Donald Trump has all but won the Republican nomination to be president of the United States. His fans have long said that he’s the candidate to beat Hillary Clinton and will do so easily. They believe, as Newt Gingrich recently said, that Trump “puts all 50 states in play.” New York candidate for U.S. Senate Wendy Long, who lost her previous campaign for the seat by more than 40 points, says that Trump won’t just get her elected, but “will lift the entire GOP ticket.” Rush Limbaugh says his “gut” is that Trump will beat Hillary in a “landslide.”
People who are less enthusiastic about Trump look at the data and predict an absolute bloodbath. They say that Republicans need to keep the married female votes they have and gain a much larger chunk of single female voters if they want to have a chance at winning the presidency. The analysts say Republicans also need to make gains with Hispanics and other minority groups. A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows that 47 percent of female Republican primary voters said they would not vote for Trump and 70 percent (not a typo — 70 percent) of women voters in general have a negative view of him. Other recent polls show similar results. A nationwide Latino Decisions poll of registered Hispanic voters found 87 percent had an unfavorable view of Trump. A Washington Post/Univision poll had 8 out of 10 Latinos viewing Trump negatively.
And polls show that while Trump could put formerly predictable states in play during the general election, it’s not that blue states might go red, but that red and purple states might go blue such as Mississippi, North Carolina, Virginia. Trump trails Hillary by double digits in many polls. And consistently has. One poll shows that Trump could win 100 percent of all Republicans and still lose.
And those are just polls. Trump not only doesn’t have the kind of multi-layered Get Out The Vote operation that Democrats excel at in presidential cycles, he disdains the notion he needs to work on grassroots organizing — if his behavior toward states that require grassroots organization for delegate allocation are any indication. Tim Carney has even more reasons why Trump “would be the worst Republican nominee since Alf Landon 80 years ago.”
Maybe the fevered dreams of Trump fans are correct, and President Donald J. Trump will easily secure a landslide victory, sweeping into power Republicans throughout the land and govern in the most beautiful way imaginable. You won’t believe it. It will be amazing. And maybe the analysts and skeptics are right that a Trump candidacy will be an extinction event for the GOP.
I doubt either are correct. Here are five reasons why Trump might do better in the general than his skeptics believe.
(1) His Views
Trump took longer to secure the Republican nomination than past nominees because his views are so outside the Republican norm. On border security and immigration, he was much closer to conservatives than other candidates. On other issues, he was dramatically out of step. He’s not an economic conservative but, rather, decries free trade. He’s not a social conservative, studiously avoiding any meaningful discussion of religious liberty, abortion, sexual distinction, and other hot button topics. And when he does talk about them, he’s either uttering a tangled word salad or in lockstep with progressives. And on foreign policy, he’s difficult to pin down. Sometimes he’s for bombing the families of terrorists and other times he’s criticizing any invasions where terrorists are killed.
But now that he’s vanquished his GOP primary opponents, these views are much more palatable to a general audience. He doesn’t need to pivot to the general because he’s already there. General election voters are much more receptive to protectionism than GOP voters. They’re more likely to support federal regulations increasing the minimum wage at which teens and other entry-level workers are paid. His position on abortion has changed wildly from supportive of partial birth abortion to punishing women who have abortions back to opposing any changes to abortion law at all. The average American also holds conflicting or complex positions on abortion — both opposing the violent taking of human life in the womb while also wanting to keep abortion legal in the first trimester.
As for foreign policy, what comes off as contradictory to policy wonks also probably matches what a lot of Americans think about going to war. They don’t want to do it nearly as often as D.C. types do, but when they go, they’d rather we go all in, utterly vanquishing enemies.
People either like Trump’s personality or they don’t, but when it comes to policy views, the big opposition was always going to be in the Republican Party more than the general electorate. And besides, how many voters actually care about policy in any case?
(2) Hillary Is an Awful Candidate
Pundits got somewhat excited by two ads the Clinton campaign put out yesterday. But if her goal is to win votes from the people not already supporting Trump, they were weird.
