Before I attempt to answer this question, I need to disclose my personal views. I was a Rubio supporter but voted for Cruz in the Arizona primary as Rubio has dropped out of the race by then. I was, and am now, not a fan of Trump…however I will hold my nose and vote for him in the General Election over Hillary Clinton.
The 2016 Presidential election will likely be remembered as one of the most exciting, chaotic, unpredictable and nasty campaigns in history. The presumptive nomination of Donald Trump to be the Republican Party’s standard bearer is the first time a major party has nominated a candidate with no prior elected office experience since businessman Wendell Willkie was the Republican nominee for the 1940 election. Yes, it is true that the GOP nominated Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 but he had served in the US Army for all his professional life with some years in major high profile leadership roles such that most would argue he had served his country in a highly public and successful capacity as Allied Supreme Commander in Europe during World War 2.
Before I look at the pluses and minuses that Trump brings to the campaign, it is instructive to look at the state of the Democrat nomination race. On paper, Hillary Clinton is going to be the nominee. The only mathematical chance that Bernie Sanders has of overhauling Clinton’s almost 300 pledged delegate lead is to overwhelmingly win the remainder of the Democrat primaries AND to then persuade over 250 of the super delegates pledged to Hillary to switch camps. All of the Democrat delegates from primaries and caucuses are awarded proportionately unlike some key winner-take-all Republican primaries (such as Indiana where Trump easily beat Cruz to knock him out of the race). For instance, whilst it is true that Sanders has won the majority of more recent races, Clinton has managed to amass still more delegates in each lost race and, having won the large states that count, Sanders can only chip away at her delegate lead with low single digit delegate margins between him and her. With that said, Clinton is proving to be a remarkably weak front runner. Normally at this stage in a race with a front running presumptive nominee, momentum builds and the victories over the remaining candidate get wider and more decisive. Clinton did fight a rearguard action against Obama in 2008 but really only had a handful of victories during that resurgence and then fell away. It seems that despite the inevitability of the delegate count, Sanders is remaining defiant and is ramping up his attacks and remains capable of beating Clinton if only in smaller state contests. This is significant because whilst Trump is now unchallenged and can concentrate his fire on Clinton, she must still fight Sanders off to her left flank. He has dragged her to the left by virtue of both his socialist roots and his solidly progressive grassroots, populist campaign and so the usual pivot to the centre that a candidate undertakes in a general election campaign (no longer needing to appeal to the more ideological extremes of the party’s base) has been delayed for Clinton. Clinton has faced withering fire from Sanders over her vote for the Iraq war, her support for her husband’s popular tough anti-crime laws and welfare reforms in the 90’s and seems to be adopting knee jerk harder left positions such as the lifting the Federal minimum wage, anti-fracking/anti-oil sentiments and sounding tougher on Wall Street than Hillary would normally be considering her strong ties there.
The big question mark over Clinton still remains that of her fate arising from the FBI investigation into her non authorized email server and the dissemination of classified emails through this unsecure channel thus breaching strict intelligence secrecy laws. All recent reporting suggests the following:
- The man hired by Clinton to set up the homebrew server (Bryan Pagliano) has been granted immunity from prosecution and has spoken freely and frankly to the FBI;
- Clinton’s entire inner circle has now been interviewed by the FBI and Clinton has been advised that she will be next and last. This is the standard pattern of federal agents targeting a key person;
- FBI Director James Comey has gone on the record effectively dismissing the Clinton spin reaffirming that this is an investigation not a “security review” and that he and his agents will not be deterred by her rank and status;
- Various former Federal prosecutors have weighed to remind us that Clinton’s intent (innocent or otherwise) will be irrelevant – if top secret material is proven to be transmitted over non secure and non authorised channels, she (and her aides) will have committed the various felonies outlined in various relevant statutes.
Clinton’s fate lies in the hands of the Department of Justice and its top official, Obama appointee Attorney General Loretta Lynch. If the FBI find a prima facie case of breach and recommend indictment, it will be her and her deputy Attorneys General who will make the decision to file formal charges. The likelihood of stalling to after the election by the DOJ and White House or even a non-indictment decision is, in my opinion, high. However, Clinton (and the Democrat party) runs the risk of not only high level leaks from the career professional investigators (Comey has over 150 agents on the case including several top counter espionage and cyber security experts) but also the prospect of Comey’s own resignation over a non-indictment if the evidence is particularly compelling.
