When Donald Trump started his zany campaign —laced with racism, xenophobia, nasty remarks about women, and endless falsehoods — most analysts said he could not possibly win the Republican primaries. Yet he did so easily.
So, the very analysts who once derided his chances now wonder if he will win the presidential poll. He may be morally terrible, but is good at winning elections. His political incorrectness and willingness to speak his mind have made his rabid populism an electoral advantage, not disadvantage.
He has antagonized not just the intelligentsia but the entire Republican establishment. He has violated many basic Republican policy tenets such as low taxes, free trade, respect for women and traditional values, and the need to woo the Hispanic vote. He wants to raise taxes on the rich and scrap free-trade arrangements. He speaks contemptuously of women, boasts of the size of his sexual parts, and claims he can shoot anybody in the middle of the road and still get people to vote for him. His diatribe against a judge of Mexican origin has been denounced as plain racism by top Republicans including House Speaker Paul Ryan.
Why then does Trump win primaries? Because the voters are in a nasty mood, sick and tired of conventional politicians. Living standards used to rise steadily in the US, but no more. Incomes have stagnated, many people have lost good jobs in industry and make do with low-paid service jobs. Globalization, with its outsourcing and inflow of immigrants, is suddenly seen as a threat to jobs and identity. Moderate solutions from moderate politicians no longer seem to work, so voters look in despair for populist, extremist alternatives.
This explains the angst in the Democratic Party, where a hitherto unknown Bernie Sanders calling himself a socialist — a tag that used to be political suicide — gave Hillary Clinton a long, hard battle in the Democratic primaries. Both Trump and Sanders have tapped into the deep disgruntlement of voters.
Does this open the door for an unconventional presidential outcome? Can Trump win with his radical populism?
I believe Trump will thrashed by Hillary, not just beaten. She is unloved, evasive and devious, and widely disliked within her party. Many Sanders supporters declare passionately they will not vote for her in the presidential election.
The US voting system apportions electoral college votes to each state. The total of electoral votes can greatly magnify a small lead in the popular vote. In 2008, Barack Obama beat John McCain by 52.9% to 45.7% in the popular vote, but won a whopping 365 electoral college votes to McCain’s 173. In 2004, George W Bush scraped past John Kerry by 50.73% of the vote to 48.27%, but had a bigger electoral college victory of 286 seats to 251. In 1976, Jimmy Carter won 50.1% of the vote, just ahead of Gerald Ford’s 48%, but his electoral college lead was 297 to 240.
In photo-finish elections, a candidate with a minority of the popular vote can win, as Bush did against Al Gore in 2000. Barring a photo finish, a modest gap in votes translates into a substantial electoral college victory.
Political power in the US regularly swings between Republicans and Democrats. So, the clincher can be a party’s ability to enthuse and mobilize its supporters, and ensure they vote on election day. That alone can add a couple of percentage points to its candidate’s vote, making the difference between victory and defeat. Karl Rove, chief Bush strategist, won two close elections for his boss by getting Republicans out to vote on polling day.
Today, both parties face a quandary. Many Democrats, especially Sanders diehards, dislike Hillary. And the entire Republican establishment dislikes, sometimes abhors Trump. The result will be an election with a low turnout, with many unmotivated Republicans and Democrats staying at home.
But without question Trump will suffer far more on this score than Hillary. Trump has antagonized vast sections of the Republican Party, including its establishment. Many of these Republicans will ultimately vote for Trump, saying that with all his flaws he is better than Hillary. But he has disgusted so many partymen that maybe 10% or more will sit at home rather than vote for anyone.
Hillary Clinton will suffer a similar sit-at-home problem among Democrats, but these may add up to no more than 2-3% of all Democratic voters. On balance, far more Republicans will stay at home than Democrats. If that translates into a gap of say 5% of the popular vote it will sink Trump without a trace. He will be hammered.
An early opinion poll gave Hillary a lead of just 3% over Trump, small enough to be overcome. A more recent Bloomberg poll gave her a huge lead of 12%, virtually impossible to reverse by polling day. The latter is more in line with the logic of this column. I have taken a bet that Hillary will win at least 315 electoral college votes, well above the 270 required. Let’s see what happens.