The Trumpian Prophets

Now that Trump has completed his highly improbable path to the GOP nomination (barring a last second delegate coup), the nation’s bars, water coolers, and grills are being manned by people who say, with furrowed brow and grave tone, “I think Trump can win.” When pressed on what has led them to such an insight, they generally say something about how unpredictable the election cycle has been, how nothing seems to affect his poll numbers, or reference his brutal rhetorical slaughters of all GOP nominees who dared challenge him on the debate stage. Treating past as prologue, these sagacious prophets gaze ahead at the nation’s future under the leadership of President Donald J. Trump.

Now it should be said at the outset that of course Trump can win. He is a major party nominee and, regardless of what he does or says, he’ll attract tens of millions of votes from people who will vote out of party loyalty, genuine enthusiasm for Trump, or a hatred of Hillary Clinton. On top of that, with even a minimal effort to moderate his incendiary statements and outlandish policy proposals, he’ll have organizational support from the Republican Party and its donors, which could provide him with hundreds of millions of dollars to build up what is, at present, a barely existent campaign structure. Furthermore, there is the possibility, however unlikely that Hillary Clinton will be indicted for her email practices and give Trump a boost. So yes, Trump can win the election, but does he have a good chance to do so? At the present time: absolutely not.

As was the case with the last two Republican nominees, Trumps has entered the general election with a huge handicap in the electoral map. If  Hillary Clinton can simply win the state’s that are near-certain or likely Democratic states, she needs only one or two swing states to cross the 270 electoral vote threshold and win the election. Trump, on the other hand, starts the election with only 191 electoral votes in safe or likely Republican states (according to Crystal Ball), meaning he needs to win a number of highly competitive swing states to surpass the same threshold. Trump could win all 191 electoral votes in the GOP column plus Florida, Ohio, Virginia, and North Carolina, and he would still narrowly lose. Clinton on the other hand would virtually lock up the election if she can win Florida. So yes, it is possible Trump can win, but it’s also unlikely.

People predicting a Trump victory are also underestimating the extent to which a national campaign infrastructure and political experience can help in the general election. In the GOP primaries, which were low-turnout affairs full of conservative voters who wanted to send an outsider with two middle fingers to Washington, Trump could make do with headline-grabbing antics and “politically incorrect” statements that obviously resonated with a large share of the GOP base. For the general election, however, the campaign needs to sustain a presence across the entire country for months at a time. Trump can’t swoop into Virginia, win 35% of the vote, claim victory, and leave.

Hillary Clinton, as a veteran of four presidential campaigns, is obviously well aware of this. She has a seasoned staff, a massive network of volunteers and donors, and ads already on the air in several key markets. Donald Trump seems remarkably unaware of the playing field he’s on, whittling away time in non-competitive states, planning a trip to Scotland to open a golf course, and making a lukewarm attempt to court donors. He already wasted an unexpected gift when the Republican nomination process concluded earlier than that of the Democrats, and now Trump seems to be only gradually realizing, after weeks of shooting himself in the foot, that he needs to begin making an effort if he has any interest in this election.

Trump’s effort to at least run a serious campaign may have taken a step forward when he cast aside campaign manager Corey Lewandowski this week, but he still has to overcome a built-in disadvantage in the electoral map, staggeringly high unfavorable ratings, and a bitterly divided party. Sure Trump can win, but his improbable victory in the primaries doesn’t mean that people can’t survey the evidence and see that he has a steep hill to climb and a narrow path to navigate. Election day is a ways away, but Trump is going to need a lot of help to get there with any shot at the presidency.

Trump’s Pivotal Flop

The General Election Pivot has become something of a tradition in contemporary American politics, as the nominated candidates pirouette from gymnasiums of party activists to coliseums of swing state voters. Some candidates make the transition seamlessly after uncontested or skillfully moderated primaries, while others careen out of partisan free-for-alls to try to explain away the promises they made to their bases.

Donald Trump’s segue into the general election has been harder to comprehend, in part because there has been no such pivot. The Donald has yet to accept or adjust to the fact that the general election is a bigger, more diverse playing field than the GOP primary and seems to think he can continue to settle scores, brush aside skeptics, and exacerbate controversies without consequence. Perhaps his abysmal poll numbers will jar him back to political reality but, with less than five months until election day, it may already be too late.

Although his candidacy was dismissed from beginning to end by the punditry, Trump’s politics were a perfect fit for the 2016 GOP primary. In a crowded field with a number of well-qualified but ideologically similar candidates, Trump had the name, temperament, and high-wattage personality to dominate the media landscape at the expense of his rivals. With this haphazard legion of competitors, Trump could afford to lose two-thirds of the voters in some states and still win the primary. In New Hampshire, where he scored his first primary victory, there were four other candidates who received at least 10 percent of the vote, and a litany of stragglers and also-rans lagged behind them. Trump needed only 35 percent of the vote to win the state, and a week later he took South Carolina in similar fashion with just 33 percent.

This environment incentivized Trump’s belligerence, as the networks provided endless coverage, his rallies attracted massive crowds, and the GOP debates became a sort of weekly political Super Bowl. Also, with the need to moderate his positions eliminated by the divided nature of his opposition, Trump could afford to stand out with his aggressive and often repugnant rhetoric. Faced with doubts about his candidacy that persisted long after he had built a substantial delegate lead, Trump may have learned the lesson too well that his belligerence was good politics.

As the Republican Party grudgingly accepted this orange-hued reality TV star as their nominee, it seemed likely that his advisers or the Republican National Committee would impress upon him that the general election was a new ballgame that required some degree of moderation. Trump, however, perhaps imaging himself smarter-by-half than the political insiders who had long doubted his candidacy, has decidedly gone in the opposite  direction, unleashing a salvo of controversial statements, insults, and policy proposals that have made the awfulness of his candidacy abundantly clear to the party and public alike. Five months is an eternity in politics, but even if he reforms tomorrow these past five weeks will weigh heavily on his candidacy.

What is obvious at this point is that Trump is simply unable or unwilling to understand that he is now facing the entire country as a candidate. His incendiary attacks on immigrants may have been accepted in overwhelmingly white, low-turnout primaries in crimson red Republican states, but in an increasingly diverse country these sentiments are increasingly met with the scorn they deserve. While it is astonishing to see a candidate on this stage with so little awareness of the electorate he’s facing, Trump, having just turned 70, is unlikely to remake himself in the public eye over the next few months. Facing the election as if he’s trying to win a tabloid war instead of the presidency, Trump seems to think he can fight the Democrats, half his own party, the media, and still navigate a path to victory. Facing off against a candidate backed by a comparatively unified Democratic Party, Trump is unlikely to insult his way to the White House.