WASHINGTON – The fall U.S. presidential campaign, beginning on Labor Day, Sept. 5, at the very end of summer, is still five months away. Yet already we can grasp its disturbing outlines. The United States is headed for an unusually bitter, divisive general election campaign this year, focused on the Midwestern Rust Belt. And there is a nontrivial, although still outside, prospect that Donald Trump, an American Berlusconi, could be elected as America’s next leader.
Hillary Clinton is now almost certainly the Democratic nominee, with a 4-3 lead with close to half of the elected delegates already chosen. Additionally, she has virtually all the party’s superdelegates — party officials, governors, congressmen and so on — who are not chosen through the electoral process. Yet Sanders has amassed over 6 million votes, nearly 80 percent of Clinton’s total, and won several important states, including Michigan, Washington, Hawaii and Alaska.
Numerous warning signs suggest that Clinton could be vulnerable in the general election. Fifty-three percent of the public has an unfavorable opinion of her, despite her many accomplishments, according to Gallup. She has the email scandal, which the FBI is still investigating. One-third of Sanders voters say they would not vote for Clinton in November. Clinton has strong majorities among minority voters, to be sure, including blacks and Latinos, but has not done well with white voters, including students. Clinton has lost Michigan, upper New England, several Midwest states, and the Pacific Northwest to Sanders, an elderly democratic-socialist senator, in a country with no socialist tradition.
Trump will also definitely be in the mix — most likely as the Republican candidate. His position in Republican ranks is not nearly as strong as Hillary’s on the Democratic side, but he already has amassed 60 percent of the delegates needed to nominate, which is half again more than his nearest rival, Sen. Ted Cruz. Trump has already run through the South, one of his strongest areas, but still has several large industrial states to go, including his home state of New York and neighboring New Jersey — governed by his supporter Chris Christie — where Trump can expect to be strong.
In recent weeks, opposition to Trump has grown much more vocal in Republican ranks. Both 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney and 2008 nominee John McCain have denounced Trump, while former 2016 candidates Jeb Bush and Carly Fiorina have both endorsed Trump’s most active rival, Cruz. Republican intellectuals such as David Brooks of The New York Times, Bill Kristol of The Weekly Standard and Richard Lowry of National Review have made crystal clear that they could not support Trump as nominee under any circumstances. Talk of a third party, if Trump is chosen at the mid-July GOP national convention in Cleveland, has spiraled.
A contested convention in Cleveland, with no candidate entering the convention with a clear majority of delegates, looms as a strong possibility — perhaps a 60 percent chance in my calculation. Much will depend on developments at the very end of the primary season, in states like California, with America’s largest population, whose primary is held at the beginning of June. If Trump cannot win there, the likelihood is that he cannot be nominated on the first ballot in Cleveland, and many of his delegates will not be bound to support him after that. A large number of them are reportedly Republican regulars who could easily put GOP prospects in the fall election ahead of loyalty to Trump. Currently Trump is running around 7 points behind Clinton in a two-person race, while other candidates, such as John Kasich, poll well ahead of her.
Even if the opposition to Trump is successful in Cleveland, and he is somehow denied the nomination, Trump will definitely be in the mix for November. He has already amassed 8 million votes in the primaries, 2 million more than any other Republican, and has struck a deep chord of support among rural and working class conservatives, as well as so-called Reagan Democrats. If denied the Republican nomination, despite being the top vote-getter, he will almost certainly run a third-party campaign.
Like Hillary, Trump is also highly vulnerable in public opinion, with 63 percent having a negative opinion of him. Trump is especially weak with middle-class voters and minorities, given his lack of concrete policy proposals and his outlandish, bigoted statements.
Yet his frank campaign style does appeal to some, and he would no doubt aggressively exploit Hillary’s weak points in the general election campaign. Trump’s attack would likely resonate particularly with white lower-middle-class voters, increasingly disillusioned with the Democrats. Romney took 59 percent of the white vote in 2012, and Trump, by exploiting this working-class frustration, could potentially get even more white backing.
Due to the contrasting vulnerabilities of both candidates, and the polarized electorate, the campaign will likely be bitter, with large amounts of negative publicity. Trump has largely self-funded his primary campaign, but has not promised to do so in the general election, to make huge super PAC (political action committees) expenditures easier.
The campaign will focus geographically on the industrial Midwest — states like Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Both candidates are from New York, which could also be a major battleground, pitting Trump’s blue-collar white support against Clinton’s backing from minorities. Clinton should hold California, America’s largest state, with a significant minority population, but Trump will take most of the South, and larger parts of the Midwest than most Republicans have recently done.
Campaign issues will include immigration, America’s global role and probably trade. The Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal has recently been a topic in both Republican and Democratic debates, with Trump and Sanders rejecting it outright, while Clinton argues that is should be re-negotiated, as the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement was. Trump has been notably more conciliatory toward Russia than any other candidate, and has openly questioned the value of America’s foreign military deployments, unless allies pay more heavily to support them.
Recent polls suggest at this point that Clinton would lead in a Clinton-Trump race, and could benefit even more from a Republican split and the emergence of a three-party race. That is how Bill Clinton won, with a minority share of the popular vote, in 1992. Several signs, however, suggest that the 2016 race would be close, either on a two- or three-party basis, with a nontrivial chance — I would estimate now at 30 percent — of a Trump victory.
Trump is a forceful, perversely creative campaigner, so far very successful, who skillfully captures the anger of the lower-middle-class white electorate. He is a showman, however vulgar, who captures media attention, just as Italy’s longtime Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi did. And Berlusconi, with his nationalistic, bombastic appeals and media savvy, dominated Italian politics for a decade, although he was always ridiculed and underestimated by the Italian elite. Best to prepare now for the outside prospect of an American Berlusconi.
Kent E. Calder is director of the Reischauer Center for East Asian Studies at SAIS/Johns Hopkins University in Washington.
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