Don't Be So Sure That Donald Trump Can't Win the Republican Nomination—or the Presidency

Progressives would be wise to avoid complacency when it comes to everyone's favorite orange-fleshed, bewigged menace.
Publish date:
February 26, 2016
politics, presidents, 2016 Election, Donald Trump

Though the GOP is doing everything in its power to prevent it, it looks like Trump has a lock on the Republican nomination, having taken the critical states of New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada. That means there's a good chance that your ballot in November is going to feature a Trump versus Clinton or Sanders showdown, with the possibility of an independent conservative candidate. If it boils down to Democrats versus Republicans (a third-party candidate would likely tip the election to the Democrats), a Trump win actually isn't completely implausible.

Not a sure thing — my nightmares of having to write about President Trump for the next four (or, shudder, eight) years aren't guaranteed to come to life — but not outside the realm of possibility, and it's something we should be taking seriously. Progressives have been dismissing Trump throughout his bizarre juggernaut of a campaign and it could come back to bite them. If there's one man you don't want appointing a Supreme Court justice, let alone running the country, it's Donald Trump, and he'd definitely give James Buchanan a run for his money in the "worst president ever" competition.

Underestimated From the Start: The Donald Trump Story

I confess that, like most on the left, when I heard that Trump was running, my only response was derisive laughter. I assume that he'd make some noise and then fade quickly away, putting my money on Bush as the most likely candidate, though Cruz and Rubio seemed like distinct possibilities. I wasn't even certain that he'd run for the Republican nomination, since the man is so bombastic and so determined to prove that he's not part of the party establishment that surely he wouldn't want to be bound by the GOP.

It turns out that I was wrong. Despite telling myself that his campaign would ultimately end up going nowhere, I watched Trump take the field and start to dominate it by sheer force of will, and it was terrifying. His rallies swelled, and he came to be a much more legitimate candidate.

But, I told myself, the proof was at the ballot box and caucus site, and someone with seeming populist support wouldn't necessarily perform when it came down to the actual primaries. Surely, I thought, few people would actually vote for him.

And it turned out I was wrong again. Trump voters turned out in droves to support him, fueled by a variety of factors that, I'd argue, could become deciding points in November. Yes, even though Republican turnout tends to be a bit lower during the general election. Yes, despite the fact that the overall demographic in general elections tends to be different than people who turn out for primaries. Yes, even though head to heads have both Clinton and Sanders beating him (in Sanders' case, by a pretty significant margin) — because polls don't necessarily reflect what voters are thinking, and November is a long way away.

Trump Plays to What America Fears

The left routinely underestimates the American right, writing it off as uneducated, worthless, and insufficiently politically savvy. But there's a lot going on in the world right now that has Republicans and other conservatives deeply afraid. Daesh and the refugee crisis raise the specter of "immigrants" flooding US borders. Growing agitation from the left on the subject of gun control makes people fear that their guns will be confiscated. Conservatives have convinced themselves that the left is making war on religious values, gearing up for mandatory abortions, and getting ready to require everyone to get gay married.

This isn't just reflected in rhetoric like Trump's, which plays amazingly well to huge audiences that absolutely adore him. Look at the laws under consideration in states across the country, from "pastor protection" bills in Georgia to bathroom bills across multiple states and U.S. cities. The right has long believed that it holds a monopoly on "values" and the maintenance of the American way, and it is terrified that these things are shrinking away in a landscape filled with leftist radicals preparing to storm the country's most hallowed grounds to hold pagan rituals and have sex with animals.

The right is afraid. Fear makes people resort to their base, simple instincts, and it often means that they do things which are, at best, deeply unwise. When a candidate promises them that it's possible to "make America great again," restoring the status quo that so many conservatives prize, it's appealing. When a candidate pledges to undo some of the most controversial actions of a Democratic president, that's appealing to conservatives infuriated about the Affordable Care Act and the recent flood of executive orders the president has signed to circumvent an uncooperative Congress. With a Supreme Court seat suddenly in play, a candidate who pledges to appoint a conservative extremist also appeals — because the battle over the Supreme Court is going to be prolonged, and a smart candidate can leverage that.

Trump's offering what many conservatives want. There's a reason he's winning primaries, and a reason he's doing it by some pretty healthy margins. Not all conservatives are in line with him, by any stretch of the imagination, but he's still less poisonous to them than the current Democratic frontrunners, and that's why we should be concerned about what's going to happen in November.

