The 2016 primary election on the Republican side has seen something of a realignment of their traditional constituency, and a renegotiation of everything that used to be sort of true about the party’s ability to control its own nomination process. Donald Trump is capturing many voters who may not even have been Republicans before, namely white working class who have suffered in the globalized economy and are attracted to his anti-free trade message. At the same time, he’s alienating groups that the Republican party needs to start winning over in the long term – most notably Hispanics and women. Now, the GOP primary election is far from over, and it is quite possible that Trump won’t end up being the nominee, but here is a look at what a Donald J. Trump general election campaign might look like.
Most people have been surprised at how well Trump has been doing, and many predictions of his downfall have proven faulty over the past few months. The one that still has some potency, though, is that of the Trump ceiling: he did well from the beginning in a crowded primary field, but as the field has winnowed, his share of the vote has not increased significantly. Ted Cruz on the other hand won a commanding victory in Wisconsin on April 5, which was important not due to Trump doing badly – he got the 35% that he’s grown so accustomed to – but rather of consolidation behind Cruz. Again, Trump showed that candidates dropping out only damaged him, and that it’s quite possible that “35% of 30%” (self-identified Republicans make up about 30% of the electorate) might be his ceiling.
This pattern looks likely to continue in a general election. Among almost everyone except those who already like him and vote for him, he is deeply disliked, with the highest unfavorable ratings of any major party candidate in US election history. Large parts of the Republican coalition, especially actively religious Conservatives, have shown enormous aversion towards voting for him, perhaps to the point where they might choose to not vote at all. There’s obviously some merit to turning out new voters, and winning independents, but it is still hard to get anywhere if you can’t turn out the party’s most loyal base to vote for you.
Trump is also widely disliked within the party, which may end up severely limiting his ability to fundraise for a general election campaign. As much as he might talk about self-funding, there will come a time when a war chest becomes necessary to fight off the formidable Clinton machine.
In much the same vein, his primary campaign has suffered from poor organization and lack of understanding of the campaign process. This has become obvious especially in contrast to Ted Cruz, who has run a comparatively very impressive campaign. Trump’s shortfalls have shown in an insufficient on-the-ground organization in key states, which resulted in underperforming polls in most states, and losing late deciders by wide margins, especially in caucus states. There’s also been a clear discrepancy in the maneuvering required to pick up electors that are going to the convention. While Trump has seemed caught off guard, Ted Cruz had a superior campaign that has been consistently on the ball. Why this matters is explained well here. Trump’s candidacy has survived remarkably well so far for a campaign built around a twitter feed and a firm handshake, but that’s not going to fly in a general election, and especially not against Hillary Clinton; she has recruited many of the staffers from Barack Obama’s groundbreakingly well-organized 2008 campaign, and is by all accounts running a real political machine.
But it cannot be stressed enough: Trump’s biggest weakness is that so many people don’t like him. He has a history of sexist comments and actions, which has won him a big deficiency with female voters, who make up more than half of the electorate. His racist comments on immigration will cost him with Hispanic voters, who are crucial in swing states like Nevada, and more critically in Florida.
Nevertheless, Reince Priebus is probably not staying up at night worrying about Trump losing the White House. At this point, the Republican National Committee are presumably not counting on regaining the Presidency in 2016. What they are more worried about is the downticket effect, and the long-term damage that Trump’s campaign may cause to the party as a whole. A Trump Presidential nominee at the top of the ticket risks losing GOP turnout from the Republican base, which will end up mattering for the races further down on the ticket – that is, House and Senate races, and even State government. Suddenly, a bunch of previously safe Republican House districts may be up for grabs, especially in swing states. Even before this whole circus, Democrats knew that they had a chance to win back the Senate this fall (the class that’s currently up for re-election was most recently elected in 2010, during the Tea Party insurgency – the political climate has shifted significantly), but if the wind blows the right way, the House could be on the table as well.
Finally, a Trump nomination will be handing Hillary Clinton the very piece her campaign was missing – excitement. She was risking losing the high turnout that handed the Presidency to Obama in 2008. Now with Trump and all his accompanying bluster in the circle, the Democratic base can be expected to mobilize around her, especially among the groups most clearly targeted and threatened by his rhetoric. He is also showing her up by topping an unfavorable rating, which would have been impressive in an ordinary race, but now seems normal next to how much people dislike Trump.