Are we really going to continue to write off Donald Trump?
The Donald has been spewing forth outrageous comments since he announced his candidacy in mid-June 2015. Each eruption provoked confident predictions from the chattering class that Trump’s demise was imminent.
Let’s agree: Predictions of Trump’s defeat have been off.
And, yet, the “Trump is a goner” line lives on even as we head toward the general election. What’s particularly galling is that “those who know” continue to foretell Trump’s defeat with undiminished certainty.
Exhibit A: Politico’s survey of Democratic insiders found that 99 percent expected the Donald to lose their state.
Partisan wishful thinking? Maybe. Except that 76 percent of Republican insiders agreed. Business leaders concur as well.
Wake up, everybody. There is a clear path for Trump to the White House. No heroic assumptions or flights of fancy are needed — plain vanilla accounts of elections taught in Poli Sci 101 tell the story.
Here are five reasons to take seriously Trump’s chances of winning the White House.
One: The race is close and certainly within striking distance for Trump. RealClear Politics reports that Hillary Clinton is ahead by 3.9 points based on an average of recent polls. How does that compare to past presidential campaigns at this juncture? In Gallup Polls, Barack Obama trailed John McCain by 6 points in 2008, Bill Clinton was behind George H.W. Bush by a similar margin in 1992, and Ronald Reagan lagged Jimmy Carter by 7 points in 1980.
To quote Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer, the media line that Trump is a lost cause is just “cheese” to set up the next news cycle. Don’t fall for it. Trump is in the hunt now.
Two: For all the talk of Republicans who won’t vote for Trump, it’s quite likely that more than 90 percent will herd up. Decades of exit polls of voters on Election Day reveal a consistent pattern: Nine out of 10 Republicans (or more) support their party’s presidential candidates. Not so much when it comes to Democrats.
But, wait, isn’t Trump so offensive that Republicans will abandon him? I know, your family, friends or colleagues have told you this.
Don’t bet on it.
The identification with political parties is a psychological attachment that often forms in childhood. We are not handcuffed to our party but the tie is tight and has become more so.
A Stanford research team studied the reaction of Republicans and Democrats to the prospect that their child might marry someone from the other political party. In 1960 — no problem. Only 5 percent (or less) reported being upset by the idea. Our new hyperpartisan world has introduced a very different reaction by 2010. Nearly a third of Democrats were irked and almost half of Republicans were unhappy.
Political party identification is akin to Mr. Spock’s mind meld, and that’s good news for Trump. He’s likely to get the votes of nearly all Republicans.
Three: You’ve read this far, so it’s a good bet that you are quite interested in politics and can hold your own discussing any number of public policies. Message from our research department — many voters aren’t like you. Many, including the bulk of the undecided voters, are disinterested and uninformed about politics. Maybe it bores them, or they are consumed by their jobs or families. That’s fine, but there’s a big implication for the 2016 election: The distracted voters who are up for grabs may swing the election.
You may be wondering: If they are not well-informed, what will drive their choice of candidates? Excellent question.
Generations of research tell us that many of the undecided and wavering voters will use their vote to answer Reagan’s leading question at the end of the 1980 election: “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”
Voters who are convinced that the country is off on the wrong track tend to punish the “in” party. In November 2008, as the economy was rattled by the financial crisis and the Iraq war dragged on, 75 percent of voters told exit pollsters that the country was off course and 62 percent of them pulled the lever for the candidate of the “out” party — Obama, who had played up the election as a referendum and touted himself as the change candidate.
This year, too, is setting up as a referendum on the incumbent party. About two-thirds of Americans say the country is off on the wrong track. Many of those discontented voters will cast a ballot for Trump as the “outsider” candidate — regardless of his positions or statements.
Research note for the curious: Punishing or rewarding the “in” party is a simple idea that’s been around for generations. Social scientists have complicated it with sophisticated statistical models to predict who will win the presidency based on economic indicators, such as how much the country is producing (GDP, or gross domestic product). But this high-powered method yields similar good news for Trump: 2016 started off with anemic GDP growth.
Four: Wait, I’ve neglected the large “gender gap.” Hillary Clinton does much better among women than among men.
But what about the reverse gender gap — Trump’s comparable lead among men? Fox conducted the most recent telephone interview; Clinton enjoyed a 17-point lead among women and Trump held a 19-point advantage among men. The recent NBC Internet poll reported similar bulges for each — 15-point advantage for Clinton and 11 points for Trump.
Trump is generating off-the-charts antagonisms, and these will hurt him and other GOP candidates. But let’s not neglect the lopsided appeal that he is also generating among other subgroups of voters.
Five: Who’s got better game? The chattering class has writer’s cramp from belittling Trump for failing to run a disciplined campaign that sticks to a heavily researched message targeted to appeal to key groups of voters without giving offense. But Trump’s fondness for slashing personal assaults and outlandish defiance of both parties’ settled policies on national security, trade and entitlements is tailor-made for this year’s record levels of distrust and anger.
By comparison, Clinton is running as the establishment, touting her record in government. Her accomplishments are distinguished, but in 2016, confidence in government and its commitment to serving “the people” as opposed to a few big interests is at or near all-time lows. Clinton has been unable to respond to that distrust.
Clinton also has not been able to match Trump’s skill in drawing free media coverage. This continues a pattern from the Republican nomination battle when Trump avoided spending the hundreds of millions his opponents committed to buy time for ads. Trump used his chops from celebrity TV to generate incalculable free coverage on news outlets eager to interview him and boost their ratings.
Is Trump heading for a win? Who knows. But he has a shot at the White House and it’s time to take him very seriously.
Lawrence R. Jacobs is director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. He is co-author with Desmond King of “Fed Power: How Finance Wins,” published by Oxford University Press.