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.