Which raises an inevitable question: Is he really as terrible a general election candidate as so many people have assumed?
The most rational answer is that we have no idea. If Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio were the nominee, the general election would likely be fairly predictable, in that the debate would revolve around traditional partisan divisions on issues, and we know which states would be competitive and which wouldn’t. But just as Trump’s unique candidacy has defied all that we thought we knew about what matters in primary campaigns — the damage done by outrageous statements, the importance of ideological consistency, the key role played by party elites — so too could a Trump nomination produce an utterly unpredictable general election.
There are still good reasons to think that Trump would be be obliterated by the Democratic nominee. But there’s also a case to be made that Trump would so scramble the election calculus that he could win. Indeed, you might even argue that he has a better shot than a more traditional candidate. Let’s examine each way of looking at the general election.
The case against Trump’s chances begins with the fact that he’s tremendously unpopular. As much as he has thrilled a certain segment of the Republican electorate, everything he has done and said in the primary campaign — the xenophobia, the bigotry, the bombast — has served to alienate him from voters he would need to win the general election. Polls of all Americans, as opposed to just Republicans, show that around 30-35 percent of the public have a favorable impression of Trump, while around 55-60 percent have an unfavorable impression of him.
Furthermore, talking about building a wall with Mexico and rounding up 11 million undocumented immigrants might make the audiences at his rallies cheer, but it won’t play so well with the broader electorate. Everyone understands that the GOP must improve its showing among Latino voters, one of the fastest-growing parts of the electorate, if it’s ever to win back the White House. Trump wouldn’t just fail to improve those numbers, he’d make the bottom fall out: polls have shown (see here or here or here) that Trump is spectacularly unpopular with Latinos, just as you might expect, with approval ratings as low as 11 percent. Furthermore, his nomination would be a terrific mobilization tool to get Latino voters to the polls.
That’s true of other voting groups as well. If you’re not a white guy and Trump hasn’t insulted you yet, he probably will by the end of the primaries. Imagine that the Democratic nominee were Hillary Clinton. How wide will the gender gap be when the potential first woman president is running against a guy who shows such contempt for women and discards each of his wives as soon as she hits her 40s? (Note to Melania: the clock is ticking, so you might want to prepare yourself.)
There’s no doubt that Trump has tapped into something important within the Republican electorate, but that’s where it resides: that combination of anger at their party’s leaders and fear of a changing world sowed the seeds for Trump’s rise. But the general electorate is very different from the Republican electorate: among other things, it’s less white, less Christian, and younger. The positions Trump has taken as he’s appealed to Republicans — overturn Roe v. Wade, loosen gun laws, cut taxes for the wealthy, repeal the Affordable Care Act — are all unpopular with the public at large.
So that’s the case for a Trump defeat in the fall: he’s got the wrong positions on issues, he’s ticked off a lot of voters he’ll need, and he’s generally considered to be an obnoxious jerk.
The argument in favor of a Trump victory has two pieces to it, one about demographics and one about the kind of candidate he’d actually be in a general election. The demographic argument says that Trump has an appeal that other Republicans don’t have. We’ve seen again and again how party leaders (and his opponents) have attacked him for liberal positions he’s held in the past (like being pro-choice and saying nice things about single-payer health care), and even some heresies he’s offered in the present (like his bizarre assertion that George W. Bush was president on September 11, 2001 or his criticism of the Iraq War). Trump’s voters, it turned out, didn’t care. Ideological consistency isn’t important to them, because their affection for Trump is based on other things, like their contempt for Washington and the belief that he’s a “winner,” and if he were president he’d spread his winningness over the whole country, through some process that need not be explained.
Since these beliefs aren’t tied to conservative ideology, they could have appeal beyond Republicans. And even if Trump alienates women, his displays of chest-thumping dominance could appeal to lots and lots of white men, particularly those who are lower on the income and education scales (as Trump said after his Nevada win yesterday, “I love the poorly educated”). That could make Trump competitive in Rust Belt states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan that have been in the Democratic column in the last two elections. Unlike other Republicans who have to work to convince voters that they aren’t just on the side of the rich, Trump, an actual rich person, has an economic appeal that has nothing to do with facts but is more about feeling. Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders may be leading Trump in general election trial heats, but not by much — just a few points.
It’s the second piece of the puzzle that may be less appreciated at this point. To put it simply, Donald Trump would be a completely different candidate in a general election than the one we see now. Conservatives are justified in being terrified by Trump’s ideological malleability. They look at him and see someone with no true beliefs and no commitments, who will quickly change positions if it suits him. He’s only presenting himself as a conservative Republican now — to the degree that he’s even doing that — because he’s running in a Republican primary.
When conservatives think that, they’re absolutely right. He will indeed transform himself once he has a different audience. We don’t have to wonder about that, because he has said so on more than one occasion. “Once you get to a certain level, it changes,” he told Greta Van Susteren a few weeks ago. “I will be changing very rapidly. I’m very capable of changing to anything I want to change to.”
On another occasion, he told voters in Iowa, “When I’m president, I’m a different person. I can do anything. I can be the most politically correct person that you’ve ever seen.” While ordinary politicians try to convince you of their consistency, Trump proudly says that he’ll turn himself into whatever the situation demands. And if it demands someone who has moderate positions, that’s what he’ll be.
Will the voters buy it? We have no way of knowing, because we haven’t seen that version of Trump yet. But we shouldn’t assume that the fact that most of them dislike the current version means they won’t like the next one.
At the moment, I haven’t decided which of these scenarios I think is more likely, Trump getting blown out and taking the Republican Party with him, or Trump forging a heretofore unseen coalition that carries him to the White House. I lean toward the first, but I can’t tell if that’s because the idea of this despicable buffoon being the most powerful human being on earth is so ghastly, and my judgment derives more from hope than anything else. The truth is that with Trump in a general election, we’d be in uncharted territory. Anything could happen.