Much to the dismay of most Republican leaders, the nomination of Donald Trump now appears increasingly likely, if not quite inevitable as yet. On the other side, the outcome is far less certain, but the delegate math continues to favor Hillary Clinton in what could be a battle that continues through the spring.
This is in spite of the fact that Trump and Clinton are at present the weakest candidates of their respective parties for the fall election. In the Real Clear Politics polling averages, Clinton beats Trump by 2.8 percent (45.3 to 42.5) while Bernie Sanders beats Trump by 6 percent (47.5 to 41.5). Clinton would lose to either Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio, while Sanders would beat Cruz and tie Rubio.
Don’t get too hung up on the numbers: they will surely change. What’s important is the pattern. The Republicans, having spent half a century appealing to the worst instincts of their increasingly militant base, now have, in Trump, a candidate they did not create who can nonetheless mobilize that base better than anyone. He’s winning every sector: women as well as men, all age groups, even evangelicals (supposedly Ted Cruz’s bedrock). Apparently, many evangelicals won’t insist on a candidate who has accepted Jesus Christ as his personal savior, if they think the candidate is a good political savior. They may TrusTED, but a lot of them vote Trump.
Note that Trump, in a multi candidate field, has yet to take an absolute majority in any contest. He came close in the Nevada caucuses with nearly 46 percent, but caucuses are notably unrepresentative. There are probably many Republicans who would abstain—or even vote Democratic—if Trump were nominated. A Michael Bloomberg candidacy would be attractive to some of these more traditional Republicans. A Trump nomination would be a hostile takeover of the Republican Party by its own base.
By contrast, the Democrats have things well in hand—perhaps too well. Bernie Sanders decided to run for President to make a point about the problem of inequality and the power of Wall Street. He probably did not think he could beat Hillary Clinton for the nomination, but here he is, running neck-and-neck, having already pushed Hillary to the left by his mere presence in the race. But most of the Super Delegates (hundreds of established politicians) will favor Hillary unless it starts to look like Bernie will win. And the schedule of primaries coming up will for the most part favor Hillary. Bernie will win a pile of delegates, but it’s hard to see him getting the nomination. In contrast with the Republicans, the Establishment’s grip will hold.
The weaknesses of these two candidates are a study in contrasts. Republicans have literally spent decades demonizing Hillary Clinton, so that perhaps as many as 40 percent of voters actively mistrust her. Sadly, even among Democrats, many Sanders supporters seem to buy the Republican talking points about her. Her strengths (long and varied experience in public life) are also her weaknesses, providing multiple points on which to question and criticize. She will not be able to mobilize the enthusiasm of those who are supporting Sanders (though most of them would surely vote for her against any conceivable Republican nominee, including Trump).
Trump, by contrast, is an outsider to the political arena, though very much a member of the larger establishment of American society, with his successful business and entertainment careers. As salesman and entertainer, he has learned well how to assess his audience and gain their support by telling them what they want to hear. But what the Republican base wants to hear—disrespect of ethnic minorities, especially Muslims and Mexicans, visceral misogyny, foreign policy chest-thumping, facile answers to complex problems—will almost certainly doom his candidacy in November. Like the salesman that he is, he will try to show a more moderate political persona to the national electorate. It will be up to the Democrats to keep running the clips of what he said before. Would you buy a used car from this man?