There is a distinct 1990s feel to the 2016 elections: the Clintons are back in politics, Trump is huge, and the setting for the election feels peculiarly like 2000 again. The Democratic incumbent was supposedly popular, the economy was doing quite well, in theory, but there was enough of unease in the air that the Democratic presidential nominee, despite being too obviously connected to the departing administration, refused to run on the basis of the status quo, and ultimately wound up being edged in a controversial election by a razor-thin margin.
The positives associated with the Obama administration, like those of the Clinton administration in 2000, should be baffling: while by a relatively small margin, the incumbent administration is viewed with approval by a majority of Americans. Economy seems to be doing fine–unemployment is down to around 5%, among other things. Yet, the status quo is not exactly warmly embraced broadly, even within the Democratic Party–if it was, there would not be the Sanders campaign in the first place that still isn’t finished if only technically. As much as Hillary Clinton might wish all the unease with the status quo would just go away, it would be foolish to ignore it, precisely because that is also what catapulted Donald Trump, her November opponent if indeed she does secure the Democratic nomination, to the Republican nomination in the first place and is likely to be the focus of his entire campaign in one form or another. She will be portrayed as a modern day Marie Antoinette blasely musing that the masses must not like cake since they are not eating it, and Trump is the only Republican who can, even with minimum credibility, pull it off.
It is improbable that Trump will be able to win: even if his strategy works out perfectly, the best that the Republicans can hope for is a narrow victory achieved by winning over a few Rust Belt states that the Democrats carried in previous several elections with the right demographics. The nationwide demographic advantage enjoyed by the Democrats is quite inexorable: many of the young and the minorities are fairly firmly, if not actively in the Democratic camp, certainly in the “not active in politics” camp and would be extremely unlikely to vote Republican. Trump’s populist rhetoric draws in the oldish working class whites, not the young. Even at the most generous, these voters would make up perhaps 1/3 of Bernie Sanders’ “moderates.” They are the only “Democrats” (if defined only in terms of erstwhile participants in Democratic primaries) whom Trump can possibly expect to draw off. Still, they, combined with existing Republican voters, might be just enough to hand some critical states to the Republicans.
The bigger problem for Trump is his negativity among the Republicans, especially the younger, educated, and the cosmopolitan, but firmly entrenched in free market ideology. A closer look at previous polls would show that, as I had pointed out before, that Trump loses hypothetical head to head matchups to the Democrats precisely because of this subset–no Republican, Trump or otherwise, does well among the “Democrats,” Trump does somewhat better among the moderates, but Trump does very poorly among the “Republicans,” relatively speaking. Clinton seems to be building a campaign designed to win over this group, especially Republican women, even while abandoning the working class and the liberals that supported Sanders–and these stories have been coming out for months.
This recapitulates, of course, the optimistic scenario that had been penned for Trump, that presumed that he could add just enough working class voters who previously did not vote in strategic states to the “usual” Republicans that would give him a small majority in November. The unpopularity of Trump among the “usual” Republicans stems much less from his flamboyance or harsh language as much as his policy and stylistic proclivities, exactly the features that his appeal to the working class voters are built on. Can Clinton, already widely distrusted among the liberals and working class, at least as far as 2016 is concerned–as per the Democratic primary campaign shows–hold on to the voters whom she is openly treating with disdain in her eagerness to grab Republican voters?
One aspect of Anthony Downs that has been conveniently forgotten is that spatial models of voting, the entire premise of “triangulation” that the Clintons are addicted to, is predicated on no abstention. Even if the spatial model is to be retained, complete with the assumption of constant elasticity of substitution over distance, the potential for triangulation is limited by the voters deciding all the politicians are crooks–and Clinton, with her own negative ratings approaching Trump’s, is singularly qualified to be viewed as such, justly or wrongly. If more nuance is incorporated, Clintonian pivot towards the middle, quite frankly, might do more damage to the Democrats than not. Ironically, of course, as, again, has been pointed out before, the well-to-do, educated voters are the most partisan voters in terms of their loyalty. For all their distrust of Trump, they are the least likely to abandon the Republican Party if there is no alternative. With Trump having secured the nomination, it is not clear that how many of them will abandon the Republican Party now. Certainly, if not Trump himself, all the usual Republican suspects will come out in force to remind the Republicans (at least those who are more Republican than conservative) that they don’t like the Democrats and the Clintons especially. This throws another monkey wrench into the Clintonian triangulation scheme. The Republicans might just hold the line: when Barack Obama in 2009-10, another devotee to the triangulation myth, at least at the time, tried this over his various legislative agenda, the Republicans wouldn’t budge, not just in Congress, but also in the electorate, if the polls are to be believed.
The November election will be far closer than anybody expects. While the decks are stacked in favor of the Democrats, a Trump presidency is not THAT improbable. The risky triangulation scheme that the Clintons so love may actually serve to ensure a Trump victory, by alienating the liberals and the working class–and further ensuring that more of the latter fall in behind Trump–while failing to draw in the conventional Republicans.