Obviously, Donald Trump winning the GOP nomination would be a terrible turn of events for the Republican Party and the modern conservative movement. The Republicans are serious under dogs in the presidential election this year regardless of who they nominate.The electoral math, turnout in presidential years, the state of the economy and foreign affairs, all favor the Democratic nominee, though these advantages only tell part of the 2016 story and can be over-valued. The real ace-in-the-hole for the Democratic nominee is the clarity of the institutional partisan stakes in 2016, and the persistent power of “party identity,” which remains the principle driver of voters’ political and electoral calculations.
The GOP’s best hope has always been to try to frame the 2016 race in candidate-centric terms. They hoped to make it about the fitness of Hillary Clinton, though nominating Trump would seriously undermine the credibility of the “character” argument for the GOP. The real motivation for focusing on attacking Clinton is to distract voters from the fact that a Republican White House win would give the GOP control of all three branches of the federal government.
Trump has played culturally conservative GOP primary voters for fools, to be sure, but if he’s the nominee even most reasonable Republican voters will hold their noses and vote for Trump in November, which means that Trump could help the GOP to distract “swing” voters from the party stakes. He could help make it a candidate-centric, rather than a party-centric contest, by blowing up the general election media-narrative the same way he did the GOP primaries media narrative.
The challenge for Hillary Clinton and the Democrats will be to keep the big picture (i.e. the party stakes) in full view. She cannot simply argue that Trump is a train wreck (though he clearly is).She has to make sure that her campaign narrative focuses on the catastrophic policy impacts of a Republican-controlled federal government, not simply of a Trump presidency, because at the end of the day it’s still clear that party identity, not candidate-centric attacks, drives general election voters’ choices.
This will be harder than you might think for Clinton, who will face enormous pressure to get down in the mud with Trump at every turn. There will, no doubt, be lots of anti-Trump super PAC spending on the Democratic side. Clinton faces the tricky issue of out-sourcing the mud-slinging AND not letting it drown out her larger partisan/policy message. Lots of folks will be urging her to “fight fire with fire” and not to let Trump “define” her the way he did his “low energy” and “lying” GOP rivals. In order to be effective Clinton (and her super PACS) need to attach “Republican” to EVERY description of, comment about, or attack on Trump.
If the 2016 election narrative centers on a steel gage match between Hillary and The Donald, Trump could over-perform, though he would remain VERY unlikely to win.If the campaign narrative is sufficiently policy/party-centric, Clinton wins in a walk.
At the end of the day, I remain confident that the 2016 presidential race will play out as I predicted it would last summer. It won’t be pretty, and the commercial media will most definitely exaggerate the competitiveness of the race, but the real power stakes will “trump” Trump and America will elect its first female president in the fall.