Donald Trump effectively locked up the Republican presidential nomination on the night of May 3 when he won a sweeping victory in the Indiana primary. Ted Cruz ended his campaign that night. John Kasich followed suit the next day.
It’s been 16 days since that night. And Trump, the least orthodox presidential nominee in modern political history, has made a number of very smart moves to coalesce the GOP behind him while also setting the terms of the general election fight to come against Hillary Clinton.
Here are five examples of Trump being smart:
1. Traveling to D.C. to meet with Paul Ryan
This was a win-win for Trump. His past condemnations of many of the party leaders in Washington — and their doubts about his ability to lead the party — made it very hard from an optics perspective for people like Ryan to simply throw their support behind Trump once it became clear he was the nominee.
A gesture was needed, something that these members of Congress could point to as evidence that they had brought Trump to heel or, at the very least, that they had expressed their concerns to him, he had heard them and both parties were satisfied with the outcome.
The mood in the wake of Trump’s visit — from Ryan to Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus — was ebullient. And, more importantly for Trump, it was clear that Ryan would, at some point in the not-too-distant future, be for him.
2. Hiring a pollster
Trump made much of the fact that during the primary process he had no pollster. It was a point of pride and proof that he was different (and better) than all of the calculating politicians he was running against.
The decision to bring on Tony Fabrizio, a well-known pollster within GOP circles, is a mature decision by Trump. Here’s why: Winning a primary fight without a pollster is one thing. The calendar is laid out months (years?) in advance. Most of the time, a single state or, at most, two to four states vote on a single day. It’s a sequential process where momentum matters. A lot.
Winning a general election is something different. The electorate is much broader and, therefore, more complex when it comes to targeting messages and the like. All of the states vote on the same day, too, meaning that you need someone with actual hard data to help justify spending and travel decisions.
Then there’s this: There’s no downside for Trump. Do you think one person who was for him in the primary is going to care (or even know) that he hired Fabrizio? Answer: No.
3. Making nice with Megyn Kelly
Trump has a theatrical/dramatic approach to most things. That includes his feuds, which play out as three-act plays: The introduction of the tension, the formal falling out, and then, of course, the high-profile making nice.
Trump finished that three-act arc with Fox News’ Megyn Kelly this week when he shared a TV studio with her for a prime-time interview, not on Fox News but the big Fox network. The interview was largely easy on Trump — it was no interview with Sean Hannity, but what is? — and he came out looking none the worse for wear.
Plus, he was able to show the world how magnanimous he is, how he never holds grudges and how he can make up with anyone. Win, win, win.
4. Rolling out a list of potential Supreme Court picks
There’s nothing that united the disparate elements of the Republican party base like talk of future Supreme Court nominees. That’s long been true but is even more so now in the wake of twin decisions over the last few years that legalized same-sex marriage and upheld the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act.
If you are looking to unite a fractious party, then, proposing a list of judges you would consider naming to fill the vacancy caused by the death of conservative hero Antonin Scalia this year is a very smart strategic play. Trump made no secret of his goal with the list: to put 11 names on it that would be totally unimpeachable in the eyes of conservative activists. Look at the kind of judges I would put on the Supreme Court, Trump is saying to doubting conservatives. And imagine the kind of judges Hillary Clinton would pick. See?
5. Making clear there are no boundaries in your planned attacks against Hillary
Trump’s willingness to suggest that Bill Clinton had raped Juanita Broaddrick in his Wednesday night interview with Hannity is only the latest signal he is sending to Republicans that he considers absolutely nothing off limits when it comes to drawing a contrast with Hillary Clinton in the fall campaign.
That’s a stone-cold winner for his efforts to unify the GOP. Why? Because large swaths of the Republican base have spent the last almost-20 years frustrated that their party leaders weren’t willing (or willing enough) to directly confront the Clintons about their moral character (or lack thereof). That Trump won’t apologize for calling Hillary Clinton an “enabler” of her husband is exactly the sort of rhetoric that conservatives have been waiting the last two decades for.
It is literally impossible to be “too nasty” to Hillary Clinton (and Bill Clinton) in the eyes of the Republican base. The more Trump amps up his rhetoric toward the former first couple, the more loyalty (and unity) he engenders from a party base badly in need of a rallying force.