Adventures in wishful thinking: Donald Trump's path to defeating Hillary Clinton

Yesterday someone delivered a delusional commentary about Donald Trump's prospects for becoming president.

But in a surprising twist, the illogical scenario came not from Sarah Palin in her Trump endorsement speech to a large Iowa crowd, but from Politico reporter Ben Schreckinger.

You can watch the video of Palin in Ames here or read the full text at Buzzfeed (bless Kyle Blaine's heart for transcribing the whole speech). Although the former Alaska governor said some typically odd things, she also offered some valid insights, such as:

Trump’s candidacy, it has exposed not just that tragic ramifications of that betrayal of the transformation of our country, but too, he has exposed the complicity on both sides of the aisle that has enabled it, okay? Well, Trump, what he’s been able to do, which is really ticking people off, which I’m glad about, he’s going rogue left and right, man, that’s why he’s doing so well. He’s been able to tear the veil off this idea of the system. The way that the system really works, and please hear me on this, I want you guys to understand more and more how the system, the establishment, works, and has gotten us into the troubles that we are in in America. The permanent political class has been doing the bidding of their campaign donor class, and that’s why you see that the borders are kept open. For them, for their cheap labor that they want to come in. That’s why they’ve been bloating budgets. It’s for crony capitalists to be able suck off of them. It’s why we see these lousy trade deals that gut our industry for special interests elsewhere. We need someone new, who has the power, and is in the position to bust up that establishment to make things great again. It’s part of the problem.

His candidacy, which is a movement, it’s a force, it’s a strategy. It proves, as long as the politicos, they get to keep their titles, and their perks, and their media ratings, they don’t really care who wins elections. Believe me on this. And the proof of this? Look what’s happening today. Our own GOP machine, the establishment, they who would assemble the political landscape, they’re attacking their own frontrunner. [...]

Well, he being the only one who’s been willing, he’s got the guts to wear the issues that need to be spoken about and debate on his sleeve, where the rest of some of these establishment candidates, they just wanted to duck and hide. They didn’t want to talk about these issue until he brought ‘em up. In fact, they’ve been wearing a, this, political correctness kind of like a suicide vest. And enough is enough. These issues that Donald Trump talks about had to be debated. And he brought them to the forefront. And that’s why we are where we are today with good discussion. A good, heated, and very competitive primary is where we are. And now though, to be lectured that, “Well, you guys are all sounding kind of angry,” is what we’re hearing from the establishment. Doggone right we’re angry! Justifiably so! Yes! You know, they stomp on our neck, and then they tell us, “Just chill, okay just relax.” Well, look, we are mad, and we’ve been had. They need to get used to it.

That is prize-winning political analysis compared to Schreckinger's January 19 piece for Politico titled "How Donald Trump defeats Hillary Clinton: Obama’s black supporters are crucial to a Trump win, and pollsters say he has a chance with this bloc."

A counter-intuitive narrative is nice if grounded in facts. Schreckinger quotes Republican pollster Frank Luntz claiming that Trump "would get the highest percentage of black votes [for a Republican presidential nominee] since Ronald Reagan in 1980." The evidence? Luntz says some African-American participants in his focus groups "would consider Trump" even if they voted for Barack Obama for president twice. An unnamed "longtime Republican pollster and veteran of multiple presidential campaigns" asserts without citing any data that Trump could do surprisingly well because "He behaves in a way that most minorities would not expect a billionaire to behave." The reader learns that Trump "has spent years cultivating black faith leaders," met with some black pastors last year, and enjoys the backing of two black female video bloggers. All told, weak support for what the sub-headline admits is a "crucial" part of Trump's winning scenario.

African-American voters will be critically important in this year's presidential race, as Amy Walter and David Wasserman showed in a commentary for the Cook Political Report last July.

It's tough to overstate just how critical black voters have become to today's Democratic coalition, particularly when it comes to the Electoral College. Deconstructing exit poll data from 2012, African-American voters accounted for Obama's entire margin of victory in seven states: Florida, Maryland, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia. Without these states' 112 electoral votes, Obama would have lost decisively. African-Americans also accounted for almost all of Obama's margin in Wisconsin. All of these states, except Maryland, will be crucial 2016 battlegrounds.

Meanwhile, a huge body of polling has found that Hillary Clinton is "overwhelmingly popular among African-American voters." For example, a Gallup poll from last summer indicated that 80 percent of U.S. blacks had a favorable opinion of her, while just 12 percent had an unfavorable opinion. Trump's numbers in the same poll were the worst in the Republican presidential field:

 photo GallupJuly2015BlackVoters_zpsuxhri7yf.jpg

Let's say for the sake of argument that Trump manages to win over a surprisingly high percentage of African-American voters. He would have other hills to climb.

The rest of Trump’s path to general-election victory, as laid out to POLITICO by pollsters, his campaign and his former advisers, looks like this: After winning the nomination on the first ballot, Trump unifies the party he has fractured behind him and reinvents himself as a pragmatic businessman and family man at the Republican National Convention. News of small-scale terror plots on American soil, foiled or successful, keep voters in a state of anxiety. Trump minimizes his losses with Hispanics by running Spanish-language ads highlighting his support for a strong military and take-charge entrepreneurial attitude, especially in the Miami and Orlando media markets.

