The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

3 reasons Donald Trump could beat Hillary Clinton and win the presidency

A file combo picture shows Hillary Clinton addressing the National Action Network's national convention in New York on April 13; and Donald Trump speaking at the Trump Building in New York, on Nov. 3. (EPA/JUSTIN LANE/ANDREW GOMBERT)

The marquee matchup is now in view: Clinton vs. Trump.

There are still some wrinkles to be worked out — an independent (or minor-party) challenger might shake things up, and Trump still has some work to do to secure the Republican nomination — but it’s looking like the Empire State will produce its first president since FDR. Most people assume Clinton is the prohibitive favorite in this contest, and that’s a fair extrapolation of current polling that shows Trump would start the race as a historically unpopular candidate.

But nobody should be handing Clinton the keys to her old house just yet. Clinton over Trump is not a foregone conclusion — not in 2016, the year of such mistaken assumptions about the nature of American politics.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump held a campaign event at Trump Tower in Manhattan, after sweeping the Indiana primary. Here's (Video: Victoria Walker/The Washington Post)

A generic sense that Trump has a puncher’s chance is now widespread. Usually, it involves a new development in Clinton’s legal troubles or a jarring terrorist attack that could change everything, and The Donald has proved sufficiently surprising by now that we are obliged to offer a heartfelt, “Who knows?” But there are three particular factors making Trump a bigger threat to Clinton than is generally acknowledged.

1. Concerns about bigotry aren’t the vote-mover you might think

Trump’s long history of outrageous statements combined with America’s current demographics convince many people he is dead on arrival. Should we assume that Trump will fare historically poorly among minorities, given his reputation for what many have labeled bigotry? Maybe. But then again maybe the notion that “everyone’s a little bit racist” is more widespread than politicians (and respectable commentators) often admit.

People care about bigotry most if it translates into harmful acts. There are some allegations of that: Trump’s real estate company allegedly committed some serious acts of discrimination back in the 1970s, and voters will hear a lot more about that before November. But the evidence of Trump’s racism is mostly a record of careless remarks. Trump will surely make plenty of heartfelt declarations that there is no hatred in his heart, and then wave off his past insensitivities by saying, “Well, I’ve said a lot of things.” And so he has. That will be enough for many people — probably more than you think.

Trump also has an extremely low bar to clear to beat recent Republican performance with minority voters. In 2012, Barack Obama won a staggering 93 percent of African American votes, 71 percent of Hispanic votes and 73 percent of Asian American votes. Whatever one can say about Trump, he presents a radically different kind of choice from Mitt Romney. Can he really do much worse?

More fundamentally, Trump’s chosen idiom is us-versus-them xenophobia, not racism. The “us” part invites “regular” Americans to feel themselves as a people, in large part by identifying and rejecting elites’ cosmopolitanism as poisonous to our national fiber. That way of thinking doesn’t have to be racial at all. Trump is groping toward a 21st century Jacksonian political program that might have surprisingly wide appeal, even if it is seasoned with some genuinely offensive ideas along the way.

2. Trump is much better at dictating the terms of engagement

That brings us to the second factor working in Trump’s favor: He has proved to be a brilliant manipulator of the terms of engagement. In terms of style and substance (or lack thereof), Trump made the Republican field talk about what he wanted to talk about and discuss the world in a more Trumpian way.

In contrast, in her 2008 and 2016 primary campaigns, Hillary Clinton allowed her opponents to set the terms of debate to a striking extent. In 2008, that led to her primary defeat and in 2016 to a surprisingly hard road to primary victory. Trump’s strength and Clinton’s weakness on this front make it hard to be confident that Democrats will succeed at setting the agenda in 2016.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump called rival Hillary Clinton the “worst secretary of state in the history of our country." (Video: Reuters)

3. Clinton will be forced to defend the status quo

That means Democrats should not be overly confident that they make the election a referendum on Trump, the man. Surely if they could succeed at doing so, Clinton would win in a landslide.

But Trump will be selling voters something more than his outsize personality; he will be asking for a choice between “Trump, the middle finger to the way things have been,” and “Clinton, the choice of more of the same.” One doesn’t have to like Trump to choose the former; indeed, there will be more than a few voters who talk themselves into the idea that only someone with as many noxious qualities as Trump will be capable of upsetting the necessary apple carts.

Clinton’s sales pitch is that she has a strong and steady record as first lady, senator and secretary of state who has learned how to work the system. That past as a consummate insider leaves her uniquely disadvantaged to defend against Trump’s anti-establishment attacks. Clinton and future opponents of 21st century Jacksonian politics — Trumpian or not — need to find ways of offering their own broadly resonant version of “us.”

Affirming the status quo isn’t a viable way of doing that today, and therein lies Clinton’s vulnerability.

So is Trump the favorite?

None of that makes Trump the favorite to win in November. Although Trump’s qualifications and temperament have suffered glancing blows in the Republican primary, they will be relentlessly pummeled in the general election campaign — where his base is a much smaller piece of the pie.

That will badly hurt him with Americans who have a minimal sense of little-c conservatism and a strong aversion to scary-tale risks. But Trump has managed to shake the foundations of American politics like no candidate before. Whether that was enabled by genius or luck (in politics, they are often difficult to disentangle), we should not underestimate him.

10 celebrities who say they’ll leave the U.S. if Donald Trump is elected president

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 16: Comedian Jon Stewart (C) joins Feel Good Foundation founder John Feel (L) to demand that Congress extend the Zadroga 9/11 health bill at the U.S. Capitol September 17, 2015 in Washington, DC. The former Daily Show host joined ailing police and firefighters in lobbying Congress for a permanent extension of the Zadroga Act's $1.6 billion health and monitoring effort for the 72,000 emergency responders who worked at Ground Zero. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Philip Wallach is a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution.