The conventional wisdom is that Trump will be crushed in the Presidential elections, and the conventional wisdom is wrong. Here’s why.
First and foremost, there’s his opponent. Hillary Clinton is one of the few public figures as disliked as Donald Trump, and almost 70% think of her as untrustworthy. On account of endless corruption scandals, from cattle futures to Whitewater to the Clinton Foundation money laundering scheme, she is seen as corrupt. The e-mail scandal and, more importantly, her incompetence, dishonesty and callousness about it has helped tar her. The Hillarycare disaster, her unremarkable period as a Senator, and an adequate performance as Secretary of State diminishes her much-hyped experience. To top it all come the revelations about her health, and the deceptions with which her campaign tried to hide them. At this point there is little doubt that further revelations about her e-mails, her health, and the Clinton Foundation will continue to emerge. All of this, added to her lack of charisma and uninspired campaign pledges, makes her a far weaker candidate than people make out.
The second reason is that for all the controversy, Trump often speaks to surprisingly popular concerns. Putting America first, supporting law and order, distaste for Islam (regularly reinvigorated by events), and above all restricting immigration have substantial support in America, especially among the disaffected white working class that once formed the Clintonite base. More, Trump has explicitly reached out to them, speaking to their anxieties and posing as their voice. The Democrat response of adopting an extremely lax position on immigration and mostly ignoring the concerns of the white working class serves Trump well in his pose as saviour of the forgotten man.
Third and finally, Trump has been surprisingly canny of late. His histrionics and stunts have given him billions of dollars of free advertising by a media most Americans distrust. His Vice Presidential pick reassured the conservative Republicans he needs to win. After the debacle of his fight with a Gold Star family he revamped his campaign, hiring Breitbart chairman Steve Bannon and Cruz operative Kellyanne Conway to run his campaign. Since he did his performance has been far more polished, without losing the irreverence or the policies that gave him his base. The visit to Mexico, mocked as it was, brought his hawkishness on immigration into the spotlight in a way which made him seem more serious and statesmanlike than another round of bluster. After that came his big speech on immigration, hammering home the most popular plank of his campaign, which even many critics saw as presidential. This turn towards a more competent, focussed populism – especially combined with the fact that Hillary is his opponent – gives the momentum to Trump.
Trump may well have an advantage on Election Day too. Some would argue that opposing him would drive up turnout for his opponent, though the same could be said for Hillary. With the stigma attached to supporting Trump it’s not unreasonable to expect that some of his supporters may lie to pollsters, a shy Trumpster effect of sorts. Moreover, his supporters regularly poll as more enthusiastic than Clinton’s, meaning their turnout is likely to be higher. As such, even his fairly strong poll performance may well be understating his support.
The third parties complicate things, though they do so largely in Trump’s favour. Polls seem to show that Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate, takes fairly evenly from both candidates – with slight discrepancies between states; he appears to take more from Trump in Utah, and more from Clinton in his home state of New Mexico, for instance. The Green candidate, Jill Stein, takes almost exclusively from Clinton, and with her polling at 3-4% there’s a real chance leftists voting for her could hand states to Trump. McMullin is set to flop in all 9 states he’s running in, and the various others are similarly irrelevant. Third party strength, then, is unlikely to be the force preventing a Trump victory.
What, though, would his victory look like? To win outright a candidate needs to win enough states to secure 270 Electoral College votes. There are, probably, two Trumpite paths to 270. The first, and more conventional, would be a near repeat of the Bush performance in 2004, losing New Mexico. With Trump looking set to win Iowa, often ahead in Ohio, level-pegging in Nevada and Florida, and Clinton’s formidable leads in Colorado and Virginia much reduced, this is not implausible. The thin Clinton lead in New Hampshire may slump to Trump, and he is well ahead in Maine’s split district, barely behind in Maine as a whole; the 8 EC votes that come with those states could swing a tight election. He needs none of these states, though.
Alternatively and, perhaps more likely, he may march through the Midwest to Washington, breaking down the Blue Wall of states Democrats have won 6 elections in a row. Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan are poorer and whiter than the USA as a whole, and while Hillary is ahead by increasingly low single digits in the latter 3, her lead is by not insurmountable. A strong turnout among his base, and reaping even minimal fruits of his attempted African-American outreach, could give all of them to Trump. Even if a devastating underperformance among Latinos lost him Arizona, Florida and Nevada, he would still win with 278+ EC votes if he swept the Midwest, and polling gives Clinton similar or smaller leads among Hispanics than Obama won over Romney.
Given that many Republican states are set to be closer run, albeit still not close, Trump could well win in the Electoral College with a minimal vote lead. Of course it’s possible that an October surprise will crush Trump and reinvigorate Clinton or do the inverse, but one thing is certain: with Early Votes already being cast, and less than two months until Election Day, it’s never looked so likely that Donald Trump could be the next President of the United States of America.