He’s the least popular presidential candidate in modern US history, but Tuesday night Donald Trump all but secured the Republican nomination, making him one of the most surprising and unexpected candidates ever to claim a major party’s nomination.
Nothing is truly final until the convention, but with Indiana now solidly in his column, Trump has more than 1,000 delegates, with a relatively clear path to the 1,237 he needs to avoid a brokered convention.
But winning the Republican nomination and winning the presidency are two different things. And while Trump has defied expectations to this point, early polls and prediction markets all show Trump running well behind likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
Still, strange things can happen during a presidential campaign, and the hard-learned lesson of this year’s primary might be summed up this way: Don’t underestimate the appeal of Donald Trump.
How is Trump expected to do against Hillary?
Early polls show Trump running roughly six points behind Hillary Clinton. And while that may not seem like much, prediction markets give him a roughly 40 percent chance of victory. Clinton, by contrast, earns a 60 percent chance of winning the White House and a 32 percent chance of taking it in a landslide.
The big problem for Trump is that outside of his core supporters, he’s widely disliked. Over 60 percent of voters have an “unfavorable” view of him, and among women the numbers are especially dire. Roughly seven of every 10 women tell pollsters they have an “unfavorable” opinion of Trump, and that includes a substantial number of Republican women.
Clinton, too, has struggled to connect with voters, 55 percent of them say they view her unfavorably. That would be a huge — possibly insurmountable — disadvantage if she were running against anyone other than the even-less-liked Trump.
What would it take for Trump to win?
Just because Trump won a long-shot victory in the primaries doesn’t mean he can repeat in the general election. The situation is really quite different.
Primary voters embraced Trump from the beginning. Within weeks of announcing his candidacy, he surged to the top of the polls and never let go. It was only the skepticism of pundits and insiders that made him seem like an underdog.
This time, though, Trump isn’t ahead in the polls. He’s well behind, which is an unfamiliar position for him this cycle. And the unanswered question, moving forward, is whether he can expand his base of support, despite his epic unfavorability.
His best hope may be some kind of crisis that throws the race into new uncertainty.
Sometimes, events do arise that transform presidential battles. Think of the effect the Great Recession had on John McCain’s campaign, or an earlier recession on Jimmy Carter’s bid for reelection. It’s at least possible an unexpected scandal or a new economic crisis could upend this race, letting Trump seize the lead by adapting his rhetoric to match the fears and anxieties of a shaken electorate.
Absent that, the rhythm of the months ahead will be marked by the more mundane events of the campaign calendar: speeches, gaffes, and debates. And in that case, Trump may struggle to win new support for a right-populist platform already well-known to voters and broadly unpopular with American’s increasingly diverse electorate.
Then there’s one last possibility, that the Clinton team manages to expose more of Trump’s vulnerabilities than his Republican primary opponents ever could. In that case, he may go down in a historic blowout that leaves Democrats in control of the White House as well as one, or even both, houses of Congress.