For months, we’ve heard the same song from Republicans, Democrats, and 90% of the political experts: If Donald Trump wins the GOP nomination, Hillary Clinton will be the next president of the United States. But as we turn the page on a new year, some on the left are beginning to wonder if they weren’t a little overconfident about that prediction. Trump is still atop the Republican field and his base of support has already grown well beyond the ceiling most prognosticators saw in his future. Worse, a new Rasmussen poll shows Clinton and Trump in a statistical dead heat when pitted head to head. If Trump’s nomination would be, as Carly Fiorina put it, a Christmas gift to Hillary, it might not be the kind of gift she was expecting.
In an interview with the Washington Times, David Allen of the New Hampshire Democratic Party said they were starting to get concerned. “We’re going to start to have to look at how the [Democratic] candidates play against Donald Trump,” Allen said, “because he’s certainly holding onto his lead in the Republican Party, and he has certainly played the Republican candidates in a way that has hurt some of his opposition, and I think people are going to start asking, ‘All right, who’s going to stand up under his type of campaigning?'”
The chairman of the Democratic Party in Spartanburg, South Carolina, Ron Romine, told the Times that excitement was also a factor. “Hillary is so familiar, she’s been around forever,” Romine said. “She has her supporters, and they’re going to go out and vote for her, so there’s not a whole lot to parse out. You either like her or you’re not enthusiastic.”
What’s surprising is not that the political establishment is beginning to recognize Trump’s significance, but that it took them so long to see it. You could forgive the dismissive talk back in October, perhaps, but it’s been clear for months that Trump is not Herman Cain, Version 2.0. He has tapped into something visceral in the American zeitgeist that not even conservative superstars like Sarah Palin were able to do. And while a trillion words have been written questioning his ideological background, conservative purists have missed one crucial thing: Trump may be the only candidate who has a shot at turning Obama supporters into Republican voters.
As wonderful as it is to imagine a Ted Cruz presidency, it’s tough to see how he can win where McCain and Romney failed. Granted, there’s no guarantee that voters will come out for Hillary the way they came out for Obama, but that’s a dangerous hope upon which to stake the election. There is certainly no reason to think that anyone who voted for Obama in 2012 would vote for Cruz in 2016. Relative centrists like Marco Rubio and Chris Christie could have a shot, but it’s a long one.
When it comes to Trump, though, literally anything could happen. He has defied conventional wisdom from the first day of his campaign, growing to become one of the most phenomenal presidential candidates of the modern age. And the further he strays from the traditional playbook, the more popular he becomes.
If nominated, will he beat Hillary? Maybe. Maybe not.
Can he beat her? Yep. And that’s more than can be confidently said about any of his primary opponents.