Why Donald Trump’s Endorsement Was a Win for Mitt Romney

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Gerald Herbert / AP

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, flanked by Donald Trump, and Romney's wife Ann, speaks at the Trump International Hotel in Las Vegas, Feb. 2, 2012, where Trump endorsed Romney.

A couple of hours after Donald Trump endorsed Mitt Romney for President, the Obama campaign sent out an “In case you missed it” tweet with a link, not to a new DNC attack ad mocking the endorsement, but to video published by the Associated Press documenting the event. The message was clear: Any way you sliced it, the Trump endorsement was bad news for Romney.

The reasons, prattled about on MSNBC and liberal blogs throughout Thursday were supposedly apparent. Romney was pausing to have his ring kissed by a man  even richer than him, whose signature line is “You’re fired,” and whose national favorability rating was upside down. It was the out-of-touch meeting the out-of-touch. The rich blessing the rich. It was a parody of itself.

(PHOTOS: The Rich History of Mitt Romney)

But the liberal spin missed a bigger dynamic.Romney is, after all, still engaged in a Republican primary contest, and by earning Trumps endorsement on Thursday, the frontrunner scored a hat trick. He took a potential critic with a huge megaphone off the field. He deprived his rivals of any national media attention. And he saw his strategy of staying above the political circus vindicated: In the end, it did not take any clowning around on the candidate’s part to win over the Republican party’s great jester.

The endorsement has been a long time in coming. As far back as December, the discussion in Trump circles has focused less on whether to endorse Romney than on when to do it. “Mr. Trump has been speaking with the governor for several months now on a regular basis,” Trump’s political adviser Michael Cohen told TIME on Thursday afternoon. “Mr. Trump has truly gotten to know the governor.”

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That courtship wasn’t undertaken by Romney’s campaign because they craved Trump’s input on policy. (The campaign has, for months, thinly hidden its disdain for the Fox News carnival of Trump, Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck that Roger Ailes has put together over the last couple of years.) It was because Trump has real appeal within the Republican party, and a huge megaphone. His endorsement is unlikely to win Romney many votes, but Trump could almost certainly deny Romney votes, either by running as an independent or joining forces with one of Romney’s rivals.

This speaks to the one thing that liberals and Democrats tend to misunderstand about Trump. He is, at root, a different sort of rich guy in the public sphere. He is a rich guy from Queens, not Manhattan, a populist to the core. He doesn’t turn off blue-collar voters, as Romney does each time he misspeaks about his concern for the poor or his affinity for firing people. Trump attracts blue-collar voters. During his endorsement Thursday, he made a point of citing Romney’s one major feint towards economic populism—his tough talk on China—as a key selling point. Afterward, as Trump made the cable news rounds, he explained further. “I represent millions of people who are tired of this country getting ripped off,” Trump told Fox News. That’s the Obama fair shake message, delivered by a guy Americans have proven can channel the frustration of millions of potential voters.

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Gingrich, meanwhile, was cut almost completely from the news cycle. The unfortunate bamboozling of several media organizations that initially reported that Trump would endorse Gingrich gave way to a tightly choreographed event favoring Romney. Rather than hog the limelight, as is his nature, Trump said a few words and then turned the microphone over to Romney, who filled the cable airwaves with his general election message against Obama.

This last bit was Romney’s masterstroke. It was only last year that Trump dominated Republican primary coverage, Sarah Palin’s bus trips to nowhere were breaking news, and Herman Cain ruled the Repulican polls. The circus dominated, and Romney stayed on the sidelines, uninterested in competing for attention, confident that his time would come. Trump’s endorsement, delivered soberly without pomp or soaring rhetoric, was a clear sign that Romney had been right all along. With time, he found a way to tame the circus.

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