After dismissing Donald Trump as a passing summer phase, one that lingered uncomfortably long into autumn, as winter approaches, a chill of fear has descended upon the Republican Establishment. The Washington Post and the New York Times have both reported on the Republican elite’s response to Trump’s continued polling lead, and the general picture is long on trepidation over the rising prospects of a Trump nomination and short on action to prevent it from happening.
1. Can Trump really win the nomination? My long-standing conviction that Trump stands little chance of winning the Republican nomination has softened slightly, but not nearly enough for me to credit him as an authentic front-runner. (I’d peg Trump as the third-most-likely nominee, behind Marco Rubio, the runaway leader, and Ted Cruz. Trump may be frightening enough to the party to render the once-unthinkable Cruz thinkable.) Trump has hung around long enough and survived enough assaults from the Establishment that it is possible to imagine him prevailing. If Trump can consolidate the majority of Republican voters who favor mass deportation and closing off entry for Syrian refugees, he could prevail. But the key fact to bear in mind is that most primary voters make up their minds at the last minute. Trump’s lofty poll standing may show that nothing he has done has irrevocably poisoned him in the minds of his supporters, but it hardly proves that he has won the loyalty of a plurality, let alone a majority, of the voters.
2. He’s no Goldwater. The explicit or implicit point of comparison for worried Republicans is the landslide defeat of Barry Goldwater in 1964, or George McGovern in 1972 — instances where the opposition party nominated an ideologically extreme insurgent candidate and went on to lose, respectively, 44 and 49 states.
But the sorts of landslides that could occur four or five decades ago could probably not happen today. Polarization has set a floor beneath both parties’ support. The Republican Party could swing from less than 39 percent of the vote in 1964 to more than 61 percent of the vote in 1972 in no small part because the party of Lyndon Johnson and the party of Richard Nixon had a great deal in common. Johnson was a Cold War hawk who massively expanded the Vietnam War; Nixon hiked Social Security benefits, founded the Environmental Protection Agency, and proposed a national health-care plan. The pool of persuadable voters has shrunk dramatically since then, as the two parties have sorted themselves into hardened blocs with coherent worldviews. Trump would have a higher floor of support than either Goldwater or McGovern because Republican voters simply loathe the Democrats too deeply to contemplate voting for one.
3. Trump is still a really bad candidate. In this polarized atmosphere, Democrats have a generalized demographic advantage. Political loyalties are tied closely to tribal identity, and the tribes composing the Democratic coalition — nonwhite voters and secular whites — are accounting for a steadily growing share of the electorate. This is not to say that Republicans cannot win a presidential election, merely that they require specialized conditions to do so: a recession or a major scandal during a Democratic administration, or something else that causes Democratic voting to fall off well below normal presidential levels.
Trump, at best, narrows the GOP’s already-thin margin for error. Everything about his persona would inspire Democratic-leaning voters to rally around their nominee, however uninspired they might otherwise be feeling. As a racist, a nativist, an astonishingly crude misogynist, and an almost comical anti-intellectual, Trump cuts the perfect villainous figure in the Democratic imagination. He is the ultimate anti-Obama. (A fact that no doubt helps explain his Republican support.)
4. Worse, Trump is the wrong kind of bad candidate for the Republican elite. Parties always face a trade-off between the risks of alienating swing voters and the benefits of campaigning on an ambitious version of their ideal platform. Trump provides the GOP elite with an especially unattractive trade-off. His platform is not notably ambitious on the issues they care most about, like deregulation of finance and energy, a more regressive tax code, and reduced spending on social insurance programs like Medicare, Social Security, and Obamacare. Trump instead “spends” his popularity on offending minorities and women in general, and on restrictive immigration policy in particular — the issue where the GOP elite is most willing to pragmatically accommodate Democratic voters. Even worse, Republicans justifiably regard Trump as completely unreliable. His pronouncements on politics may lean rightward on the whole, but they splatter all over the map. At times, he has endorsed universal health insurance, higher taxes on the rich, and even praised leading Democrats — including Obama!
Trump has brought his policies fairly closely into line with the Republican platform. But he does not surround himself with conventional Republican policy advisers, and he is egomaniacal enough to give Republican elites good reason to doubt his reliability. If elected, would Trump continue to put himself behind the Republican agenda, even at the expense of his own public standing? Who knows?
5. A nominated Trump would be a different figure. It is difficult to judge just how badly Trump would fare in a general election, since the conditions under which he would present himself to America as a nominee would look very different. Right now Trump divides the Republican Party and its allied media. He is the subject of withering attacks from many conservative commentators. This, in turn, frees up the mainstream media to assess Trump’s lies in fairly blunt terms. Rigorously down-the-middle reporters can call Trump a liar without fear of jeopardizing their nonpartisan credibility because they are echoing arguments made by many Republicans.
But a world in which Trump had won the nomination would look very different. In that scenario, the Republicans who currently have a strong incentive to tear him down would instead have a strong incentive to rally around their nominee and salvage his standing. A nominated Trump would bring onboard some Establishment advisers currently working for his rivals. Conservatives who insisted during the primary they could never support him would see in their nominee a different, more sober and thoughtful figure than the demagogue they had lambasted months before. And because Republicans would now be rallying around him, Trump would enjoy far more latitude for his wild claims. Fear of partisan bias would then dissuade the media from labeling Trump’s lies as lies.
The different media context facing Trump as a hypothetical nominee would translate into a more positive image. He would remain deeply polarizing, but his profile would more closely approach that of a regular Republican candidate, as opposed to one absorbing the unified disdain not only of liberals but of the mainstream media and half his own party. Trump’s favorable ratings, currently in the mid-30s, would probably rise into the low-to-mid-40s, while his unfavorable ratings, in the mid-50s, would decline a few points.
In the aftermath of the 2012 election, it was obvious to nearly every analyst outside the Republican Party, and to quite a few of those within it, that the GOP needed to get immigration reform off the table to give it a chance with Latino voters. All House leaders had to do in order to accomplish this was to bring up an immigration-reform bill that had passed in the Senate, and it could have passed with just a few dozen Republican votes. Anger by the base paralyzed them from acting, and they muddled through instead. Not long ago, the prospect of Trump heading the ticket in 2016 was utterly unthinkable. Now it is thinkable, and it is possible to imagine the party absorbing yet another blow to its public standing and simply once again muddling through.