15 March 2016

Don’t bet against Trump vs Clinton

By Brian Cattell

Donald Trump has spectacularly defied the predictions of many American political commentators that he would crash and burn as a joke candidate in this primary cycle.

Barring a loss in both Florida and Ohio today and a radical change of momentum against him, The Donald remains on course to seize the Republican nomination.

The only question that matters now is can he win in the general election against Hillary Clinton, and what would such a victory say about modern America?

Now, the commentariat that read the primaries so remarkably wrong are at it again, as both Left and Right, in the US and UK, have lined up to dismiss Trump’s prospects in the general election. Their basic argument, it’s demographics stupid.

Trump is, they assert, essentially a White American nationalist – brilliant at animating a certain segment of Americans of exclusively European descent – but anathema to almost any American whose roots lie in other continents. And therefore he must be doomed to lose.

“Donald Trump is getting angry white men very excited. Unfortunately, they won’t decide the election,” UK Labour Party strategist John McTernan wrote in the Daily Telegraph.

Using his characteristic statistical analysis, Karl Rove – a leading Trump opponent – also dismissed the billionaire’s chances. Rove cited current head to head polling against Clinton where Trump trails, and the belief that he will not have sufficiently broad appeal to win enough of the traditional swing states.

Of course, it is clear that Rove’s view is motivated by a desperate desire to stop Trump before he even gets the nomination.

This views of the general election relies on two assumptions:

  1. Trump is essentially a racist who won’t be able to reach beyond the base that propelled him to the nomination.
  2. Racial identity blocs will reliably vote along party/candidate lines, as they have for decades.

Would it be such a bad thing for American society if assumption number two was fading into history? Surely the lesson of this wild 2016 campaign is that Trump has shaken up the pieces of the American political landscape so completely, that we cannot yet say with any certainty how they will land.

Trump has told us that when he’s secured the nomination, he will reposition himself as a pragmatic centrist and seek to use his broad, celebrity appeal to reach parts of the non-white electorate that other Republicans (or Democrats like Bernie Sanders) cannot reach. He will also begin to attack the Clintons with a ferocity they haven’t seen for many years – a prospect it is rumored is already giving Hillary nightmares.

If that happens, Trump may have a chance to pick up not just the critical states identified by Rove – Florida, Ohio, and Michigan. But places like New York and New Jersey could also be in play.

Unlikely support for this thesis came from new research published in the New York Times. It found that, despite Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric, there may be far less racial correlation to Trump’s support than has been assumed so far. As such, the NYT said, there are a number of Trump supporting counties where the proportion of non-white voters is very high.

It is early days, but November’s showdown just might be a lot more competitive than we think.

Brian Cattell is co-founder and partner at Cattell, Locke, Pendleton and Partners.