If there is no indictment, Clinton will tough it out and rely on a sympathetic pro Democrat media to shield her somewhat from the FBI leaks. If she is indicted, she’s toast as a candidate. Sanders is hanging around hoping for an indictment and will argue at the Convention in Philadelphia that he’s the next highest delegate winner and so the ‘next in line’. Despite polls showing Sanders getting a wider winning margin over Trump than Clinton, look for the Democrats to parachute Vice President Joe Biden in as the nominee as a Hail Mary to save the election. This analysis is then premised on Clinton facing Trump in the autumn general election campaign.
Anyone who thinks they know what is going to happen on November 8 is likely to be wrong. Trump has upended almost every establishment political prognostication on both sides of the political aisle. He has defied conventional wisdom every step of the way. He has made a stream of gaffes that would’ve ended normal politicians’ runs, he has ignored media narratives and robustly combatted media opposition and yet still earned twice the media coverage of all of his GOP AND Democrat rivals COMBINED, he has eschewed a delegate winning ground game and what little money he has spent so far has largely been his own money. No one has ever managed to do this and succeed in the modern political era. He has relied more on his natural instincts concerning issues that are driving voters rather than carefully measured, polled and focus group tested sound bites like Clinton and his GOP opponents. Trump says things no one else has dared say especially about Bill and Hillary Clinton. Predictions of Trump’s fate, even from more centrist establishment Republicans, are that he is staring down the barrel of a landslide defeat. And yet others look at his remarkable string of victories against all prognostications, the record turnout of GOP primary voters and his ability to defy all the rules of normal politics as evidence that he will ride a wave of voter anti-establishment disgust all the way to a massive win over Clinton. The trouble with these predictions, as you will see as I detail the pros and cons of Trump’s candidacy, is that both sides of this argument seem to have compelling reasons to back up their assertions.
Trump’s negatives that militate against him winning
1. Dis-unified party.
Most primary races leave wounds and scars amongst the defeated candidates and their followers but generally voters, supporters and surrogates for the defeated candidates get over it and unify behind the nominee. This process has not happened as much or as quickly with Trump. There has been a discernable and visible division amongst centre-right commentators, media, blogs and talk show hosts between those that support Trump and those that opposed him. This has been characterised by the so-called Never Trump movement. Whilst there has been somewhat more of a coalescing around Trump in recent days, the high profile reluctance of House Speaker Paul Ryan to endorse Trump is somewhat unprecedented. Likewise, is the hostile reception of party leaders like Mitt Romney who is alleged to have sounded out high profile Trump opponents like Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska and even Governor Kasich. This divide is clearly evident with invective and criticism of each other from right wing media with angry outbursts from Trump supporters like Fox News hosts and commentators Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham and Ann Coulter clashing with anti-Trump commentators like talk show host Mark Levin, Blaze TV front man Glenn Beck and a host of National Review editors and writers. Some like popular talk show hosts Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh and Hugh Hewitt have tried to remain largely neutral but the warfare inside the conservative movement over Trump, his candidacy, policies and personality is unprecedented and will make it harder for Trump to unify the party. Trump of course doesn’t help matters with his uncompromising rhetoric and his clashes with right media personalities such as Megyn Kelly.
2. Poor ground game
Unlike Ted Cruz who was known for his excellent on-the-ground GOTV efforts, data driven voter turnout models and canny delegate wooing tactics, Trump has been slow to embrace this crucial part of winning elections partly because he has relied so much on earned media. Trump seems to be far less interested in this aspect of electioneering than is wise. Clinton has managed to snare some of the same team that drove Obama’s highly successful voter targeting and GOTV operation and she has been investing heavily in a good ground game in key battleground states. It is a fact that the Republican National Committee has spent the last 2 election cycles playing electronic and data mining catchup with the Democrats and it is said that the RNC’s current GOTV operation is the best it’s ever been and at least equal with the Democrats. Trump’s slowness in this regard may be compensated for by the party’s own machinery that will swing in behind Trump. Obama proved that it was possible to get out his unique coalition twice in a row and Clinton will be banking on managing a three-peat.
