The GOP nominee was hemorrhaging Republican support. The Republican National Committee had reportedly left him, redirecting funds to down-ballot races. Dozens of party lawmakers and congressional candidates were un-endorsing him or urging him to resign from the ticket. His own running mate, the excruciatingly loyal Mike Pence, said he could not defend Trump’s lewd descriptions of sexually assaulting women, comments that were revealed by audiotape 24 hours earlier.
As night began to fall on a day that rocked the presidential campaign, Trump found himself the consummate outsider, all but abandoned by the party that nominated him. He sought the comfort of a group of flag-waving supporters gathered on the sidewalk outside his midtown property.
“The media and establishment want me out of the race so badly – I WILL NEVER DROP OUT OF THE RACE, WILL NEVER LET MY SUPPORTERS DOWN!” he said on Twitter.
The GOP nominee’s fate, and that of his party, could now rest with the presidential town-hall debate in St. Louis Sunday night. But Trump is signaling he won’t be humbled. In a video produced by his campaign, he apologized for his remarks and insisted that the campaign and the movement he inspired have changed him. But Trump then quickly sought to shift attention to Hillary Clinton and her husband’s record of sexual transgressions. On Saturday night, he retweeted Juanita Broaddrick, who accused Bill Clinton of rape in 1999—and who stood by Trump this weekend.
Republicans have been urging their standard-bearer against going that route, and are anxious about the possibility of other revelations about Trump’s own indiscretions. This may not be an idle fear: One former producer of “The Apprentice” hinted on Twitter that this was just the beginning of the Trump Tapes.
“What you’ve got to worry about is what else is out there,” says Ed Rollins, a veteran Republican strategist who heads a pro-Trump super PAC.
GOP leaders aren’t waiting to find out. RNC Chairman Reince Priebus is directing state parties to move their attention away from the top of the ticket and focus on congressional and local campaigns, according to published reports. Priebus canceled his scheduled Sunday network news show appearances. So did Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, who had been tasked with improving the nominee’s dismal standing among women. Both will be replaced on television this weekend by former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who has openly encouraged Trump’s instincts to make Bill Clinton’s past a campaign issue. “This is basically the insiders versus the outsiders,” Giuliani told CNN as he was leaving Trump Tower Saturday night.
The move by the RNC to concentrate its campaign resources on down-ticket GOP candidates would, in a traditional year, signal that the presidential race is all but over, especially since the Trump campaign is more dependent than that of any national candidate in modern memory on his party’s infrastructure and ground operation. The GOP moved resources down ballot in 1996, when it became clear that then-nominee Bob Dole was headed for defeat, but it did so with the candidate’s blessing.
Trump’s dismissal of campaign orthodoxy and his strained relationship with his own party have come back to haunt him in his time of need. As lawmakers and down-ballot candidates fled Trump on Saturday, the candidate made no apparent effort to stop the bleeding.
“In this case you don’t have the seasoned infrastructure you would” in a typical presidential campaign,” said Trump senior adviser and former Georgia Rep. Jack Kingston. “He’s not running that type of campaign – he’s a media sensation – he’s actually done very well without the traditional campaign structure. But this a case where I wish we had one.”
Kingston and others insist Trump might be able to salvage his hopes with a positive debate performance Sunday night.
“There’s really only one path that [Trump] is going to be able to get out of this: He has to hit an absolute home run at the debate and he has to come out with a better, more sincere apology,” said one senior GOP source in a battleground state. “That apology was flippant, dismissive and deflective.”
But the order is tall for a candidate who dismisses debate preparation and remains recalcitrant in the face of growing opposition. “He’s got a bullet in his stomach and bleeding bad,” said Rollins. “He’s got to perform intestinal surgery on himself.”
The prospect of changing course Sunday wasn’t enough for the wave of Republicans withdrawing their support for Trump. Senate candidates in key battlegrounds like Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire and Joe Heck in Nevada have called on Trump to step down. Carly Fiorina, who is believed to be vying to replace Priebus as RNC chief, called for Mike Pence to take Trump’s place.
“Donald Trump does not represent me or my party,” she wrote on Facebook. “We must have a conservative in the White House to restore accountability, opportunity and security. For the sake of our Constitution and the rule of law, we must defeat Hillary Clinton. Today I ask Donald Trump to step aside and for the RNC to replace him with Gov. Mike Pence.”
Fiorina was joined by several others, including South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the third-ranking GOP official in the upper chamber.
“Enough!” wrote former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in a Facebook post. Arizona Sen. John McCain also said he would not vote for Trump, over a year after the now-GOP nominee criticized his military record.
Such mass defections are unprecedented in modern presidential elections, and more could follow Trump’s debate performance Sunday.
Even as some Republicans called for Trump to step down from the race, however, replacing him against his will with only 30 days left in the campaign—and after early voting has already commenced—is little more than fantasy. Jim Bopp, special counsel to the RNC rules committee, told RCP that “it is impossible, and it would be politically suicidal” to replace Trump on the ticket at this stage.
Were Trump to withdraw from the race on his own volition, RNC members would meet to pick his successor — but even that process, including the logistical lift of convening the meeting itself, would take a week or two, Bopp estimated. Meanwhile, ballots would have already been finalized, with some states already accepting absentee ballots or early votes. Were Trump to be replaced at the top of the ticket, not all states would count ballots already cast for Trump as votes for his replacement.
“Unquestionably, it’s a suicide mission,” Bopp said.
Republicans calling on Trump to step down have made a political calculation: They will not support him, and wish to condemn his remarks in the strongest terms — but they do not intend to back Hillary Clinton, either. Calling for a new Republican ticket is an appealing third path, if not one entirely anchored in reality.
In practice, Bopp said, “to urge creation of a vacancy is to urge party suicide.”
“This is a gut-check issue,” said GOP strategist Ryan Williams. “It is an extraordinary thing to see so many Republicans openly denounce their nominee.”
During a town-hall event in the Granite State on Thursday, Trump took credit for vulnerable congressional candidates staying afloat. But he was already running behind them in key battlegrounds. “This is a massive distraction that will make it more difficult for Republican candidates down-ballot to get their message out,” Williams says.
The decision by many vulnerable incumbents to disconnect themselves from the nominee signals how poisonous they see Trump to their prospects. Several candidates have been walking a fine line with Trump, cautious about alienating necessary Trump voters.
The business mogul’s backers seem likely to remain as defiant at their nominee. Supporters gathered outside Trump Tower blamed the media for the fallout of the audiotape story, and dismissed Republicans abandoning the nominee. “He apologized. I know he’s sorry for it. He’s not polished. He’s not a slick politician,” said Yvonne Puzil of New Jersey, standing with a group of women. “Every single one of those dirtbags in the government, can we research what they said 11 years ago? This has made me even madder at government.”
“That was bad for Trump, but everybody makes mistakes,” said Giovanni Paliota of Queens. “I hope he learned a lesson and is going to do a better job. We need someone that’s not a politician.”
One person who will be watching Sunday’s debate closely is Pence. “We pray for his family and look forward to the opportunity he has to show what is in his heart when he goes before the nation,” he said in a statement.
“I think Mike Pence is more valuable than ever now, and it’s a good thing that the nation had that opportunity to see [him] at his finest in the debate and get to know him a little bit more,” said Kingston. “I think you’ll be seeing more and more of him.”