With a critical victory in the Indiana primary on Tuesday the billionaire businessmen Donald Trump, originally ridiculed by the GOP elite as a reality TV candidate, was declared the presumptive presidential nominee of the Republican Party. The two remaining candidates in the race, Ted Cruz and John Kasich, conceded defeat which cemented one of the most astonishing rises in American political history.
Trump’s primary performance has been remarkable. He has utilised his reputation, his celebrity status and his fierce personality to convince more than 10 million Americans to support his bid for the presidency. With Republican members now likely to put down their swords and rally behind the party’s nominee, that figure is expected to rise in coming months. Yet each of the losing candidates in the past three presidential campaigns have received at least 59 million votes and if Trump wishes to win in November he will need to increase his support fourfold to stand any chance.
Now Trump’s general election strategy appears to be evolving into two fronts; pivoting left as far as possible and initiating the blitzkrieg-style smear campaign against Hillary Clinton.
Despite the reputation Clinton boasts, the former first lady and secretary of state simply neither excites nor galvanizes her base. Whilst initially poised for a clear cut victory, Clinton has left herself constantly open and vulnerable to attacks throughout the Democratic primary race. Before any vote was cast Clinton came into the primary with more advantages than any Democratic candidate in the last century; name recognition, the overarching support of 350 super-delegates and a vast war chest of campaign funds at her disposal. Yet after an unprecedented gruelling primary race against the veteran progressive Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s disapproval rating is consistently higher than her approval numbers, with the most recent polls showing an average of 55 per cent to 40 per cent.
To what extent Trump is willing to go on the offensive with Clinton is yet to be seen. Many would agree he is the only candidate that could not only revive the horrors of the Clinton sex scandals, but use them as a linchpin of his campaign. What could prove to be most damaging is that Hillary Clinton actively worked to undermine the women who accused her husband. Trump previously picked up on the accusations and Clinton pointedly refused to engage him. This was when Trump was merely a primary candidate gaining momentum; the matter could determinately prove to be a silver bullet in the fall. The recent FBI investigation into Clinton’s email account could yet still materialise, along with the lingering reminders of Whitewater, Benghazi and the financial aspersion that surrounds the Clinton name. What does not prove to be ammunition for Trump will be baggage for Clinton as substantial numbers of voters from across the political spectrum continually comment on the lack of trust.
Clinton’s exposure aside, Trump holds another advantage in the forthcoming presidential campaign. He is in essence the most centrist candidate the Republican Party has fielded in decades. Whilst wall building and Islamic bans may not constitute what is typically defined as centrist (‘reactionary centrist’ is perhaps more appropriate), the political ideology Trump has expressed over the campaign so far resembles an emblematic New York Republican moderate. It is widely acknowledged that Trump leans to the liberal side when it comes to the welfare state and universal healthcare, which he tried so desperately hard to mask in the primary debates. Even when compared to Clinton, Trump lurches to the left on some issues. He supports medical marijuana, whilst she contends that ‘more research’ needs to be conducted. Unlike the ultra-conservative Ted Cruz, Trump seems disinclined to laissez faire economics, peddling his protectionist vision to the insecure American middle class through the promise of bringing back jobs from China. To offset losses among minorities and women voters, Trump is going to have to capitalize on these gains among blue-collar workers affected by globalisation and a stumbling economy.
Trump’s approach is dependent on many situational factors coming into play and he will alienate his own base if he triangulates too much between now and Election Day. Is it possible for Trump to defeat Clinton? One thing is for certain, the next six months are set to become one of the most contentious and aggressive political campaigns in history between two figures who have each been in the limelight for more than 40 years.