3. Very high negative polling
Any analysis of polling data comparing past campaigns and candidates reveals that we face a quite unique situation with the two main candidates in 2016 in that both feature unusually high unfavourable polling figures. This is the ratio between those who favourably view a candidate and those who are unfavourable. The latest Gallup Favourable/Unfavourable ratio for Trump is a staggering 33/61 and Clinton is better but still poor at 41/54. To have two such unpopular candidates opposing each other is unprecedented and it remains to be seen as to what will happen to these figures as the campaign moves to a general election footing as each candidate showers media with a wall of negative ads designed to define their opponent.
4. Media portrayal of misogyny sticking
The main stream media have been quick to portray Trump as a misogynist women hater and certainly his comments about Megyn Kelly and Carly Fiorina gives some backbone to these claims. Will Trump’s very high negatives with women improve and if not, will Clinton’s negatives with men be enough to outweigh them? Right now Clinton is on the winning side of that statistical battle.
5. Competing against the first woman President candidacy theme of Clinton
Clinton has, and will continue to aggressively play, the woman card. Just as Obama was campaigning to end centuries of oppression of blacks by being the first black President, so Clinton wants to break a remaining glass ceiling and be the first woman President. To women voters in particular it is a powerful and simple campaign theme. Whether Clinton can overcome her considerable baggage to realise that goal remains to be seen but it is a real headwind that Trump is running against.
6. Poor head to head polling v Clinton
Up until very recently, the head to head polls, both at the national and swing state level, were devastating for Trump and his GOP opponents hammered him relentlessly on that. This more than anything else has fueled much of the negative prediction commentary about Trump from his right wing opponents and this has been seized upon with glee by Democrats, the MSM and left leaning commentators. Polls would be trumpeted showing Clinton barely behind in heavily Republican states like Georgia, winning Arizona (which has voted Democrat only twice since WW2 – 1948 and 1996) and Clinton leading in national polls by double digits. Electability in the fall in the past has been a powerful electioneering tool for primary candidates but in this cycle, once again a seeming cardinal rule has again been broken. Head to head polls showed in this order: Kasich, Rubio, Cruz then Trump from doing the best to the worse against Clinton (or Sanders) and yet the success of each major GOP candidate has been in inverse proportion to their supposed electability. Part of the reason for this is the truism that head to head polls this far out are meaningless and Trump’s surrogates have pointed this out for months and in recent weeks, these polls have tightened considerably with reputable polls putting Trump essentially level pegging in key states like Florida and Ohio and close to the margin error behind Clinton in national polls.
7. Leftist policy provisions and his bombastic personality causing the conservative base to stay at home
The knee jerk reaction of a number of more solidly conservative friends of mine is to refuse to vote for Trump. Some talk up a conservative third party candidate, others say they’ll vote Libertarian whereas most say they cannot bring themselves to vote for Trump seeing him as an unauthentic conservative, a closet Democrat and a crass populist and a few flirt with voting for Hillary. These assessments are not far off the mark but increasingly, many are coming to see Hillary and the extent to which Sanders has dragged her so far to the left, as a far greater existential threat to the Republic that many more are doing what I am doing and holding their noses and voting for Trump. The extent to which the conservative base stays home in protest or disgust at Trump’s excesses and policy quirkiness may have a large bearing on his success or otherwise in November. A third party candidate is highly unlikely. No one remotely electable has stepped up and in any event, the deadline has passed in most states to even get on the ballot – a task that is complex, time consuming and costly.
8. Trump’s caustic management style may see key staff burnt off
Stories abound of Trump’s abrasive and take no prisoners style. Will this extend to his campaign to such an extent that key staff abandon him? It’s hard to say. Trump has outwitted and outlasted armies of the GOP consultant establishment and utterly defied their collective wisdom by turning it on its head and proving them all wrong. That said, some mechanics of a campaign must be adhered to. Could Trump be so arrogant as to ignore even the practical and good election campaign advice rationalising his behaviour because he so dominated the primary race that the consultants have nothing to teach him? The truth is likely somewhere in the middle – some of their advice is relevant but most of their instincts have been to line their own pockets with fees. If Trump is wise he will attract the best players and listen to the good tactics they have to offer and yet stay true to his instincts that have seen him win so convincingly.
