© Josh Sager – May 2016
Recently, I have seen a lot of Democrats express extreme confidence that Donald Trump will be a total pushover in 2016 and that Hillary (essentially all of the people I have seen express this opinion assume Hillary will be the nominee) will absolutely crush him. When asked to justify their confidence, they cite a variety of reasons. Most commonly, they cite Trump’s total lack of policy knowledge, obvious incompetence as a manager and record of making absurdly racist remarks which alienate swathes of the American electorate. Additionally, some people point out that his campaign lacks the ground game and infrastructure that the Hillary campaign has set up over the last few years (and would inherit from the Obama campaign) and that he will likely have a very hard time keeping up in a race for funds with the Hillary machine.
While all of these observations about Trump are true, people who focus entirely on these negatives run the risk of underestimating certain factors that could make Trump extremely competitive against Hillary Clinton. If Democrats don’t take Trump seriously, he may be able to exploit these factors to pull off a surprise victory.
Polling backs up my concerns, and a series of recent polls have Hillary tied or even losing to Trump in a general election matchup. While the two conservative leaning polls that show Hillary losing by 3% and 5% (Fox News and Rasmussen, respectively) have been minimized by many Democrats, ABC/Washington Post polling has Trump leading Hillary by 2%, while NBC/Wall Street Journal polling has Hillary up by only 3%.
Yes, the current RCP polling average should scare you
While Hillary supporters will likely make the argument that this is too early in the campaign to be worried and that the Hillary machine hasn’t even started in on Trump, this argument has major flaws. Trump possesses characteristics that make him extremely dangerous for establishment candidates and only a fool would discount his chances at this stage of the race.
First, Trump has absolutely no shame or core principles and will play to whatever he thinks the voters will like. While Hillary also has a history of this type of flip-flopping (e.g. gay marriage, trade deals, etc.), Trump is far more shameless and has proven himself to be surprisingly adept at adapting his message without appearing to flip-flop to his voters (e.g. not giving foreign policy specifics to avoid showing his hand to the enemy, talking in generality, etc.)
The ultimate example of Trump’s shameless flopping comes from a recent rally, where he decried Hillary for her support for regime change in the Middle East, labeled her as “trigger happy” and lamented the deaths of millions of Iraqi civilians as a tragedy. Ironically, his argument in this case is 100% correct and something that echoes the sentiments of liberals like Sanders and Chomsky, as well as libertarians like Ron Paul. Keep in mind that this is the same person who called for indiscriminate bombing several months ago.
Second, Trump could easily demoralize the left and depress Hillary’s voting numbers in the general if he completely eschews sexist attacks against Hillary and focuses on attacking her from populist positions that both the left and right actually agree on. Specifically, he could hammer her on her support for disastrous trade deals (e.g. NAFTA) and foreign interventionism (e.g. Libya, Iraq, etc.), as well as her acceptance of millions of dollars from big banks for speeches that she is still refusing to release the transcripts for.
Here is just one example of the type of ad that I dread seeing during the general election:
By constantly bringing the debate back to these key populist issues, Trump could appeal to both sides of the political spectrum while perpetuating the perception that Hillary is corrupt and untrustworthy (currently, 60% of voters have this perception). Both liberals and conservatives are sick of corrupt politicians, pointless wars, and corporate giveaways, thus Hillary is uniquely vulnerable to this line of attack from Trump—she is on the wrong side of each of these issues, while Trump can make a case that he is on the right side.
While I think that it is unlikely that many liberals will even consider voting for Trump, the constant pressure on Hillary’s populist weak points would depress turnout and make it much harder for liberals to get excited over a Hillary campaign.
Third, Hillary has demonstrated a crippling weakness among independent voters. As illustrated in this table put together by 538 Politics, Clinton has an overwhelming advantage among Democratic partisans who vote in primaries, but has lost the independent vote by double digits in almost every race where they are allowed to participate.
Unfortunately, Trump has significant support among independent voters, particularly white men in the lower-middle class and in poverty. He could capture a significant number of independents who see Hillary as corrupt and a continuation of the establishment screwing the little guy (a function of her tying her campaign to Obama’s presidency), giving him support in vital rust belt states that he must win in order to be viable.
Fourth, pundits have repeatedly overestimated the power of the establishment to stifle Trump. He humiliated Bush during the GOP primary despite Bush’s overwhelming monetary and party machinery advantages. This is because he outflanked Bush in terms of messaging and used billions of dollars in free advertising to overwhelm the paid advertising that the establishment is accustomed to relying on. In the general election, there is no reason to assume that this dynamic will not be repeated. Hillary has been given a serious run for her money from a populist candidate who the media cannot marginalize or ignore more, thus one can only imagine what will happen when she faces somebody who the media cannot stop covering. As demonstrated since the rise of the Tea Party in 2010, the media will also likely refuse to fully fact-check Trump’s lunacy out of fear that they will be seen as partisan—he will be allowed to spew nonsense throughout the campaign with most of it going completely unchallenged.
Fifth, both Hillary and Trump suffer from record unpopular ratings, making it hard to justify the assertion that Hillary has a significant advantage in terms of likability. FiveThirtyEight writer Harry Enton succinctly summarized this with his recent article, titled Americans’ Distaste For Both Trump And Clinton Is Record-Breaking,” where he pointed out that this may be the election cycle where both parties put forward the least popular candidate they have fielded since the inception of political popularity polling (to put this into perspective, Hillary has an 11% lower favorability rating than Mitt Romney had at this time before the 2012 election). While it is certainly true that Trump has a higher unpopularity rating that Hillary, we are in uncharted waters and really don’t know what the result will be when both candidates are this unpopular (will the less-unpopular one win or will turnout be depressed to the point where intensity of support is the relevant factor?).
Finally, it must be mentioned that a large number of states will almost certainly be pushing voter disenfranchisement measures against Hillary voters. Specifically, they will target southern African Americans and women with voter ID laws, which will disproportionally harm Hillary during the general.
Democrats and liberals must take extreme caution when looking forward to the 2016 election. Trump is a manifestly absurd human being who is hard to take seriously, but we must treat him as a serious contender if we want to have a high chance of defeating him. The consequences of a Trump presidency would be dire, thus the stakes are too high for us to suffer any avoidable pitfalls stemming from our own hubris.