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Trump seems to be channeling Nixon as the nation reels in violence

Richard Nixon speaking during his presidential campaign, 1968.
Declan Haun | Chicago History Museum | Getty Images
Richard Nixon speaking during his presidential campaign, 1968.

Mass shootings. Violence. Protests. Racial strife. Vicious intra-party political fighting. All amid a presidential election.

The year is 2016 but it could just as well be 1968. And what happened in that presidential election should serve as a valuable guide to this year's candidates, especially Donald Trump.

The narrow winner in 1968 was Richard Nixon, who threaded a difficult needle in a three-way race against Democrat Vice President Hubert Humphrey and segregationist breakaway Democrat Governor George Wallace. It should go without saying that Nixon didn't win over voters with his charm; he was never personally popular. He didn't really offer any solid policy proposals that resonated with the public either. Instead, Nixon won by playing an extremely cautious hand in the midst of a nation seemingly in chaos. He emphasized a return to law and order, but he also promised to "bring us together." And for the war in Vietnam, he was even more cautious, only saying that he had a "secret plan" to end it. He appeared like he was a man in control of his emotions as opposed to the firebrand Wallace and overwhelmed-looking Humphrey. The result was that just four years after the worst popular vote defeat of the 20th century — the Republicans were back in the White House.

That kind of cautious and even quiet campaigning is definitely the polar opposite of what we've seen from Donald Trump during most of the campaign so far. He's been loud, politically incorrect, and the opposite of cautious in the management of his extremely popular social media accounts. His rallies have been marred by violence committed both by his supporters and by anti-Trump protesters who have targeted his supporters at those locales. But with four months to go before Election Day and the Republican National Convention still a week away, Trump still has a chance to effectively change his demeanor — and the tenor of his campaign.

Trump's longer statement about the Dallas shootings early Friday morning was probably the most restrained and presidential comments from him or his entire campaign since he began running last year. He called for restoring law and order, but he also urged the country to repair its divisions. He even included mournful comments about the police shootings of civilians earlier last week in Louisiana and Minnesota. This was not the same guy who jumped on Twitter barely an hour after the San Bernardino shootings and blamed the incident on terrorism. This was not the same guy who quickly blamed President Obama and Hillary Clinton for their immigration and terror policy failures quickly after the Orlando massacre. Instead, that post-Dallas statement was vintage 1968 Nixon, almost to the letter.

And at the same time, Hillary Clinton seems to be forced to follow Humphrey's 1968 losing lead. Since the Dallas shootings, Clinton has done as Humphrey did and directed her attention to catching up to a Democratic Party base that's moved to the left of her. In the last few days, her comments about how "white people need to listen better" and her capitulation to a groundbreaking anti-death penalty plank in the party platform will be popular among the most liberal voters and minorities. But they aren't likely to help her appear like a unifying leader who can attract moderates and even some conservative voters who don't like Trump and could be convinced to back her. Trump seems positively unifying compared to that.

The big question is can Trump keep it up? Based on all the data we have from the past 13 months, no sane person could confidently make that bet. The only real argument is whether it would make any difference if he did. You can answer that question with a "yes" with a little more confidence based on the fact that a decent chunk of the voters are still undecided about Trump even after all the bombast we've heard so far. It's clearly not too late for them to make a new judgment about Trump or Hillary Clinton for that matter. This is hard for most voters who made up their minds long ago to fathom, but it's true all the same.

Trump's sometimes outrageous comments and messages were a key facet of establishing his image as a man not under the control of the usual political handlers and big donors. That won him the GOP presidential nomination despite very steep odds. But to win over moderate and undecided voters who just don't respond as well to bluster, Trump needs to strike a different tone or at least appear much less out of control. He did that in his response to the Dallas atrocity. Now, let's just see if he can keep it up.

Commentary by Jake Novak, supervising producer of "Power Lunch." Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.