Trump’s assets that might see him win
1. Massive earned media
This graph tells the story far better than words. http://clashdaily.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/qmeme_1458400097167_447.jpg This, more than anything else, explains Trump’s success. He sucked the media oxygen from the air of almost all his rivals’ campaigns. Media obsession about all things Trump meant Jeb Bush could spend $150 million and have almost nothing to show for it. Despite the media realising that Trump has been their creation, he remains a ratings dream for networks and cable shows and excellent click bait for on line political news outfits like Politico, the Hill, the Washington Examiner and blogs. This is not going to change in the foreseeable future. Trump will still say outrageous things that will leave media and commentators buzzing and obsessing and now it will be Hillary Clinton who will be overshadowed. Obama got excellent earned media coverage because of his unique persona. Clinton is not unique – she is extremely well known and a rather dour campaigner. Faced with Trump’s endless stream of consciousness, provocative tweets and interviews, clashes with media and opponents and his sheer utter unpredictability, he will remain ratings gold as the campaign progresses ensuring his message reaches all corners of the electorate.
2. Record GOP turnout in the primaries translates into larger than usual general election turnout
The increase in Republican primary turnout in this cycle compared to 2012 has been a staggering 60%. As at the end of the New York primary on April 19th, this amounted to an additional 9 million voters! Note that Obama only beat Romney by 5 million votes in the 2012 election. Whilst it is true that in some primaries allowed independents and registered Democrats to vote in GOP primaries meaning some of the higher turnout could be put down to cross over voting, turnout has been massively up even in states with closed primaries (limited only to registered Republicans). The best analysis of this is found at http://www.breitbart.com/2016-presidential-race/2016/04/25/exclusive-data-analysis-gop-primary-turnout-8-7-million-votes-60-percent-2016-versus-2012/. This trend bodes well for Trump.
3. Lower Democrat turnout
The flip side of point 2 is the significantly lower turnout for Democrat primaries and caucuses and this is in spite of the resurgent and seemingly popular grassroots campaign of Bernie Sanders. Democrats, aside from Sanders’ supporters, appear to relatively less enthusiastic about their presumptive nominee. This was the reverse in 2008 when Democrat primary turnout was hugely up on the back of Obama’s popular campaign. This difference does not bode well for Clinton.
4. Any negative news event in the immigration or terrorism sphere plays into Trumps hands
Any high profile murder by an illegal immigrant (especially one previously deported) will play into Trump’s anti-illegal immigration message. Even the ongoing wave of refugees into Europe plays subtly into Trumps hands as it shows the negative cultural impact of uncontrolled immigration. Even more potent would be the indirect electoral benefit to Trump of another global terrorist event. Another Paris or Brussels attack by Muslim extremists makes Trump’s policy of pausing on Muslim immigration to the US look reasonable and practical. A terrorist incident like the San Bernardino massacre, especially if close to the election, will guarantee Trump a strong bounce over Clinton as Trump will unsubtly make the Benghazi contrast. Anything more serious than San Bernardino would be game over for Clinton as Trump would ride a wave of almost 911 style voter fear.
5. The party is gradually, albeit slowly, coalescing around Trump
Paul Ryan, after his much publicized ‘summit’ with Trump, has moved from Never Trump to Probably Trump (but not yet). More Senators (even those who opposed him) are coming on board. Cruz and Rubio will likely hold their noses and eventually endorse. The Bush clan will stay silent and Romney will continue to oppose but likely will temper his attacks. It won’t be across the board or full throated but it could be enough to send a sufficient signal to other wavering GOP voters to hold their noses and vote for Trump.
6. Hillary is a lousy campaigner
She is wooden, inauthentic, focus group driven, uninspiring and somewhat prone to gaffes. Her handling of controversies such as the email scandal has been woeful. She is afraid to be interviewed by anyone except a handful of pro-Democrat flunkies who don’t really press her hard. Whilst she has handled Sanders reasonably well in their debates, she has not faced the wall of hostile questioning the GOP candidates faced in most of their debates and nor has she had to face Bernie Sanders more recent harder edged criticism as his attacks have ramped up since their debates. Trump, on the other hand, went through a large number of debates where he was the primary target of attacks and he acquitted himself adequately. He is not the purist debater in the Cruz mold nor the compelling story teller like Rubio but he can and will attack and vigourously defend himself. He will not conform to normal debate structures and approaches and will be unpredictable and feisty against Clinton and will not hesitate to bring up a host of negative issues like her email server, her poor record at State, Benghazi and the murky funding of the Clinton Foundation. Clinton has not faced any hard edged opposition in a public forum on any of these matters. I’m picking that she may refuse to debate Trump such will be the political risks that he will wipe the floor with her.
