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How Could Republicans Have Stopped Donald Trump?

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On the latest Keepin’ It 1600, Jon Favreau and Dan Pfeiffer talked about the week in politics, including the Brexit, the latest from Planet Trump, and the state of Hillary’s campaign. They also spoke with Stuart Stevens, a former strategist for Mitt Romney. A portion of that conversation is transcribed below. Listen to the full episode here. This conversation has been edited and condensed.

Jon Favreau: Now, in 2012, you guys on the Romney campaign successfully fought off some of these more, I would say, right-wing, or more populist, challenges from [Rick] Santorum, [Newt] Gingrich in different ways. How did you guys, how did Romney, successfully do that in 2012? And what do you think that a Jeb Bush or a Marco Rubio could have done this time around to stop Trump?

Stuart Stevens: Listen, it’s a great question. I think Trump was a very easy candidate to beat. You just had to get about beating him. And I think that the other element of the Republican primaries, what I would call a Guns of August element — you know, that great Barbara Tuchman book about how World War I started when no one wanted it — which is a series of kind of miscalculations, [cowardice], one stumble after another, and all of a sudden, the unthinkable becomes inevitable. I think the way to beat Donald Trump was to go into these debates, particularly, with a mindset that one of us is going to walk off this stage alive. It may be me, it may be him, but it’s not going to be both of us. And just take him straight on.

I mean, if someone had turned to Donald Trump in the first debate and said, “You know, Donald, you support the Bill of Rights.” He’d go, “Absolutely.” I’d say, “How many amendments are there? How does a bill become law? What are your thoughts on Article VI of the Constitution?” He couldn’t have answered any of this; he knows nothing. And he hates to be laughed at. I think that there was a decision that there would be a competition to see who could get one-on-one with Donald Trump, and that gave Donald Trump a great pass. I never understood that decision or that attitude.

There was a lot of talk about winning lanes in this primary — you know, there was an establishment lane. I’ve done five of these presidential primaries; I have no idea what they’re talking about. All these Republican voters, they’re pretty much alike. Look at the fact that they — you know, 95 percent of them — vote the same way come November every time. And I’d read about this, and it sounds like somebody’s trying to fill the New York City school board; it was like 27 different languages or something. No, these are white, conservative, Republican voters. Sure, some are more evangelical, some maybe identify more with the business, but these are just nuances.

Romney won [43 contests], and every one we won, we won conservatives; every one we lost, we lost conservatives. It was not complicated. All you had to do was, like, “How are we doing with conservatives?” “Not so well — we’re gonna lose!” It was simple. I mean, why overthink it? Now, Romney, in many ways, was an unusual candidate in that he really didn’t have a geographic or ideological base, and I think you’d probably have to go back to Bill Clinton in ’92 to look at someone without that who successfully wins a primary. But, you know, it’s hard. I think that there was also an underappreciation of just how hard it is to win a nomination by a lot of these candidates and their staffs. Now they know.

Dan Pfeiffer: [laughing] Yes, they do. The “go on stage, one person walks off alive, one doesn’t” [strategy]— I totally understand how you could do that, how someone could do that, as a way to destroy Trump. I think that’s what Christie did to Rubio in New Hampshire. Do you think someone could’ve done that and won themselves?

S.S.: I tend to have these very simple little movies that go off in my head, and I think it’s like a prison movie, where you come into the prison, there’s a guy that runs the cell block. What you have to do is walk up to that guy and punch him in the face and take over the cell block, and then everybody will follow you. So I think that people follow strength and they follow conflict. Trump, let’s forget — unlike, say, Rick Perry, when Rick Perry got in the race in 2012, he was leading by 10 or 15 points. … Trump wasn’t leading when he got in, and you can look at these numbers, how they progressed. But he was not taken that seriously at the beginning, and that’s the time when you should have confronted him. Or after he lost Iowa, for heaven’s sakes. I just don’t understand what happened; I don’t understand why these candidates didn’t take Trump straight on.