One managed to make the point that while Trump may have won the nomination for president, other Republicans are likeable and able to stand up against his populist demagoguery courageously. It basically seemed like an advertisement for “downticket Republicans”:
The other made Donald Trump seem like a candidate with significant and fresh ideas:
How in the world do you mess up ads featuring clips of Trump and those who oppose him?
Her political campaign instincts are bad, as her loss to Barack Obama in 2008 demonstrated. She sounds stilted and uncomfortable at best, angry at worst. Her policy ideas are both conventional and predictable. What success she’s had has been, as in this year, thanks to the electoral gods who put her up against weak opponents.
Her leadership instincts are also problematic, unless you think her push to destabilize Libya is a crowning achievement. And the woman who left the White House “dead broke” is now one of the country’s wealthiest women — all because of the way the Clintons have traded access and proximity to governing officials for cash money. This in a year where populists are out for blood.
Yes, Trump has problems, but the campaign gods looked kindly upon him by giving Hillary Rodham Clinton as his opponent. Or as political journalist Matt Taibbi wrote:
And let’s not forget the scandal in which Hillary Clinton set up a secret server to hide her emails from oversight. Just in the last day alone we’ve had news of a Romanian hacker talking about the ease with which he claimed to gain access to those emails. And a judge announced that Clinton might be deposed in the case.
(3) Media Love Him
This one has been huge and will continue to be huge. Conservatives expect the media to turn on Trump now that he’s more or less secured the Republican nomination. That’s certainly how they’ve behaved in past elections. And just this morning, E.J. Dionne has a piece expressing concern that the media might be normalizing Trump. His column concludes:
Leon Wieseltier, suggested a slogan that embodies the appropriate response to Trump’s ascent: “Preserve the Shock.”
“The only proper response to his success is shame, anger and resistance,” Wieseltier said. “We must not accustom ourselves to this. . . . Trump is not a ‘new normal.’ No amount of economic injustice, no grievance, justifies the resort to his ugliness.”
Staying shocked for six months is hard. It is also absolutely necessary.
As I wrote in response, “A bit of roulette on part of media. Normalize him enough to kill GOP but hope to pull back before he wins general.”
But Trump’s success with the media — indeed, his complete control over the media — is thanks to his accessibility and the return on the investment. He makes it easy for the media to cover him. Why cover boring policy discussions when Trump just called someone a fat bimbo? Why spend too much time covering the fat bimbo remarks when he called someone a liar? Why push back on the liar remarks when a fight just broke out at a Trump rally? Why not just cover Trump rallies live, on air, from hours before Hair Force One touches down to the hour after the speech wraps up? It’s easy to cover a candidate like Trump — he has provided nearly non-stop and highly entertaining political content for close to a year now. And people eat it up. Viewers love it. Increased ratings mean increased advertising revenue. Former anchor Campbell Brown wrote an excellent piece in Politico on the phenomenon:
I really would like to blame Trump. But everything he is doing is with TV news’ full acquiescence. Trump doesn’t force the networks to show his rallies live rather than do real reporting. Nor does he force anyone to accept his phone calls rather than demand that he do a face-to-face interview that would be a greater risk for him. TV news has largely given Trump editorial control. It is driven by a hunger for ratings—and the people who run the networks and the news channels are only too happy to make that Faustian bargain. Which is why you’ll see endless variations of this banner, one I saw all three cable networks put up in a single day: “Breaking news: Trump speaks for first time since Wisconsin loss.” In all these scenes, the TV reporter just stands there, off camera, essentially useless. The order doesn’t need to be stated. It’s understood in the newsroom: Air the Trump rallies live and uninterrupted. He may say something crazy; he often does, and it’s always great television.
