WSJ editor: Trump must be defeated as decisively as possible to teach Republican voters a lesson

Via RCP, there’s #NeverTrump and then there’s this guy. What he says here is interesting mainly for the counterfactual it presents, I think. What if Trump doesn’t lose decisively? Looking at the polls today, it’s hard to believe he’ll do any worse than McCain did in 2008. It’s possible, even likely, that he’ll perform at least as well with middle-class voters as Romney did in 2012. If he ends up losing narrowly this fall, politicos will draw the conclusion that a nationalist candidate is just as viable in the general election, if not more so, than a more doctrinaire conservative, which opens the door for an ideological death struggle within the GOP in 2020. There’ll be ways to challenge that conclusion, of course: Hillary was an atypically weak Democrat, conservatives will say, while the Trump phenomenon was unique to the man himself given his media savvy, something no successor can duplicate. Populist conservatives like Ted Cruz will insist that Trump’s surprising showing was a result of his populism, not his nationalism. Even so, a narrow defeat will singlehandedly move the debate on the right towards the proposition that Trumpism is the GOP’s best bet long-term, and Bret Stephens sees it coming. That’s why he’s rooting for Goldwater margins, not just the mere fact of defeat. Whether you’re pro-Trump or anti-, the simple fact is that any degree of electoral success for him, even if he falls short, is legitimizing for his movement.

Given the current state of the race, with even longtime Trump skeptics like Sean Trende marveling at how well he’s doing and upgrading his odds of winning, the CW has already moved decisively from “Trump will lose badly” to “Trump will lose a close one.” I agree that it’ll be close — no candidate as bad as Hillary Clinton is capable of a landslide — but if you’re looking for reasons to think an easy Democratic win is still in the offing, they’re out there:

The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows Hillary Clinton with a narrow three-point lead over Donald Trump, 46 percent to 43 percent. But if Bernie Sanders were out of the race the NBC News political unit estimates her lead would likely be much larger, perhaps up around eight points, 51 percent to 43 percent

[T]o get a better look at where the Clinton-Trump race might stand after the nominating dust has settled, we recalculated the latest NBC/WSJ poll with Clinton capturing 70 percent of the Sanders-only vote.

The result: those Sanders-only voters are worth an extra five points to Clinton. In the NBC/WSJ poll, Clinton’s advantage over Trump goes from three points to eight points and she leads 51 percent to 43 percent. But the difference holds in other polls as well.

If Sanders voters come home to the Democratic nominee, her lead is much bigger than it looks right now. Trump’s RCP poll average is just 42.8 percent even with most of the GOP having already united behind him and with Democrats split between Bernie and Hillary amid their knife fight over California. There’s also reason to think, despite the bitterness of that primary, that it’ll be easier for Democrats to unite this year than it was in 2008 after the Obama/Clinton primary. Skim the numbers here and you’ll find that Democrats then viewed John McCain more favorably than they view Trump now. Months after the primary ended, Obama’s favorability among Clinton voters topped out at a relatively weak 71 percent. Anything can happen — Sanders could refuse to support Hillary enthusiastically, his voters could stay home, and so on — but if Hillary consolidates his voters this fall as well as Obama consolidated hers, Trump has a heavy lift.

But then, why would anyone expect her to do as well unifying the party as Obama did? Obama’s a vastly superior retail politician who was able to sell himself as an authentic left-winger in a way that Hillary simply can’t. Obama wasn’t confronted with the task of pacifying an anti-establishment cohort in 2008 like Hillary is now vis-a-vis Bernie fans; he was the anti-establishment cohort, with scarcely an ounce of political baggage compared to the tons now carried by Hillary. Hillary fans disliked him because he was a usurper, a sin which could be forgiven in time especially given how similar he and Clinton were on policy. Bernie fans dislike her because she’s a phony whom they believe, not unjustifiably, doesn’t really share much of Sanders’s agenda. I think she’ll have a harder time unifying Dems than Obama did because it’s harder to pacify people if they think you’re a phony than if they see you as a usurper (Trump, the GOP usurper, has had little unity trouble on his own side) and also because, let’s face it, everything comes harder politically to Hillary Clinton than it does to O.