I’ve declared many times I’m a junky of the endless American electoral process, not because I see it as a paragon of democratic virtue, highlighting the benefits of having a strong civil society profoundly engaged in the process of choosing their representatives and giving each option a thoughtful consideration, but because they always manage to put up an entertaining show. This presidential election cycle has already been full of drama and surprises, and not the lesser of them is that the Democratic party has had much bigger difficulties choosing its nominee than their adversaries, the Republicans, when a year ago it seemed clear that the former Secretary of State, Senator and First Lady Hillary Clinton would coast to her party’s nomination, whilst the Repubs were mired in a very public fight to select between seventeen potential candidates with very heterogeneous levels of recognition, seriousness, gravitas and apparent viability in a presidential election.
Now that the primaries are mostly over and the final contenders have been decided, most opinion makers seem to think that the Republicans have made a terrible mistake, as their standard bearer is transparently unfit for the highest office in the land, and although he may have played well an apoplectic and ill-informed party base, whose better judgments were clouded by anti-establishment rage, he will be unable to attract the sizeable number of moderates that end up deciding every Presidential election since time immemorial. The verdict tends to be more mixed regarding the Democratic nominee, because although she is widely disliked (especially by those politically leaning towards the right, no shit Sherlock!) she is seen as more capable of “pivoting to the center” while keeping most of the support among the party base. What I will argue in this post is that such valuations of each nominee prospects are deeply flawed, and originate more in the prejudices of the commentators than in a dispassionate appraisal of the voters’ mood, and that Hillary’s position in particular is considerably more precarious than what pundits think.
First let’s review Trump’s position. Although soon after securing the nomination some polls that can not be discounted as hopelessly biased (ABC News/ Washington Post no less) were announcing a tie between him and Hillary (with Trump slightly ahead), most analysts have discounted them as a result of the different moment in the primary cycle, with Trump being already the nominee and thus benefitting from the republican voters uniting behind him while Mrs. Clinton was still battling an unexpectedly serious contender in the Vermont senator Bernie Sanders which was costing her an increasing amount of goodwill within her own party (more on that later on). Those same analysts keep on telling us that a) we shouldn’t read too much from polls so early on, b) once Hillary clinches the nomination (even more so if Mr. Sanders finally recognizes the futility of him continuing in a race he can’t win, and finally endorses her) she will consolidate the Democrats’ vote and c) the campaign will highlight Mr. Trump many weaknesses (Trump University, his questionable management style that allowed him to stay rich while the casinos owned by him went under, his racism, misogyny and overall lack of knowledge of any issue outside of real state development…) and make the “reasonable majority” of the electorate sour on him.
I’m not yet ready to throw overboard such arguments, as each one of them seem prima facie quite plausible, but I can not avoid pointing the similarity with the scenario most pundits painted early in the primaries, when polls where showing unequivocally that Trump was the most widely preferred of all the republican candidates. Back then pundits of every stripe, from the right and from the left, made essentially the same argument we are hearing now. “we are in position A, where Trump leads. As it is unimaginable that Trump becomes the nominee, in June 2016 we will be in position B, where Trump has sunk in the polls and any other candidate (pick your choice) will be the nominee”, however, what happened to transform position A into position B was never clearly stated. What we hear now is “we are in position A where Trump and Clinton are technically tied (more or less). As it is unimaginable that roughly half of the electorate can seriously consider voting for such a con artist, come the first Sunday of November we will be in position B, where Hillary will lead by 20 points or more”. But again, what happens to move from A to B is anybody’s guess, as neither a) nor b) nor c) are likely to cause such a shift in the polls.
But not only is there no clear or convincing rationale for why Trump’s support may collapse in the next five months, but what I will argue is that Hillary has vulnerabilities of her own that may cause her support to waver and, if not outright crumble, at least have serious difficulties equaling that of the casino and real state mogul. Let’s turn from Trump’s unlikely position (undisputed standard bearer of the republican party, with conservative voters coalescing around him as they have done around any candidate in previous electoral cycles, much to the chagrin and despair of the specifically republican commentariat) to Hillary’s. I already noted that she is entering the campaign as one of the most disliked public figures in recent memory, only surpassed by David Duke and Trump himself. But I believe that there is a subtle difference between who dislikes Trump and who dislikes Hillary that has the potential to have a tremendous impact in the election. To put it shortly, Trump is mostly and most ardently disliked by people from his outgroup: blacks, latinos, progressive women, and the urban white educated upper-middle class in the two coasts. People who weren’t (and aren’t) going to vote for him no matter what but, and here’s the catch, constitute roughly 40% of the electorate, and are just a fraction of the whole democratic base. On the other hand side, who most viscerally dislikes Hillary? Old white males (specially those between them exposed to more than two minutes a day of Fox News), their wives, blue collar workers in the industrial belt and in rural areas and, here is the big thing, the young university students that in normal conditions should be mostly part of the democrat’s roster, but this time seem to be positively repelled by her, in good measure because of the fervor with which they bought the idea propagated by Bernie Sanders’ camp that she is a puppet of Wall Street and a foreign policy hawk and her election would mean more of the same (more militaristic aggression of unsuspecting foreign lands, more inequality and more boondoggles for the well-lobbied and well-connected). What this means is that Trump abysmal approval ratings may not cost him much. Rather the opposite, they allow him to take for granted a whole section of the electorate, and openly demonize and antagonize them, which in turn helps him gain points with another, bigger part. That’s the essence of the populist’s game, and what make them so dangerous for any republic, instead of respecting checks and balances and ensuring a modicum of well-being and representation for everybody thy pit one group against another, and promise the bigger one the spoils from the total annihilation of the smaller.
