After my last two columns — one outlining Donald Trump’s perfect match-up against Hillary Clinton, the other lamenting Clinton’s inability to match Trump’s primary escape velocity (and both under 500 words, improbably!) — more than a few readers have asked me, or should I say begged me, to tell them that Trump isn’t actually going to win the general election. One colleague even thought I was backing Trump as my horse over Clinton!
So let me be clear about a couple things.
First, neither of these candidates are getting my vote this November.
Second, while I generally did my best to stay unbiased toward all but two of the 23 candidates for president (this guy and this guy), one of them unfortunately got his party’s nomination. Thus, while I never exactly promoted anyone for president (with the possible exception of this guy), the fact that I argued against one of the eventual nominees betrays my poker face. I cannot claim to be an unbiased writer for this general election, but I do promise to try. But fair is fair: know that I really, really want to see Donald Trump lose, more than I’ve ever wanted to see a candidate lose, and the bigger the blowout the more gratifying it would be. And it has nothing to do with Hillary Clinton.
Finally, my prediction, 185 days before the election, is that Clinton wins. (Of course, considering I picked Marco Rubio to be the Republican nominee as late as February 1, a grain of salt would be far too much sodium with which to take that prediction.) My last two posts merely tried to push back against the popular notion that Trump and his record unfavorable numbers are going to be dominated in November. I reminded the reader that he had high unfavorables within the Republican Party before turning them around; he clearly has the ability to win people over. Further, we can’t forget that right behind Trump’s record-setting unfavorability pace is Clinton herself, who has not shown Trump’s ability to improve on those numbers with anyone.
Yet, while both candidates face their challenges, it’s still, unfortunately, a zero-sum game in American politics, so someone must be at the advantage, and I do think that someone is Hillary Clinton. In general, I see Trump as having five Herculean tasks ahead of him if he wants to win the Electoral College this fall.
1. Uniting his own party. A lot of Republicans have quickly started surfing the Trump wave, but there is still an undertow, including from conservative columnists and, most recently, Paul Ryan. I happen to think this is the easiest of his five tasks, since Hillary Clinton is such a loathed and probably unifying antagonist among right wing politicians, media, and voters. We’ve already seen high profile Republicans starting to come around, including Reince Prieubus, Rick Perry, and Mike Pence, who just last week endorsed Ted Cruz.
The key to earning their support will be Trump’s poll numbers. If he looks competitive, Republicans will rally to his banner. If he’s ten points back in the fall, many House and Senate members will stay away for fear of their own re-elections. However, I think his numbers will climb, especially with Hillary Clinton not yet uniting Democrats.
2. He’s not in Kansas anymore. Winning over Republicans as a Republican is a heck of a lot easier than winning other people as a member of either party. Despite all Trump’s talk of a huge field of 17 people making it hard for him to earn a majority support, I think that massive field was one of his biggest advantages. When most of his 16 opponents were splitting the establishment vote, his 25 percent looked head and shoulders above the field. When candidates dropped out, their supporters naturally, if slowly, gravitated toward backing the leader, an association which is common in primaries. There was never a clear anti-Trump candidate around which voters could rally until that anti-Trump candidate was Ted Cruz, who, for establishment leaders and voters, was the least inspiring anti-Trump candidate possible.
In this election, however, we’ll only have two major candidates. It will be terra incognita for Trump because he spent very little of the primary cycle from behind. Supporters of his opponent will be more intransigent than Republicans were, and there are no candidates dropping out that will allow him to add to his numbers. Furthermore, it’s unlikely he’ll be able to talk about strong polling numbers at every speech, since he’s trailed in 21 of the last 23 polls against Hillary Clinton, the exceptions being a 2-point lead and a tie, with more than half of the 21 by double digits. If he’s a front-runner (shout out to the Kentucky Derby), running from behind is a problem.
3. Studying policy. For all of Trump’s political genius, he has shown to be a lackadaisical student of policy. He seems almost genetically disposed to preferring ignorance over curiosity. He can rally a crowd like no other, and he knows how to dominate a media cycle, but in almost all cases he can’t answer a policy question beyond his original, skin-deep response. He’ll run around in circles, avoid a direct answer, and often just rearrange the word order of his original response, like a student who hadn’t done the reading before a Socratic seminar. That started to catch up to him in the last couple debates, which he then steadfastly refused to do again, ostensibly because they weren’t necessary after so many. I had the feeling that he knew he could no longer do his parlor tricks when it came down to just three candidates, each needing to speak longer and on a wider variety of issues.
So when it’s just him and Hillary Clinton up there, can he fillibuster for two hours? I’m not so sure. Those general election debates do matter, as we remember with Obama-Romney I. If he’s outclassed by a much more informed Democratic opponent (and I do hope even Republicans recognize that, despite the many legitimate criticisms of her record, judgement, and ideology, she is more well-versed on all issues foreign and domestic), I wonder if independents will decide to make the safer pick.
4. Broadening his base. Can the white, male electorate outvote women and minorities? In this America, and in this electoral system, I don’t think so. Sure, he can improve his numbers with those groups, but that’s easier said than done. This climb is closely connected to . . .
5. Electoral math: a topic I’ll write more about next. See you then.