The more it looks like Donald Trump is in the process of losing the 2016 presidential contest to Hillary Clinton, the more anti-Trump Republicans are creating an alternative, imaginary election in which a nominee other than Trump is winning handily. This imaginary election is part of a project that will become extremely prominent after November 8 if Trump loses, in which Republicans blame all their problems on their “accidental nominee” and claim a majority status that was denied them at the polls by the terrible mistake made by primary voters.
The Washington Post’s anti-Trump Republican blogger Jennifer Rubin wrote up the imaginary election in some detail today, identifying ten things a “normal” Republican — she uses Trump’s own running mate Mike Pence as an example — would be doing differently from Trump, avoiding many of his controversies and distractions and making the election “about” Hillary Clinton and dissatisfaction with the status quo.
[A] “normal” Republican would have sidestepped most of Trump’s colossal errors. Not only Pence but Bush, Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Ohio Gov. John Kasich could all have been running that race. Had any of them prevailed in the primaries, Clinton would be looking at defeat.
And here’s the moral of the story, in case it’s not already clear:
It’s worth asking what dysfunction on the right exists that helped elevate the candidate uniquely incapable of running a sane, effective campaign. The road to the GOP’s recovery might begin with finding out why sane, competent and prepared candidates cannot get the presidential nomination.
For Republicans engaged in the alternative, imaginary election, there’s even some high-life help from political scientists available. Lynn Vavreck of UCLA explains today at the Upshot that there are a couple of ways to measure how a “normal” Republican might be doing in place of Trump. One is to utilize some election forecasting model based on various “fundamentals” (e.g., economic conditions, presidential job approval, length of incumbent control of White House) and project how a Republican nominee ought to be doing.
Doing this yields a very tight race, extremely close to the 50-50 mark. The Upshot’s election forecast and other forecasts give Hillary Clinton a substantial lead, suggesting how much Mr. Trump might be underperforming an average Republican nominee from the past several decades, given how close this election was supposed to be based on fundamentals like the economy and the president’s approval rating.
Another approach is simply to look at polling numbers for an unnamed, “generic” Republican candidate. Vavreck points out that the “generic” number declined significantly once it became apparent that Trump would be the nominee, indicating he was underperforming other possible nominees. And then there’s the generic congressional ballot, where relative Republican strength indicates there’s something about Trump — not about Republicans — that is troubling voters.
It would be a bit ironic if Trump does not drag down the entire ticket in a loss, and then that fact is used as proof that anybody else would have romped to victory. But that’s exactly the kind of reasoning that is sharpening many axes in anti-Trump Republican circles in preparation for a grand bloodbath once the returns are in. In the end, Donald Trump’s great gift to the GOP may be a general-election campaign so eccentric that the party’s “normal” Establishment feels absolutely no responsibility for defeat. The path forward for Republicans will then be clear enough: purge supporters of the accidental nominee Donald Trump, unite to oppose the accidental president Hillary Clinton, and then resume the “normal” path to total power Republicans were confidently striding toward until Trump appeared and ruined everything.