Seeing a lot of “the sky is falling” sentiment last night and this morning from people who are genuinely shocked that a blatantly racist and misogynistic buffoon like Donald Trump could become the de facto Republican nominee, and who have equated that with Trump’s ability to win in the general election. I’ve also seen more than one person cite this blog post by Scott Adams as argument for Trump’s strength in the general and his ability to pivot towards the center. (The fact that the argument for Scott Adams’ intelligence is his capability to recycle the same dozen gags over and over again to get people to buy Dilbert merchandise seems to have been momentarily lost.) The other big argument is that pundits got Trump’s chances wrong across the board and thought he could never win the nomination.
To this, speaking as someone who started predicting a likely Trump nomination victory in November of last year and advised people not to write off his chances as early as August – in short, as someone who has been more or less continually right about Trump’s chances all along – I’m going to say now: although it is not impossible for Donald Trump to win the general election against Hillary Clinton (it is never impossible; that is the nature of a two-party system), there is probably not a worse candidate with the possible exception of Ted Cruz that they could have nominated to go against Hillary, and every piece of actual data we have, rather than pundit sentiment, says that Trump is going to get absolutely murdered in the general.
Firstly, consider the low baseline. There are 18 states (plus the District of Columbia) that have gone Democratic in every election since 1992: Washington, Oregon, California, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Maine, Vermont, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Rhode Island, Maryland and Hawaii. Every single one of those states right now currently polls a hypothetical Hillary/Trump matchup with Hillary winning. In most cases she’s winning by ten points or more. If she wins all of these traditionally strongly Democratic states, and then wins Florida – where she presently beats Trump in the hypothetical matchup by thirteen points – that’s the ballgame because she has enough electoral votes to win. If she loses Florida but wins Ohio and Nevada (where she also leads Trump in general election matchups), she wins too. If she loses Florida, Ohio and Nevada but takes New Hampshire, Colorado and Virginia, she still wins. In order for Trump to have a shot of winning he has to crush Hillary and win essentially everywhere that he stands even a modest chance of winning. He has to be perfect.
He won’t be. There is a difference between winning a hyperpolarized Republican primary, where you can essentially say anything and it doesn’t matter, and winning the general. The modern GOP doesn’t really give a shit about policy; they’re a party founded on resentment (of liberals, of minorities, of foreigners, etc.) and if you express that resentment for them they’ll follow you over a cliff, which is how Trump won. But, across the board, he won a plurality of GOP voters – not even a majority, although by the end he’ll probably have a slight majority of overall votes and delegates. Trump is massively unpopular. His net unfavorability rating is averaging around negative twenty-five percent. Hillary, who is widely disliked, only averages around negative twelve percent – and historically that gets better whenever she’s obviously the target of sexist attacks. Donald Trump will be incredibly misogynistic towards Hillary because that’s who he is:
And if Trump has a weakness – he has many, actually. Trump’s personal and business history is loaded with egregiously awful things that will make glorious attack ad fodder, more juicy than the ad above. But his defining weakness is that he is a bully and when he gets challenged he loses his temper. His few moments of discomfiture during the Republican debates came when he was attacked, and during the GOP campaign his opponents could not call him out on many of his weaknesses because to the GOP primary audience they were strengths, but they will not be strengths with the general electorate.
Since we are talking about hypothetical general election matchups, let us talk about Bernie Sanders for a bit, because at this point in the campaign hypothetical election matchups are really all that is left. He and Hillary agree on too many policies for it to be otherwise; Bernie himself has pivoted to talking primarily about how he is best suited to beat Trump (or any other GOP candidate, but really, it was Trump everybody was talking about). The argument for Bernie is as follows: Hillary is unpopular; Bernie is not. Hillary does all right in hypothetical Trump matchups; Bernie does better. Therefore, Bernie is better equipped to beat Trump.
The problem is that Bernie is simply wrong about this. The argument assumes that Hillary and Bernie are equal quantities; they are not. Whatever one thinks of Hillary, she is a known quantity to the general American public; she can’t not be. Everybody in America has their opinions about Hillary more or less set already. Bernie is not a known quantity, and there is ample fodder for attack ads that the Hillary campaign has never touched. For example: in 1980, Bernie was an elector for the Socialist Workers Party. In 1980, the Socialist Workers Party called for solidarity with the revolutionary regime in Iran during the Iranian hostage crisis. The attack ad writes itself. As does the one where Sanders applied for conscientious objector status during the Vietnam War. And the one where he called for the abolishment of the Armed Forces in the 70s. And the one where he was arguing that military budgets should be halved in the 90s. All of these will hurt Bernie, some more than others, but he will have trouble arguing back against them because they all happen to be true.
And this is before we get to the big problem, which is that Bernie is a self-identified socialist. (Over the last couple years he’s started saying “democratic socialist” but it doesn’t really matter.) It’s literally the least popular trait a presidential candidate can have. According to polling, fifty percent of Americans would not vote for a socialist Presidential candidate. That’s worse than “atheist” (forty percent), “Muslim” (38 percent) and “gay” (24 percent). Even if we assume that’s soft and Bernie can get one out of five of them to consider it once he explains his policy enough, that still means only sixty percent of the electorate would be even willing to consider voting for Bernie.
This doesn’t mean that Bernie can’t beat Trump. He may well be able to do so. But it does mean arguments that he can beat Trump more easily than Hillary can because of current polling are facile arguments with no real weight to them.