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After a Victorious Trump, Many Wonder, ‘What Do We Do Now?’

Screen Shot 2016-05-05 at 5.11.18 PMMAGGIE HABERMAN

Thursday, May 5, 2016

 

Good Thursday morning. 

In the 1972 film The Candidate, a first-time contender played by Robert Redford is drafted by Democrats who can’t find a veteran politician to run against a popular Republican senator in California. So Mr. Redford’s character runs a lark of a race, liberated to say exactly what he wants because he assumes he can’t win. 

But, improbably, he does win, abetted by a sometimes-credulous political press corps. In the movie’s closing scene, a blanched Mr. Redford asks an adviser, What do we do now?

In the 24 hours after Donald J. Trump abruptly became the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, the candidate himself did not ask that question publicly. The rest of the party, on the other hand, asked it all day.

Mr. Redford’s character did not get an answer before the credits rolled. And the Republican Party is also waiting for one, as donors, activists and elected officials try to make sense of a world in which their nominee has no political experience, has historically high negative ratings, has offended sections of the electorate and has contradicted central planks of the party’s platform. 

Mr. Trump’s rise has exposed the degree to which the Republican Party was already facing difficulty winning national elections with its mostly white, older, aging voters in a country that has experienced large demographic shifts. 

And yet.

Mr. Trump has also exposed the degree to which the party’s leaders, elected officials and donor class were out of sync with its base. The party’s standard-bearer was the only one to home in on all three issues that Republican primary voters cared most about: trade, immigration and an evolution away from the foreign policy of George W. Bush. And he did it without a pollster. 

But primaries are not general elections, and Mr. Trump now faces voters with fixed negative opinions and the least incentive to be drawn to him. If the Democratic Party’s bet that demography is destiny holds, then Mr. Trump’s fate could be sealed against Hillary Clinton, particularly as his party devours itself and threatens to splinter. But for now, at a moment of voter anger and instability, objects in Mrs. Clinton’s rearview mirror may be closer than they appear.