Trump's Chances Over Either Democratic Candidate are Better Than You Think

A recent head to head has Clinton beating Trump by a 2.8 point spread. Obama won 52.9 percent in 2008 and Pew referred to it as a "sweeping victory," illustrating that this spread is pretty significant. Yet, Trump has been steadily closing the gap between the two candidates (which was once nearly 20 percent), and it's going to continue shifting in the coming weeks and months.

The thing is that with Clinton, there are some complex factors in play that can't quite be quantified in a poll. For starters, Clinton is up against considerable misogyny and the fact that many Americans, including self-proclaimed liberals, aren't going to vote for her simply because she's a woman. That doesn't necessarily mean they'll be voting for Trump, and probably means that they'll be aiming for downticket candidates, but it could mean splitting the vote in a way that ultimately favors Trump. Sexist voters, especially progressives, may not necessarily be willing to admit that, which could be skewing the numbers.

Trump is definitely going to leverage that — some progressives are pitching his rampant sexism as evidence that he'll fail to win the popular vote, but it could actually play the other way. There are a lot of sexists in the United States who like it when people affirm their views, which is exactly what Trump is doing. Going up against a female candidate would mean being able to play upon his prior rhetoric about women and their lack of fitness to lead, exploiting fear and sexism in the electorate. These things are particularly worrying in the case of Clinton, who's long occupied a position as one of the most hated women in American politics thanks to decades of conservative smears. That's paired with smear campaigns from Sanders supporters that are going to leave a fair number of Democrats refusing to vote for Clinton because they'll be upset that their candidate lost, and convinced that Clinton is a corrupt tool of Wall Street. Thus, Clinton could actually face a legitimately difficult battle in a faceoff with Trump.

What about Sanders? The self-avowed Democratic Socialist is actually performing better in head to head polls than Clinton, currently winning by a spread of six points. Some polls have him performing even better, which would be a really impressive feat in a country where a fair percentage of the population has been screaming bloody murder about President Obama for the last eight years, claiming that he's a radical socialist out to destroy the American way. Polls showing that a sizable chunk of the country is willing to vote for an actual socialist are kind of amazing. And also kind of unbelievable.

When it comes down to election day, Sanders supporters would undoubtedly be mobilized, out in force, and aggressive — they're youthful, enthusiastic, and determined to see their candidate win, which hasn't always worked out in their favor. But they're also going to be facing off against a right that's terrified of the thought that Sanders would win, which is going to result in much better Republican turnout than usual, and that could swing the balance. Sanders isn't hampered by his gender like Clinton is, but he's not exactly a man with widespread appeal, including in the progressive base, which is getting frustrated with his one-note politics and the actions of some of his more ardent fans.

Trump's Clinch or Trump's Downfall

Should Trump's poll numbers continue trending favorably, he's going to keep building momentum, which increases the risk that he might win. Progressive overconfidence that he's too out of control to win could also count in his favor, because complacent progressives are experts at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Moreover, a number of states will have very important, and controversial, propositions, questions, amendments, and the like on their ballots, depending on the structure of their initiative and referendum system.

Many of these initiatives will be playing directly to the conservative base, in part because the system is kind of gamed to let people put civil rights to a plebiscite, which is a terrible idea. And also because conservatives know that these kinds of initiatives are a really fantastic way to whip up voter turnout: Get those old, angry white men to appear in droves by creating manufactured moral and social crises. In battleground states, these issues could swing the pendulum, especially with more voter ID laws taking effect in conservative regions this year — and yes, the number of disenfranchised voters in some states really is enough to change the outcome of tight races. Voter turnout is going to be big this year because there's a lot at stake, and much of that surrounds "values" issues like those Trump speaks to, albeit in an incredibly offensive and horrific way.

Trump's downfall, however, could lie in what conservatives may be viewing as their only hope: An independent candidate. A more moderate candidate, who honestly wouldn't even have to be that moderate to look like a raging leftist next to Trump, could succeed in challenging him, but it's unlikely that any third party candidate would capture enough of the conservative vote to win. Instead, they'd split the vote enough for the Democratic candidate — which, in the eyes of conservatives, might not actually be a bad thing.

Commentator George F. Will notes that a Trump win would be a disaster for conservatives in the U.S. For them, the bitter pill of four more years under the Democrats might be worth it if they can salvage the party. It's this that may ultimately be our hope for a Trump defeat in November, and it would be wise to pay attention to which conservatives are attracting buzz at the moment for that very reason — could it be, for example, a Rubio v Trump v Sanders or Clinton race?

Image credit: Michael Vadon/CC