Something is different about Donald Trump. You'd have expected him to be on fire at Wednesday night's Republican debate, given criticism that his performance in last month's showdown had been lackluster. But he didn’t land that many zingers. He didn’t rant about Iowans who’ve started supporting Ben Carson, either, though in his first answer ("I never forgive"), he indicated hell hath no fury like a Trump scorned.
But is it possible that Trump is kind of over us? That he has become bored?
Last night, Trump complained a lot ("it’s not a very nicely asked question the way you say that"). He cheered up a little when he got in a good dig at John Kasich, and then winked. But the tipoff that something wasn't right came with his awkward answer when asked whether he often carried a gun: "I would say that I would and I have a permit, which is very unusual in New York—a permit to carry. And I do carry on occasion, sometimes a lot. But I like to be unpredictable so that people don’t know exactly." There wasn't much art to it. No sparkle, no surprise. Am I into manly man guns? I dunno, I guess.
In the post-game interview on CNBC, Trump was subdued. He complained that Hillary Clinton had gotten softballs in the Democratic debate, but he didn't seem all that outraged about it. He was asked whether he needed to go more mainstream to appeal to the broader Republican electorate. "I want to be myself," he said. "I want to be honest with myself that’s what got me here. ... I have the No. 1 position and I want to keep it that way. But perhaps I’ll tone it down a little bit." Asked if he had intentionally toned it down since the last debate, Trump shrugged, "Not trying to."
Why is the thrill gone? The most obvious answer is that the campaign is not as exciting for Trump when there's not a steady daily increase in the number of people who love him. When most politicians are down in the polls, they say they don’t care about polls. No, actually, most politicians get their staffers to tell the press that. But not Trump. The man was genuinely wounded by his drop to second place in Iowa behind Ben Carson. "Iowa, will you get your numbers up, please?" Trump said on Tuesday night. "Will you get these numbers up? I promise you: I will do such a good job." He tried to play it like a joke, but he couldn't hide that he meant it.
For a minute, earlier this fall, it seemed Trump was talking about his high poll numbers so much because it was an easy way to taunt his opponents. (September debate: “First of all, Rand Paul shouldn't even be on this stage.”) But now it seems clear that Trump sees the polls as a real-time measure of his inner worth. It was fun as they kept climbing, but a real downer once they started to fall.
Trump spent much of Tuesday tweeting about this. CNBC was using “fictitious poll numbers,” he tweeted. “I'm sure the media will not report the highly respected new national poll that just came out via The Economist. 32%!” After the debate, he repeatedly tweeted out online polls showing he won. "Thanks everyone, they all said I won the debate. Even won the @CNBC Poll!" But it wasn't quite the energy level we're accustomed to.
Many pundits predicted voters would get bored with Trump. But maybe it's Trump who got bored first.