For months, Trump-fearing Republicans and the Trump-skeptical press have consoled themselves with the idea that there were clear limits to the celebrity billionaire’s appeal. But during the Nevada caucus on Tuesday night, Donald Trump gave us all one more giant reason to worry as he racked up more votes than Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz combined. Trump won a staggering 46 percent of the votes cast in what was ostensibly a five-man race, far more than his mid-30s peak in the previous three contests and in national polls.
The Republican nomination does not yet belong to Trump: He has long polled better in Nevada than he does nationally, so his apparent momentum may be the result of a scheduling quirk more than anything else. Nonetheless, it’s become increasingly difficult to craft a plausible scenario where any of his rivals can mount the type of comeback they’d need to pass him. It’s unclear they even know where to start.
Trump still has a ceiling—all candidates do, after all—but apparently he can cram plenty more voters into his luxury hotel ballroom before he reaches it.
Now that the Nevada dust has settled to reveal a towering statue of Trump, you may be nervously asking yourself: What happens if he really does go on to win the nomination? Hillary Clinton would crush him in the general election, right? Right?! PLEASE TELL ME I’M RIGHT!!
Um, maybe not.
Before I go any further, here’s what I wrote back in the early, carefree days of the Summer of Trump (emphasis mine): “Donald Trump is a vitriol-spewing, media-manipulating, self-aggrandizing, bigoted publicity hound who has no realistic chance of winning the Republican nomination next summer or any other.” In my quasi-defense, that was the opening to a piece arguing why the media shouldn’t dismiss Trump’s candidacy as mere entertainment. Also: four out five ain’t so bad! But, yeah, I do not have a crystal ball. Lesson learned. I won’t pretend that I can tell you with any certainty who will or won’t win the White House this fall. Despite that—or I suppose because of it—it’s worth considering whether the conventional wisdom that holds Trump has no chance in a general election is wrong, much like it was about Trump’s chance of winning the GOP nomination.
If you are a Democrat or simply someone who is unable to sleep imagining Trump’s stubby fingers on the button, you will be happy to hear that Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders both lead Trump in surveys that ask about potential general election matchups. You will be less happy, though, when I put those numbers in context.
For starters, that type of hypothetical polling has limited value this far out from Election Day—particularly for someone like Sanders who remains less known nationally—since we’re in for what we can assume will be an incredibly nasty and absurdly expensive general election fight. Still, the numbers we do have suggest Trump is hardly the electoral black swan he’s made out to be. According to Huffington Post’s aggregated average, Clinton currently tops Trump by 4 points, 48 percent to 44 percent, while Sanders leads him by 10 points, 51 percent to 41 percent. Rubio, though, fares only a little better than Trump (down 1 point to Clinton; 6 to Sanders), and Cruz only slightly worse (down 5 to Clinton; 11 to Sanders.) If head-to-head polls suggesting November is little better than a coin flip are enough to convince Democrats that Hillary will trounce Trump in November, they could have popped the champagne bottles long before he turned into a primary juggernaut this month. Furthermore, on this date four years ago, Mitt Romney trailed Barack Obama by 5 points—one more than Trump currently trails Clinton—in similar general election polling. Yes, Obama went on to win re-election, but it wasn’t as though the Republicans handed him four more years by nominating the former Massachusetts governor. Obama had to work for it.
Looked at from a different angle, the polls tell a different (and darker) story. Trump continues to defy pretty much every political commandment in the Beltway bible, along with basic societal norms to boot. He began his campaign with a rambling speech that compared Mexicans to rapists and murderers, and somehow still managed to continue to shock with his unveiled racism, misogyny, and Islamophobia in the months that followed. Certainly, that would make him less appealing to the general public, right? Wrong.
He went from trailing Clinton in the head-to-head polls by 20 points last summer to down only 4 points today. His favorability ratings tell a similar story. Last May, when few actually believed he’d give up his reality television career to run for president, his favorable-unfavorable split among all Americans—not just Republicans—was at negative-47 points. Today, after eight months of demagogy, it’s improved to negative-21. (In that same period, Hillary’s split moved in the opposite direction, from negative-3 to negative-12.) Trump, meanwhile, has built a far broader coalition of conservative voters than anyone expected—just look at the record number of voters who have turned out for the first four contests of 2016. Entrance and exit polls suggest he’s popular among wide swaths of the GOP electorate, including both those who describe themselves as “very conservative” and those who see themselves as “moderate.” In a year that has been defined by anti-establishment anger, it’s also not unthinkable to imagine a scenario in a general election fight with Clinton where Trump peels off a small though significant slice of Sanders supporters—particularly given the subtle threads of misogyny that have been spotted running along the far fringes of Bernie’s legion of fans.
Hold on, I’m not done.
The Trump-will-get-crushed theory rests on two central pillars. The first is that independents will take one look at the real estate tycoon and go running into the arms of Clinton. The problem, though, is that there are far fewer swing votes in play than many Americans like to believe. Partisanship dominates modern elections in ways it never did when Barry Goldwater or George McGovern were buried underneath November landslides. Party loyalty will convince many conservative-leaning independents to rethink their personal feelings about Trump—just as it will do the same for those liberal-leaning independents who remain skeptical of Clinton. There’s unlikely to be enough true undecideds left in the middle to turn the election into a blowout.
The second pillar is that a large chunk of hard-core conservatives simply won’t be able to bring themselves to pull the lever for Trump and will either vote for Hillary, stay home, or vote for a third-party candidate, which would be the same as staying home. The first scenario would be laughable—this is Hillary freaking Clinton we’re talking about—but the latter two can’t be taken as a given on a grand scale, especially in a campaign that has now turned, at least in part, into a referendum on the future of the Supreme Court. Democrats tell themselves that the chance to replace the late Antonin Scalia will energize their base, and it likely will. But so too will it likely fire up conservatives who will spend the summer being warned of all they will lose if Clinton wins the White House and is given the chance to replace their conservative hero with a liberal villain. Yes, many in the Republican Party will fear they won’t like Trump’s pick for the high court, but they’ll certainly like it more than anyone Clinton would nominate. The Donald, meanwhile, could put such worries largely to rest by simply announcing a party-approved nominee as his pick while the election is still going on. National Review readers might not want to vote for Donald J. Trump, but I bet they could pull the lever for him if they convince themselves they’re voting to give Don R. Willett or someone else from their SCOTUS wish list a lifetime appointment.
That’s not to say we should all prepare ourselves for the classiest, most luxurious inauguration this country has ever seen. If Trump really does win the GOP nomination, he will find the general electorate significantly less receptive to his belligerent sales pitch than conservatives have been. He’d also face a Democratic Party apparatus that is far more organized than its GOP counterpart has been this cycle, along with inescapable demographic trends and an electoral map that favors his opponent. But Trump has been proving politicos, pundits, and political journalists wrong for the better part of a year now. I’m not willing to count him out come fall.