Donald Trump has a problem, make that two problems … in many eyes he’s now either a tax-dodger or a poor businessman. True or not, it’s what voters will see.
In political campaigns, perception is more important than truth, and with just five weeks until Election Day, Donald Trump has a huge perception problem. The revelation of a $916 million loss on his 1995 federal tax return, reported by the New York Times, may be the biggest challenge Trump’s campaign has faced yet.
His supporters, from big-name surrogates, to his legion of social media followers, have taken to their respective mediums to defend him by claiming there was nothing illegal about what he did, and even pushing a narrative that he’s a genius for his using the tax laws to his advantage.
Trump’s problem is that this argument is a tough, if not impossible, sell for most voters. Worse than that, undecided and unmotivated voters may be turned off by any defense, and will simply focus on the loss as proof that he’s not the genius “businessman” he’s claimed to be. The only question will be whether or not they’ll be disgusted enough to vote for Hillary as a means of voting against him.
Rudy Giuliani, in response to questioning from George Stephanopoulos, said:
“Absolute genius. I mean, the man in ‘The Art of the Deal’ this is described. First of all, we’re talking about 26 years ago, perfectly legal. We should get that straight immediately. This is a perfectly legal application of the tax code. And he would’ve been fool not to take advantage of it. Not only that, he would’ve probably breached his fiduciary duty to his investors, to his business. You have an obligation when you run a business to maximize the profits. And if there is a tax law that says I can deduct this, you deduct it. If you fail to deduct it, people can sue you. Your investors can sue you.”
Social media followers of Trump have honed in on the “not illegal” and “genius” arguments, and no doubt that’s where they think the story should end.
Regrettably for The Donald’s supporters and surrogates though, the story has far more reach than they can contain with this defense strategy. As I mentioned at the outset, perception is more important than reality, and there’s just no getting past the fact that he had to be ‘outed’ by the New York Times in the first place. Even disengaged and uncommitted voters are unlikely to understand why someone would work so hard to hide his “genius,” especially someone as self-congratulatory as Donald Trump.
The perception most likely to stick is that Trump is either a man who used his vast wealth and political connections to avoid paying income taxes for almost two decades (while his would-be constituents paid theirs), or a businessman so inept he lost almost $1 billion in a single year. Whichever narrative the Clinton camp pushes on any given day – and they will push both – it’s a lose-lose for the Trump campaign.
Is he likely to lose the votes of his most ardent supporters over the revelations? Of course not, but the votes he already has are well short of what he needs to win.
Will all undecided or unmotivated voters flock to Clinton because of the New York Times story? Not a chance, but she doesn’t need all of them. She only needs a majority of undecided voters, and seeing Trump as a tax-dodger or a less accomplished businessman might end up being all it takes.
Perception does matter more than reality, and Donald Trump now has a real perception problem.