We have not yet quite turned the corner on the primaries — although that’s likely coming sooner than later — and CBS News’ Will Rahn has begun mulling over a Hillary Clinton/Donald Trump general election. Despite the conventional wisdom about Trump’s chances in a general electorate, Rahn argues that Trump has two paths to the White House in November. The first path will be to trash Hillary Clinton and force the press to cover it:
What happens when Trump, after Hillary inevitably accuses him of sexism, says that Bill is a rapist, a serial assaulter of women, and that she is his enabler? What happens when he incorporates this into his stump speech? The upside, if you can call it that, to Trump’s refusal to act “presidential” is that he is the only candidate who will go that far. Trump, and Trump alone, is the only candidate who would not only resurrect all the Clinton sex scandals, but make them a centerpiece of his campaign.
But that’s just the appetizer. It’s one thing to convince people not to support an opponent. How would Trump convince people to vote for the Republican in November? Rahn figures that Trump will win by running only slightly to Hillary’s right, and hope to appeal to the center as the most liberal Republican nominee in decades:
Hillary’s weak points aside, Trump also has one main advantage, which is that he’d be probably the most moderate nominee in decades. Now, Trump is not normally what we think of when we think of moderates – “reactionary moderate” is perhaps the best term to describe him. But border walls and Muslim bans aside, Trump really most closely resembles an old-school northeastern centrist Republican.
Trump likes the welfare state. He’s made protecting entitlements central to his pitch. It’s safe to say that he’s likely, at heart, socially liberal — the story of how he became anti-abortion, for example, doesn’t make a great deal of sense. (That story, in brief: friends of his debated having an abortion. They did not. The kid turned out to be “a winner.” When pressed if he would have stayed pro-abortion if the kid was a loser, Trump once replied “probably not.”)
He clearly doesn’t like these “Bathroom Bills” popping up in red states; bad for business, and that’s always Trump’s bottom line. Regardless of what he says in the lead-up to next week’s Indiana primary, that probably goes for RFRAs as well. And given the milieu he’s always existed in, it’s hard to believe he really opposes gay marriage, either.
Trump has had the benefit of never really fleshing out what he believes about specific policies; nearly a year into his campaign, we still don’t know what he’d replace Obamacare with. He is, as his longtime advisor Roger Stone says, a “big picture” guy: pro-business, pro-military, pro-America. The rest is all open to negotiation, to making the best deal.
Perhaps. So far, there is no evidence that Trump has had this effect on the general electorate in key states where this approach would have to work — the Rust Belt states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and either Illinois or New York as a tradeoff for losing swing states like Florida, Virginia, Colorado, and Nevada with larger numbers of Hispanic voters, and probably North Carolina as well. Even absent evidence at this point of that effect, assuming that this approach flips Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Iowa, and New Hampshire on the strength of this appeal leaves Trump at 265 Electoral College votes — and data at the moment suggests that Trump might put Arizona and Georgia in play, with another 27 EC votes potentially lost.
Still, the anti-establishment pull is very strong, as I wrote back in February when I argued essentially the same scenario:
Given this situation, the path to a Trump victory may not be easy, but it can be seen. Trump has rallied voters disaffected by both gridlock and failure and promised them his expertise in finding success on their behalf. His incessant attacks instill confidence among his supporters that he will not back down short of victory. He aims those attacks at both sides of the aisle; blaming George W. Bush for 9/11 falls right into this strategy. For those who want to tear down the gridlocked establishment without caring much about policy specifics or ideological purity, Trump offers the brightest hope in the field.
This puts Trump in position to challenge either Democrat for the presidency. Clinton would be Trump’s easiest target; she represents nearly a quarter-century of the political establishment, and her personal polling qualities are nearly as bad as Trump’s. Clinton was beaten by Hope and Change eight years ago, and now she is more than ever the candidate of the Status Quo.
But Bernie Sanders might make almost as easy a target, having spent the last 25 years in Congress with very few real accomplishments other than maintaining his status as the only declared Socialist on Capitol Hill. His first steady income came as a politician, and it has been his only real job since graduating from the University of Chicago. Sanders might win the intellectual elite and the college-age voters who rarely turn out in large numbers, but Trump might have a claim on nearly everyone else.
Just because this path exists doesn’t mean it will necessarily unfold in this manner. Nor does it make Trump the best candidate or the best bet for Republicans, and especially not for movement conservatives. But it does mean that it’s time to face reality and admit that Donald Trump not only has a very good chance of winning the nomination, but also at winning the White House – at least until someone offers a more attractive alternative.
The biggest unknown in this equation will be whether Trump will invest in the kind of campaign that will actually turn out these anti-establishment votes. Rahn notes this too; “His seeming inability to set up any kind of nationwide infrastructure might alone doom him in a race with Clinton,” he writes as a caveat, and that’s the biggest obstacle to a GOP win regardless of their nominee. The RNC has built a formidable organization in the Republican Leadership Initiative, but it will take a nominee who invests time and effort into its proper use. Thus far, the best that can be said here about Trump’s chances is that there is no evidence yet that he’ll make that investment. Right now, though, it looks like Trump will get the opportunity to make that choice.