Does History Give Trump Any Hope of a Big Comeback?

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Gerald Ford was left for dead in 1976 but nearly won.
Photo: Bettmann/Corbis via Getty Images

Now that it’s becoming clear Hillary Clinton’s lead over Donald Trump in the polls is not some ephemeral convention “bounce,” the oddsmakers are becoming skeptical of Donald Trump’s ability to play catch-up at this relatively late date. Betting markets now give Trump a 19 percent chance of winning; FiveThirtyEight’s polls-only forecast gives the mogul only an 11 percent chance. Current polls aside, there is not a whole lot of precedent for a candidate coming back from a sizable post-convention deficit to win, much less a candidate with Trump’s various issues.

But as Nate Cohn reminds us at the Upshot, there are two precedents in living memory of major-party nominees in similar straits who later came back to very nearly win: Hubert Humphrey in 1968 and Gerald Ford in 1976. In both cases, the candidates in question were suffering from the aftereffects of hotly contested nomination contests and serious intraparty ideological tensions. In both cases, they made big strides in public-opinion standing late in the general election race as partisans “came home.” Since Trump is also struggling to keep Republican voters in his column, is it possible he can engineer a similar comeback when an insanely polarized electorate goes to its opposite corners?

Sure, it’s possible. But there are differences between Humphrey and Ford on the one hand and Trump on the other that go beyond the obvious fact that, well, HHH and Ford were longtime distinguished members of Congress and vice-presidents (and in Ford’s case, president), while Trump’s a real-estate mogul and reality-TV star.

Humphrey and Ford were the nominees of parties fresh from historic landslide wins in the prior presidential cycle, making their potential vote totals enormous. Trump is the nominee of a party that has lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections. Both HHH ’68 and Ford ’76 ran conventional presidential campaigns benefiting from the wholehearted support of established party constituencies and the best campaign techniques money and party loyalty could buy. Trump, by contrast, has been repudiated or abandoned by more of his fellow partisan elites than any major-party nominee since George McGovern or Barry Goldwater, and his campaign isn’t exactly top-heavy with talent.

And finally, Humphrey and Ford, for all their shortcomings, were extremely well-known commodities and reassuring figures. Whatever you think of Donald Trump, he’s about as reassuring as a kick in the teeth.

Setting aside his prospects for victory or his standing in the polls, Trump actually has some notable similarities to the eventual winners of the 1968 and 1976 races. The parallels to Richard Nixon are most obvious; it’s no accident that Trump calls his following a “silent majority” and reportedly modeled his nomination acceptance speech on the Tricky One’s in 1968. And despite vast differences, Trump also has a few things in common with 1976 winner Jimmy Carter: He’s a consummate “outsider” who is upsetting many traditional partisan patterns (Carter not only swept the South in 1976, he also ran behind George McGovern in some more liberal parts of the country).

But the more you look at it, Trump’s not much like anyone who wound up in a very tight race in 1968, 1976, or any other year. He cannot rely on history to come to his rescue between now and November 8. To win, he’s going to have to make history and defy as much precedent as he did in winning the GOP nomination in the first place.