After a weekend of bad press, why the tax returns could still be Trump's kryptonite

Quite the last few days for Donald Trump.

The New York Times ran a long piece on the mogul's often grotesque treatment of women; Trump continued to deny that he used fake names to call reporters in the 1980s and 1990s to talk about himself even though he previously admitted to doing it; Trump continued to refuse to release his tax returns while claiming there is nothing to learn from them; and Trump continued to say he is completely "flexible" on promises he made to GOP voters in the primaries.

Oh and remember all of Trump's primary campaign railing against candidates who solicit big donations being in the pocket of special interests? Never mind.

Trump will now happily take millions from the likes of casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. The Wall Street Journal reports that this is probably because Trump lacks the liquid assets to cover the $700 million to $1 billion it will take to compete in the general election

The question, as ever with Trump, is will any of this hurt him?

Donald Trump
Jim Urquhart | Reuters
Donald Trump

So far at least, nothing really has. Trump survived questioning John McCain's war hero status, proposing a ban on Muslims entering the United States and basically shredding all previous notions of decorum on the campaign trail, hurling crude insults at anyone who criticized him. He likened Ben Carson to a child molester. He later won Carson's full endorsement.

But Trump is entering a different arena in which he will have to convince a much larger audience than the one he commanded in the primaries. Thus far, Trump has won close to 11 million votes. He will set a record for Republican support in a primary campaign. But to win the White House, Trump probably needs 50 million to 60 million votes. And he will need to appeal to women and minority voters to carry swing states like Florida, Ohio and Virginia.

Trump already has an enormous climb ahead of him to even limit his losses among these voters. He has a 70 percent negative rating among women and fares even worse with African-Americans and Latinos. Hillary Clinton has very high negatives as well but does far better than Trump with women and minorities.

And a poll over the weekend showed Clinton running close to even with Trump in Georgia, a state Democrats haven't carried since Bill Clinton did it in 1992.

If Clinton can peel off states like Georgia and North Carolina, Trump stands almost no chance. A generic Democratic presidential candidate begins the presidential race with 190 safe Electoral College votes out of the 270 needed to win and another 57 that lean heavily to the Democrats.

If Clinton simply holds these states she would need just 23 more electoral votes to win. And at the moment, there are 100 more electoral votes that lean Democratic, including Ohio and Florida. Clinton could even lose Ohio and Florida and still win if she cobbles together a few other smaller states such as Virginia and Colorado. You can play with the electoral map for yourself and you will quickly see how tough the road is for Trump.


So the main question now is which of the current Trump imbroglios will actually be damaging come the fall? Certainly more reports of ill treatment of women won't help. But the Times piece painted a fairly complex picture that included Trump promoting women to senior positions in his organization.

Trump flip-flopping on issues to more palatable general election positions also may not hurt him. And so far, his unshakeable supporters seem untroubled that he has junked his pledge to fund his own campaign. And voters are used to candidates raising money hand over fist.

The most troubling thing for Trump could be the tax returns. Every major party candidate since Gerald Ford has turned them over. And Democrats will hammer Trump for months for hiding something by not releasing returns. And refusing to release the documents suggests that Trump may indeed be hiding the fact that he is not as fabulously wealthy as he claims.

It's true that tax returns do not show overall net worth. But income over several years surely hints strongly at what a person's real financial picture is. And Trump's entire campaign is built around the idea that he is a massively successful business titan who can fix what's wrong with America in the same way he always wins in life.

Democrats can and will argue if Trump doesn't release the returns that his fundamental claim to the presidency is built on lies. At this point, the Trump campaign seems to have made the calculation that living with that line of attack is less risky than revealing the actual truth.

— Ben White is Politico's chief economic correspondent and a CNBC contributor. He also authors the daily tip sheet Politico Morning Money [politico.com/morningmoney]. Follow him on Twitter @morningmoneyben.