7. Clinton is burdened by a sluggish economy and Obama’s weak foreign policy – fighting off the Obama’s 3rd term meme.
Whilst Obama’s popularity has staged a minor recovery, the economy (on Main Street versus the more buoyant Wall Street) has seen very anemic growth. The Obama recovery is the weakest of the all the post-Depression recoveries. The extremely low labour participation rate is a major unseen economic drag. It is down to only 63% from a high of 68% in 2000 and explains why the unemployment rate is seemingly so low at 5%. It is because approximately 11 million Americans have dropped out of the workforce altogether and are no longer seeking work and so are not counted in the unemployment stats. If they (and those forced to work part time) are added in, the true unemployment rate is 9.6% http://www.macrotrends.net/1377/u6-unemployment-rate . This is the first administration since the Depression to preside over a slight decline in net real wages AND net wealth of the vital middle class. Many voters feel they are not any better off despite the stock market recovery. Add to this a string of foreign policy failures or stagnations, Clinton will be seen as an 3rd Obama term and a third term in office for the same party has only happened once since the 22nd Amendment restricted Presidents to two terms (Bush 41 wining in 1988 after the two Reagan terms).
8. Trump benefits from the strong anti-insider establishment sentiment and appeals to Reagan Democrats
This is the greatest unknown and possibly the one thing above all else that could win Trump the Presidency. Frustration at the establishment of both parties is running at record levels. It is palpable and crops up constantly in political discussion across communities. GOP control of the House (2010) and the Senate (2014) has actually made the sentiment worse because the GOP won two large wave elections giving them unprecedented majorities in both houses of Congress to block Obama as voters intended and yet time after time, the Republican leadership caved on key conservative issues to the disgust of the Republican base. This more than anything else explains Trump’s success in the primaries. This disgust, anxiety and frustration is bi-partisan. Many many voters of all persuasions see inaction on the border and blame stagnant wage growth and un/under employment on illegal immigration. Trump unashamedly taps a huge vein of fear and discontent especially amongst blue collar workers who were once a key demographic cohort for the Democrats. Lately this group have stayed home from the polls demoralised by the inaction by the party elites of both parties. Trump’s promises to make America great and to build a wall may bring record numbers of recent nonvoters to the polls to vote for a successful, confident outsider beholden to no one promising to get things done. The same is true for foreign policy and the rise of Islamic extremism. Middle America is tired of political correctness and waning American power and the seeming impotence of Obama’s so-called ‘smart power’ diplomacy. Trump’s promise to make America great again has to the power to plough through all his many negatives and bring dormant general election voters of both parties, long disgusted by business as usual in Washington, to the polls in droves to install the anti-politician who has built a successful business empire.
9. The Teflon factor
Trump has defied political gravity continuously. Normal rules don’t apply. Revelations of sordid earlier affairs, drug fueled parties in the 80’s, eminent domain abuses, fraudulent claims of Trump University, threats to investigate his political enemies if he wins – all negatives that the media will gleefully report from Clinton’s oppo research files, will slide off Trump. Almost all of this is baked into the cake. Voters know Trump is flawed, quixotic, not really a policy expert and often all over the page on some issues. They don’t care – they believe on the big issues (immigration, Islamic extremism, American jobs and US strength and power abroad) that Trump will face down his critics, ignore the media and Washington commentatiat and just hunker down and finally do the things that Americans have been begging to have done for decades. When faced with a choice between more of the same from Clinton (with the added spice of a rerun of Clinton scandals like the 90s) and the fresh but flawed broom that Trump promises to sweep, it may end up being a no brainer for enough voters in places like Florida, Ohio, Colorado, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania to get him to 270 electoral votes.
As I said, both sides’ arguments are compelling, All I know is that US voters are in going to be in for the wildest campaign ride possibly in over a hundred years!