Now maybe journalists’ congenital, liberal bias means that things will change. It could. (But really, do you think these two will change their approach?) And man are those Trump ratings like cocaine. And just like cocaine, journalists will continue to deny they’re using it or will claim they have it under control while getting ever more addicted. Consider how NBC dramatically ended their relationship with Trump last year over remarks he’d made on immigration only to have him host Saturday Night Live a few months later. And last night NBC’s Lester Holt anchored from Trump Tower itself, featuring an interview with Trump. He’s hard to quit.
Here, too, Hillary Clinton is a serious contrast. New York Times reporter Nick Confessore wrote, “I think it is unlikely that Trump dominates free media in a two-way general election against Hillary Clinton as he did in the primary.” But, he added, a lot of that hinges on whether Clinton begins making herself available in the manner Trump has. “Fortress Hillary would cede a lot of airtime to Trump.”
New York Daily News editorial writer Robert George wrote that there is a big difference between Trump and the typical politician, saying, “Former sees media as tool to exploit, latter a nuisance to tolerate.”
(4) Establishment Loves Him
Sometimes you hear people suggest that Trump is running against the establishment. That would be news to both Trump and the GOP establishment, who enjoy a cozy relationship and have for a long time.
Ross Douthat wrote about the various things we’ve learned from Trump’s successful nomination battle, including:
Trump proved that many of the party’s moderates and establishmentarians hate the thought of a True Conservative nominee even more than they fear handing the nomination to a proto-fascist grotesque with zero political experience and poor impulse control. That goes for the prominent politicians who refused to endorse Cruz, the prominent donors who sat on their hands once the field narrowed and all the moderate-Republican voters in blue states who turned out to be #NeverCruz first and #NeverTrump less so or even not at all.
Tell us what you really think, Douthat! But seriously, the entrenched establishment types never really considered Ted Cruz, a candidate who — whatever else you might think of him — really would have posed a risk to the established order. Former Speaker of the House John Boehner just last week said he thought Cruz was “Lucifer in the flesh” and that he was texting buddies with Trump.
Veteran GOP operative Ed Rollins is running a Trump SuperPAC. John Feehery and other K Street Lobbyists have been on board for a while. FOX News and even the Wall Street Journal are supportive of Trump. Former presidential candidates who had warned about the danger of Trump — far more than what you might find in a typical tough campaign — quickly announced they’d support Trump. Some, such as Chris Christie, have become surrogates. But even Bobby Jindal and others have said they support him: Nikki Haley and Mitch McConnell.
Professional conservatives such as Grover Norquist are also getting on board, if they weren’t already embarrassingly so.
Some non-Trump supporters on the right are rationalizing how they could vote for the man. And even many average Republican voters who truly don’t like Trump can still find some small sliver of a thing they like about him more than Clinton.
The Trump nomination may result in principled conservatives leaving the party or laying very low, but if this election has shown anything, it’s that principled conservatives aren’t in nearly as abundant supply as they might wish.
(5) Past Isn’t Necessarily Prologue
Finally, while it’s absolutely true that candidates with as many negatives as Trump have not had success in presidential campaigns, it’s also true that Trump is unlike any political candidate around. He has figured out how to avoid scrutiny for his ever-changing policy positions. His manner of speech is interesting but also vague, making it difficult to pin him down on anything he says. And the over-reaction by many in the media and punditry class have inoculated him from criticism.
Many pundits began the cycle by announcing Trump was beyond the pale or unacceptable. He’s managed to survive and thrive in a media environment that has torn other candidates to shreds. He’s been agile while staying true to his big-picture communication style that conveys, however unsubstantiated, that Trump is powerful and strong and interested in American strength and power. Many voters like this simplistic message. He has a mixture of support from entrenched establishmentarians and celebrities as well as enthusiastic, white working class voters.
The barriers are serious, but when it comes to past races, there aren’t good comparisons. Now that the race is down to two candidates, we’ll see whether he wins in the landslide his supporters promised for the last year, whether he crashes and burns in a conflagration the type we’ve not seen in 100 years, or something a bit more in the middle.