Revolutions never come quietly, but many people don’t recognize them even when they arrive. With the electorates of both Republicans and Democrats mounting open insurrections, many people still seem to be living in denial. A friend recently asked whether anyone could put together a scenario by which Donald Trump could win in November, believing that none existed. Barack Obama himself told reporters at a press conference this week that he couldn’t imagine the American people electing Trump as his successor.
“I think they recognize that being president is a serious job,” Obama said from a US-Asian Leaders Summit in California. “It's not hosting a talk show or a reality show, it's not promotion, it's not marketing, it's hard.… it's not a matter of pandering and doing whatever gets you in the news on a given day.”
Oddly, Obama’s description fits modern political campaigning to a T, especially at the presidential level. He may have come closest to why Trump has managed to remain on top of the polls for as long as he has. It may not be a slam-dunk, but Trump’s dominance in the Republican field – and his most recent attacks on the GOP establishment – certainly point to a realistic, if perhaps still speculative, path to the White House.
Pundits have spent the last year discounting the populist revolts in the primaries of both major parties. No one gave Bernie Sanders a chance to present a serious challenge to Hillary Clinton; no one would take a Socialist seriously as a contender for the Democratic Party nomination. The Clintons had too many ties to the institutional donors on the Left and invested themselves in being team players for Barack Obama’s presidency.
Yet a year later, Sanders pulled off a virtual tie with the former Secretary of State in Iowa and a 22-point blowout win in New Hampshire. Team Hillary has begun to explain away a coming defeat in Nevada, and now looks nervously to their prospects in South Carolina. Suddenly, they find themselves in the fight of their lives.
Flip the script and this applies even more to Trump. If anyone had proposed a year ago that the New York-based real-estate tycoon – who made a spectator sport out of firing people – would become the working-class hero of the Republican rank-and-file, they would have been laughed off the op-ed pages. Every GOP campaign assumed Trump only wanted an opportunity for self-promotion, so much so that none took his positions seriously enough to rebut. Analysts assumed that voters were momentarily infatuated with Trump’s reality-television celebrity, and would eventually move to other, more traditional candidates.
Until Trump won New Hampshire, some continued to believe that – and still do, including President Obama. The question has shifted somewhat, though, to whether Trump can win in a two- or three-way race in the primaries. That speculation ignores a double-digit lead that Trump already has in most national polling and in several upcoming primary states. It also assumes that any other voters moving away from candidates such as Ben Carson, John Kasich, and Jeb Bush would switch in full to either Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio. At least thus far, polling trends show all three gaining support as other candidates fade.
Part of those assumptions have to do with the consideration primary voters usually give to electability. Trump is too vulgar, obnoxious, or vague to win a general election, the argument goes, and his likability numbers are the worst in both party’s primaries. Yet in national polling, Trump shows a competitive position against both Clinton and Sanders. A Suffolk University poll conducted on behalf of USA Today released this week shows Trump slightly ahead of Clinton, 45/43, a similar position to Cruz (45/44), and only slightly more narrow than Rubio (48/42). Unlike Cruz, Trump also edges out Sanders (44/43), while Rubio again only narrowly outperforms Trump (46/42).
How can this be possible? Voters have made it clear all along. The current political establishment in Washington and both parties have lost their trust. Under the leadership of both parties, the US has run up a massive amount of debt, failed to deliver on decades of campaign promises, and allowed bitter partisanship to stall any potential solutions.
Manufacturing jobs have dropped in favor of high-tech positions while wages stagnated over the past decade or more, leaving blue-collar workers without much hope of improving their lives. For these workers, massive unchecked illegal immigration has undermined wage competition as well, and that resentment crosses party and demographic lines in ways that do not neatly fit into the assumed red/blue paradigms.
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.