I’ve been saying for some time that Donald Trump will win neither the US Presidential election nor the Republican nomination. And while I’m not yet ready to change my mind about that, some recent developments have made me wonder if the unimaginable might yet become possible. Nate Silver, whose election predictions based on poll-analysis have proven reliable in the past, has recently begun muting his own scepticism about Trump, owing to the unexpected warming to the tycoon the Republican establishment has gingerly begun showing. Besides, while Trump seemed to have a low ceiling due to his poor favourability ratings among Republicans, he has against expectations been raising that ceiling. Almost all pundits have been surprised by the tenacity of his support in both national and state polls, putting paid to the original opinion that Trump would be another celebrity candidate who withers under a long stare.
A lot of questions about Trump’s viability in the Republican race remain, such as whether he can translate enthusiastic crowds into voter turnout, and whether his ground game comes near his media presence. But the idea of Donald Trump becoming the Republican nominee has left the realm of pure fantasy and is now at least approaching the realm of possibility.
Democrats have been licking their chops at this prospect, thinking he’ll be the easiest of the Republican candidates to beat in November’s election. Caution may now be in order, though. Were Trump able to win the Republican nomination, that very fact would suggest that all bets should come off the table. A Trump win would suggest that American politics has moved into uncharted territory, and that the road-maps we have long used to predict election outcomes will need to be redrafted.
Moreover, unexpected things are happening in the Democratic race as well. Nobody, not the least Hillary Clinton’s campaign team, expected Bernie Sanders to be anything more than a warm-up act before the big November show. Yet he has confounded everyone by giving her a run for her money in the early states, and raising almost as much money as she has — without having any of her Wall Street friends. Some of this can be attributed to the fact that Hillary has seldom been a great candidate, and is revealing many of the same flaws that felled her 2008 campaign against Barack Obama. However, some things have been more surprising. It was long assumed that Clinton’s female support would put a strong wind at her back, but it’s clear she’s now having trouble reaching young women.
The conventional wisdom remains that Hillary will ride her stronger base among minority voters and, after getting perhaps a little rattled in Iowa and New Hampshire, eventually cruise to a comfortable victory in the Democratic primaries. But if Trump’s campaign is upending the conventional wisdom, how much can we rely on it? When so many unexpected things are going on, can we be so certain that, for instance, African-American voters — especially young ones — might not at least give Sanders a hearing? The only thing we might now be able to say of the 2016 election with confidence is that we may not be able to say anything.
After the Occupy protests were everywhere crushed four years ago, most pundits concluded it had been an ephemeral movement with no lasting impact. Some of the baby-boomers who commented, contrasting their own activism back in the 1960s and 1970s, were particularly dismissive, criticising the young people in the movement for lacking strategic vision or staying power. At the time, I felt these analysts were overlooking something important. I was living in London when Occupiers took over St. Paul’s. After their camp’s elimination, many of its participants didn’t just go back home. Changed by the experience, they fanned out and formed various local action groups. They became particularly engaged in the anti-gentrification movement, which has increasingly ben making headlines in London.
And in America, they turned out en masse to help Barack Obama both beat Hillary Clinton to the Democratic presidential nomination and then take back-to-back election victories. How they will align in this year’s election isn’t clear. The left/right, conservative/liberal dichotomies that the party establishments use to connect with their respective support bases appear to have given way to an insider/outsider cleavage that runs through both parties. In a recent piece in The Atlantic, David Frum made a compelling argument that the Republican establishment completely misread the Tea Party movement. ‘Against all evidence,’ he wrote, ‘GOP donors interpreted the Tea Party as a movement in favor of the agenda of the Wall Street Journal editorial page.’ In reality, Partiers are angry at the banks and major corporations, distrust austerity and government cutbacks, and do not fall in line so clearly with Republican small-government liberalism.
Republican outsiders are the white working-class and Democratic outsiders are millennials. On the face of it, the twain seem unlikely to ever meet. But were a candidate to emerge in either party with a message that resonated with all outsiders, they might upend all the received wisdom about American politics. It’s difficult to say what that message would be. However, neither Bernie Sanders nor Donald Trump are beholden to their respective establishments, so either might yet surprise us with a campaign that bypasses the bigwigs and connects to the masses.
It seems difficult to imagine. But with so many things happening that were impossible to imagine just a few months ago, it may be a mistake to rule out anything.