I'm not convinced Trump could unify the party so easily, but let's leave that aside for now. Are we really supposed to believe that some positive commercials in Spanish can deliver the goods for Trump? To win the 2016 election, a Republican presidential candidate would need to win more than 40 percent of the Latino vote--perhaps as much as 47 percent. Mitt Romney won about a quarter of that demographic in 2012. Gallup's nationwide poll of Latinos last summer found that Hillary Clinton had "net +40 favorable score" among respondents, while Trump's favorability ratings were the worst in the Republican field, by far.

 photo GallupHispanicvoters2015_zpsb1o1odim.jpg

Schreckinger's article continues to describe how his sources envision Trump threading the needle:

If he does all that, holds Mitt Romney’s states, and drives extraordinary levels of working-class white voter turnout in the suburbs and exurbs of Ohio and Virginia, as well as in the Florida panhandle and Jacksonville, he can flip those three Obama states and rack up 266 electoral votes. Winning any one of Iowa, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Colorado, Nevada or New Mexico would put him over the top and make Donald John Trump the 45th president of the United States.

The "Big Blue Wall" puts any Republican nominee at a disadvantage going into the general election. Eighteen states that account for 242 electoral votes have gone Democratic in the last six presidential elections. Various combinations of states that went for Obama twice could push Clinton past the winning total of 270 electoral votes. For Trump to win Ohio, Virginia, Florida, and at least one of the other states named above seems unlikely for a guy who "Is Really Unpopular With General Election Voters," as Nate Silver showed in a recent post at FiveThirtyEight.

But Trump would start at a disadvantage: Most Americans just really don’t like the guy.

Contra Rupert Murdoch’s assertion about Trump having crossover appeal, Trump is extraordinarily unpopular with independent voters and Democrats. Gallup polling conducted over the past six weeks found Trump with a -27-percentage-point net favorability rating among independent voters, and a -70-point net rating among Democrats; both marks are easily the worst in the GOP field. (Trump also has less-than-spectacular favorable ratings among his fellow Republicans.) [...]

We’ve got an unpopular set of presidential candidates this year– Bernie Sanders is the only candidate in either party with a net-positive favorability rating — but Trump is the most unpopular of all. His favorability rating is 33 percent, as compared with an unfavorable rating of 58 percent, for a net rating of -25 percentage points. By comparison Hillary Clinton, whose favorability ratings are notoriously poor, has a 42 percent favorable rating against a 50 percent unfavorable rating, for a net of -8 points. Those are bad numbers, but nowhere near as bad as Trump’s. [...]

This is not just a recent phenomenon; Trump’s favorability ratings have been consistently poor. It’s true that his favorability numbers improved quite a bit among Republicans once he began running for president. But those gains were almost exactly offset by declines among independents and Democrats.

The strangest part of Schreckinger's article posits that Trump can win if he "successfully tars [Clinton] with her husband’s sexual history." Sure to be a convincing message from a philanderer who traded in two wives for younger models and has publicly mused that his daughter is so attractive he would consider dating her if they were not related. Hang on, though, Trump's former political adviser Sam Nunberg

said the businessman can still attract many female voters.

Though Nunberg left Trump’s campaign in August, in a recent poll conducted for another client, Nunberg asked women in Connecticut who opposed marijuana legalization who they respected more: a politician who is also charitable and a world-renowned businessman, father and grandfather or an “Elderly woman who not only openly allows her husband to have affairs but tries to silence the women.” The figure with the favorable abstract framing of Trump beat the figure with the negative abstract framing of Clinton by more than 20 points, according to Nunberg. [...]

The limited sample, tilted framing and withholding of candidate names all qualify the finding, but it does suggest that if Trump can somehow shed his baggage and impose his preferred narrative on the match-up with Clinton, he can appeal to female voters. “He’s a masculine figure and that will attract women to him,” said Nunberg. “It’s their dirty little secret. They like Donald Trump.”

Jonathan Chait's comment on Nunberg's poll wording was the funniest part of an excellent piece for New York Magazine:

Well, okay. Likewise, if you asked some voters if they prefer a small-business owner who rose from poverty in an immigrant community over a bearded trial lawyer who murdered hundreds of thousands of Americans, they would report that they indeed believe John Gotti would make for a better president than Abraham Lincoln.

Polling indicates that Trump would battle the same "gender gap" that has challenged Republican presidential candidates for decades. A realistic appraisal of how well Trump would do among women voters should not rely on the billionaire's former employee. Ward Baker commented in a September memo to the senior staff at the National Republican Senatorial Committee,

Trump is a Misguided Missile. Let's face facts. Trump says what's on his mind and that's a problem. Our candidates will have to spend full time defending him or condemning him if that continues. And that's a place we never, ever want to be. [...]

Trump and Women. Houston, we have a problem: Donald Trump has said some wacky things about women. Candidates shouldn't go near this ground other than to say that your wife or daughter is offended by what Trump said. We do not want to reengage the "war on women" fight so isolate Trump on this issue by offering a quick condemnation of it.

I admit to being completely wrong about Trump's potential to become a serious contender for the Republican nomination. But unless much more changes on the national political landscape, I'm not going to waste any energy worrying about Trump being well-positioned to beat Clinton.

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.

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