As the primary season approaches its final stretch we now have a much clearer idea of what November’s general election match up is going to look like. Hillary Clinton will be the Democrat nominee. Bernie Sanders still might not have officially thrown in the towel but the improbable delegate math coupled with his own release of campaign staff recently suggests that he now accepts what has been reasonably certain ever since Clinton swept the South and built a healthy delegate lead – he won’t be the nominee. Last night’s small victory in Indiana doesn’t change that, given the proportional way in which delegates are awarded. The race has been substantive, value driven and (mostly) respectful, which is arguably the perfect warm up for Hillary going into the general – a close enough campaign to give her an electoral work out but without any real damage being inflicted.
This relatively docile contest stands in stark contrast to the other side of the aisle, then, where the horrific circus of the surreal led by one Donald Trump has taken in everything from vicious personal attacks on candidates’ family members to referencing penis size in televised debates. The GOP process has been long, painful and at times utterly, morbidly mesmerising but that, too looks like it is meandering towards a definitive outcome. Trump has to be the overwhelming favourite at this point and the biggest question that remains is whether or not he’ll make it to the magical marker of 1237 pledged delegates prior to the Republican convention in Cleveland two and a half months from now. If the strong showing he produced in the handful of North Eastern states recently and Indiana last night, where he outperformed his poll numbers, is a trend that follows him for the rest of the campaign, especially in California, he should hit that number. Even if he is just short, there’s every chance that he’ll still be able to gather a few extra unpledged delegates before the first round of voting to ensure the nomination. The only real question comes if he underperforms his polls from now on and whether, if he turned up at the convention with a plurality of delegates but a decent number short of a majority, the party would be willing to take the nomination away from him and hand it to Cruz or even Kasich who, after Cruz’s suspension, remains technically the only challenger. So while it’s not impossible that someone else might still get that nomination (it’s probably more possible than Bernie Sanders staging a comeback, for example), we should start to see Trump now as the presumptive nominee.
Which leads us to the general match up which is now likely to be Clinton versus Trump and I thought it would be worth spending some time analysing that potential contest. There is some polling data available on what that contest might look like with Clinton currently edging out Trump by about 6 percentage points. The problem is, though, that head to head polling this far out from a general election tends to be a pretty poor predictor of the actual event. This is the same reason no one paid much attention to the claims from the Sanders camp that their candidate actually stood a better chance against any GOP name than Clinton – the numbers just don’t mean anything this side of the conventions.
It would be easy to dismiss the Trump phenomenon as a gift to the Democratic party. Given his huge unfavourables and the votes he has presumably lost amongst key demographics following his series of offensive comments on Mexican migrants, Muslims and women, it is tempting to proclaim that his nomination is nothing more than the dying scream of a white, blue collar, male American voter that has seen their influence and wages decrease in recent decades* and is angry about it. It is even more tempting to act as though a Democratic victory against Trump will somehow be overwhelming and guaranteed. Some have referred to the “parade” they imagine the Democratic party are throwing at the thought of facing such a seemingly beatable opponent. Even a lot of mainstream Republicans are anticipating such a blowout with Tim Miller telling Politico’s Glenn Thrush recently that “Hillary could beat him from jail” – a reference to the still unresolved email server controversy hanging over Clinton’s campaign from her time as Secretary of State.
It’s easy to see why commentators are coming to such conclusions and I am certainly not saying that such an outcome is unlikely. In fact, if Trump fails to reconnect with some of the voters he’s lost in the primaries we could see a convincing victory. If Clinton is able to maintain the States that have voted Democrat in each of the last six general elections she would only need to find 28 more college votes to secure the Presidency. Florida carries 29 votes and is a state where Trump couldn’t even break the 50% mark in his own party’s primary (though admittedly Florida junior Senator Marco Rubio was still in the race at that point). But there is every chance that Democrats could use a Trump nomination to paint the electoral college map blue in a way we haven’t seen since 1964 (and more on that election later). There’s a good chance that a candidate who is still held in particularly poor esteem by a good percentage of his own party would bump into a very real ceiling of support and fail spectacularly on the national stage
However, that isn’t a foregone conclusion and November is still a long way from here. The single biggest catastrophe the Democrats could create between now and then would be to give any signal, even for a moment, that they believed the election to be already won. Quite aside from the fact that this might affect things like voter turnout amongst Clinton supporters in key states, there is a much more worrying issue – that no one is quite sure what a Trump campaign looks like or how it might succeed. The easy characterisation of a working class white male movement doesn’t quite hold up when we take a more detailed look at Trump’s support base. It’s time to take Trump seriously.
Trump is tapping into more than just sensationalism and prejudice to gather support, too. He is capitalising on a very real vein of disillusionment that runs through the entire American electorate and across party lines. There is evidence that a significant minority of Bernie Sanders supporters may switch allegiance to Donald Trump in the general, an initially perplexing move until you consider this swell of distaste for the political classes. (Also, they do share some political space on the issue of Free Trade – I wrote a piece explaining why they’re both wrong). Confidence in institutions is as low as in living memory and only the military seems to escape this mistrust. That Trump, a billionaire with decades of elite connections, has managed to paint himself as the outsider is somewhat ludicrous but the fact that the label is sticking is potentially dangerous. The first rule of any campaign is that the candidate who gets to define themselves and their opponent will probably win. The Clinton camp will need to work hard to undo the Trump narrative that allows him to gain from the lack of faith in modern politics.
They will also need an effective strategy to deal with Trump’s negative campaigning – his attempts to define her – which have already started with his repeated claims this week that Hillary is “playing the woman’s card”. Hillary already has her own unfavourables to deal with and although she is relatively well liked amongst Democrats (an overwhelming majority of Democrats reported that they would be satisfied with her as the nominee, even during the most heated moments of the contest with Sanders) she is intensely disliked amongst certain parts of the Republican party. There will be those for whom the only thing stopping them crossing the aisle to hurt Trump is the sight of Clinton on the other side. One must also consider the very real possibility that a politically timed revelation may emerge regarding the ongoing email server investigation.
Beyond that, the dog-whistle politics of this Trump campaign are likely to bring out voters that don’t ordinarily turn out. It is horrifically oversimplistic to attribute the rise of Trump to simply the appeal of xenophobia but it is equally ill advised to ignore the support he has managed to garner from some of the most extreme sections of American society. Put simply, KKK members don’t often vote but they might this time.
There’s also, at the most basic level, a long way to go between now and November. A lot can change. News can happen, people’s opinions can change. Between now and then there will be billions of dollars’ worth of campaign ads, televised debates and VP picks (Clinton will almost certainly go with Texan Julian Castro while Trump’s pick is still up in the air – rumours of an improbable Trump-Kasich ticket haven’t gone away despite Kasich and Ted Cruz’s ill fated “stop Trump” deal) – all of which present unknown variables for the Clinton campaign and all of which make the idea of a cakewalk election vital to guard against. Complacency could be the Democrats’ downfall.
It’s tempting to look to the past in situations like this to see where there are parallels to this race. Perhaps the most relevant, at first glance, would be the 1964 election where LBJ destroyed Barry Goldwater, the GOP candidate. Goldwater was a controversial outsider, disliked by the majority of the party mainstream. He fought a long primary campaign against a number of opponents and faced accusations of racism and incoherence in his foreign policy. It’s easy to find the similarities with Trump. As mentioned earlier, the outcome was the bluest electoral map of the 20th Century. LBJ took 44 States. Between now and November I expect many Democrats to wrap themselves in the warm blanket of this election and to convince themselves that a similar result is inevitable. This would be a terrible mistake for many reasons. Firstly it fails to take into account the influence that JFK’s assassination and the civil rights movement had on that election but also because I believe there is an even more poignant and telling election, in much more recent history, which can help us to frame the Trump phenomenon.
In 1992 Bill Clinton won the presidency of the United States with only 43% of the vote. Ross Perot, the 3rd party candidate who is so rarely discussed, took 19% nationally, though he was unable to turn that into a single electoral vote. I believe the 1992 election has as much to say about Trump in 2016 as 1964 does. Let’s put aside for a second the very real idea that Trump could run as an independent or third party candidate if he were to fall short of 1237 and the GOP did manage to deny him the nomination. Or even the recently touted idea that the Republican mainstream could run an anti-Trump third party candidate themselves. Perot’s appeal was much closer to the rhetoric and campaigning we’ve seen from Trump. A billionaire industrialist who used television to spread his message in ways that hadn’t been utilised before, he spoke of the need to get a businessman into the White House to sort out the mess that politicians couldn’t. He spoke of how he would find the necessary negotiations easy and how he would, as an outsider, be able to take action. In the televised debate that year he complained about the loss of American jobs to Mexican factories and lambasted free trade deals that he said weren’t in the interest of the American worker. To anyone following the Trump campaign messages there will be a familiarity to that line of argument. The most important detail of the Perot comparison though, is that he could have won. The 19% of the vote he took wasn’t at all reflective of the percentage he might have achieved had he run his campaign in any way professionally. Under accusations of paranoia and mental ill health Perot alienated the most vital members of his campaign team and even dropped out of the race altogether for two weeks in October, returning with a conspiracy theory about a Republican attack on his daughter that had forced his hand. It’s certainly not outside the realms of possibility that Trump could self-inflict similar setbacks but it’s certainly not something to be relied on. Perot showed that against the odds, a vision very similar to the one being offered by Trump now can resonate with the American electorate. And Trump will likely have an established party and one less opponent to contend with when he delivers it.
Of course, these historical parallels only have limited value; no election is directly comparable to another and, besides, we only have a relatively small sample size to select from. But should the Goldwater analogy begin to lull anyone into a false sense of security, the Perot alternative should be enough to put them on high alert. A Clinton-Trump contest, on the face of it, offers a good chance that the Democrats could win a third Presidential election in a row for the first time since Truman but it also offers a great deal of uncertainty and no guarantees. It is imperative that the Democratic campaign team, and supporter base more widely, takes the challenge of Donald Trump as seriously as it demands.
*Romney won the same percentage of white voters in 2012 as Reagan did in 1980. Reagan’s famous victory contrasts with Romney’s defeat to Obama and serves to highlight the shrinking influence of the white vote as the racial demographics of the country continue to shift.