But Hillary’s not-so-bad unfavorability is a much bigger problem for her, as it partially overlaps with members of the coalition she needs to mobilize in November to win. At this point, all you have to do to get a taste of the size of such problem is read the comment section of any political article or opinion piece in the NYT. Between 30 and 40% of said comments are by super-angry Bernie supporters that loudly proclaim that they will never vote for Hillary, that the election has been stolen from them by a corrupt establishment, and that they will rather vote for Trump and see the whole falsely representative and rotten edifice come crashing down than renounce the purity of their ideals. Most commentators think that is just a manifestation of the passionate nature of youth (although many a Bernie bro and sis is well over 50), and that once the fairness of the process through which Hillary won sinks in they will accept the result, make peace with the candidate and end up falling in line and duly voting against Trump. Maybe they will, maybe they won’t, and subsequent polls may help us calibrate to what extent such movement and acceptance may be taking place, but I wouldn’t bet much on it happening. The level of bile and disaffection shown by the senator from Vermont’s followers seems not just quantitatively, but also qualitatively different from anything that I’ve seen in previous cycles (from Dean followers when Kerry was chosen candidate to, yes, Hillary followers when Obama was chosen instead).
Does that mean that Hillary is doomed, and that the unthinkable scenario of a Trump presidency may really come to pass? Not necessarily, as Brian Beutler in the New Republic recently remembered, Hillary doesn’t need all that many of Bernie’s followers to win come November (How many Bernie supporters does Clinton need?). Unfortunately for her, those followers are not the only part of her coalition that may desert her until then. I’ve already mentioned blue collar workers in the industrial areas that have been decimated by decades of globalization that, in the popular imagination at least, she and her husband championed. Add to them the white collar workers in the lower educational rings whose income hasn’t improved in those same decades, and that are subject to increasing anxiety as the last economic recovery (like the two before that one) is definitely not lifting their boats and you start seeing how an intelligent Trump campaign (something that may seem far-fetched now, but has to be considered for completeness sake) could turn competitive many of the purple states that now almost guarantee a Democratic victory.
It could be counter argued that the migration of disaffected voters can go both ways, and that there are surely many traditional Republican constituencies that must be similarly appalled by the mercurial and unreliable character of the man that has been chosen to represent them, and thus will probably switch sides. We know that such people exist because we hear from them almost daily in the MSM. The #NeverTrump movement started by right wing intellectuals. The daily denunciations from the Weekly Standard, National Review, the conservative stable at the WaPo (Charlie Krauthammer, Michael Gerson, George F. Will, Jennifer Rubin, geez, there are really a lot of them there!), at the NYT (Davey Brooks and Ross Douthat, you may add of late Peter Wehner)… must have some effect. They must be peeling some conservatives away from Trump into the arms of some unknown candidate (not David French, sure, but may be at last Gary Johnson) or even, to really and most effectively preclude what they consider the most dreadful outcome, in those of Hillary Clinton. Well, let’s wake up, folks, If the Trump phenomenon has shown something is how utterly ineffectual the conservative luminaries are, and how little they are able to influence their side. Honestly, if I were one of them I would renounce my profession and enter a monastery for life (or at least for the next eight years while the country is administered by whoever ends up winning in November). Surely I wouldn’t count on any of them to be of much help to any non-Trump candidate. They may have a little fun toying with their principled stance, and patting themselves in the back for how righteous and dignified they sounded (except those of them that will in the end ally themselves with the devil and more or less openly endorse Trump as the lesser of two evils, which I still expect some of them to do) but their purported coreligionists have forsaken them and we can ignore their pleas for the remainder of the campaign.
All of this shouldn’t be taken as me believing that Trump has it done, and that he is more likely than not to win in November. It just means that when you see any political analyst (or casual commentator) self assuredly declaring that no matter what the polls say, it’s going to be a “shellacking”, a “landslide” or a “trouncing”, that Hillary will win between 40 and 50 states and more than 370 electoral votes, and that Dems will likely recover the Senate and may be the House you should take it with a bit of salt, as many of them will just be projecting their desires on a more fluid, more uncertain electoral reality, and confusing their wishes with what the data show. That said, if I had to make a forecast I would still say that Hillary wins the White House by a moderate margin (around +5% of the popular vote, which may translate in an enormous difference in electoral votes if she plays her cards right, which she will undoubtedly do, it is Trump’s campaigning prowess and acumen which is a wildcard here). Regarding the Senate, it is too soon to tell, but I don’t see the Repubs losing it yet. As for the House, it stays Republican led in any conceivable scenario. How likely is that? Much less than the sure thing liberals are currently dreaming of. I’d say Hil has a 55% chance against Trump’s 45%. Close enough to flip if a) Trump puts together a half competent organization (something he didn’t need to do in the primaries) b) Hillary is indicted (very, very unlikely, but you never can tell for sure) or c) a “black swan” event (from a sudden severe recession to a major terror attack –I don’t think Orlando qualifies as serious enough) upends the campaign.
Wait and see, as I always say towards the end of these kind of posts, it’s gonna be a hell of a show to watch.