me. It was about making the Trump brand even stronger." Getting more ratings for whatever his next TV show or movie is.

It's hard to imagine that no network would be willing to air an hour of Donald Trump's TV show or whatever the hell he wants it to be a week. Because the ratings for that, you'd have to imagine, would be pretty great. I imagine he can get himself back on TV, make a bunch more money, and then claim, "Ha, because of this presidential campaign, I'm now worth $20 billion instead of $10 billion."

ATTN: This could be his last opportunity to run, given his age.

Pete Solecki: On the other hand, none of the other rules about him have prevented him from running this time. He is literally the least qualified candidate we've ever had for president of the United States. This is a guy who has not served his day in the military. This is a guy who has never been a diplomat. Never been in the cabinet. Never been elected to a school board even, much less to be a governor or a senator, something that more traditionally, opens its way to the presidency.

So 74-year-old Donald Trump running for president, that doesn't sound like the excluding factor. I hope that the thing that would prevent him from running again would be that his supporters realize that they need to take a different approach to get the kind of changes that they want to see in this country.