Pundits, including myself, went through four stages of denial about Donald Trump. First, he wouldn’t actually run. Second, his initial lead in the polls was due to name recognition and the fact that people weren’t yet watching matters attentively.
Third, he would fade just as voters went to the polls and began to take the election seriously. Fourth, the effort led by the Republican establishment and the hard right – proving the maxim that politics can make for strange bedfellows – would finally result in Trump’s being vanquished at a brokered convention.
We were wrong on all counts. To the consternation of many Republicans and to the absolute shock of hundreds of millions of onlookers around the world, Donald Trump has pulled it off.
Trump will adjust as surely he did during his primary run. He has already begun a move to the middle. He subtly shifted his stances on abortion (he now favours a termination of pregnancies in cases of rape or incest, or when a there is a threat to a woman’s life) and on the federal minimum wage (he has recently indicated a willingness to raise it).
Additionally, off the record comments suggest that he is not really serious about “building a wall” between Mexico and the United States. He now even professes to “love Hispanics.”
This hasn’t been enough to win over many high-profile Republicans, such as the Bush family, Mitt Romney and Lindsey Graham. And Speaker of the House Paul Ryan isn’t quite sure at the moment if he can support Donald Trump for president.
Herein lies a major quandary for candidate Trump and his party. How far can he go to placate Republican power-brokers whose support he badly needs without alienating the millions of lower income Americans who have taken a chance on him, at least in part, because he rejects the trade deals and militaristic foreign policy enthusiastically embraced by the GOP? These hurting Americans may be Trump’s most fervent supporters.
His undeniable appeal to the tens of millions of men and women who comprise the vast and amorphous entity labelled “Middle America” distinguishes him from the 2012 Republican nominee, Mitt Romney of “the 47%” infamy, and a lot of other Republican politicians. This appeal is a huge political asset and could render him a threat to Hillary Clinton in crucial states like Ohio and Pennsylvania.
At the same time, how many prominent Republicans will tacitly approve a departure from ideological orthodoxy in the interest of making a credible attempt to retake the White House?
The answer to these questions, and their manifest potential for creating divisions, will determine whether Donald Trump can win the presidency. Can these divergences be reconciled? And of course, the viability of his candidacy may come down to his larger than life (to put it euphemistically) personality more than anything else.
Hillary Clinton faces different challenges. Senator Sanders’ much stronger than expected performance in the Democratic primary is proof positive that a substantial segment of the party faithful, especially those on the hard left, are wary of the Clintons. That said, it is extremely unlikely that they will opt not to vote for her in November.
Moreover, the Democrats and Independents who have “felt the Bern” may have made Clinton a stronger general election candidate by fully awakening her to the depth and breadth of the anger and pessimism in the American electorate that Trump is exploiting and she must address satisfactorily to prevail.
Nonetheless, some Democrats now worry that there is an enthusiasm deficit in their base. This contrasts directly with the last two presidential elections, when Barack Obama electrified and inspired the party’s core constituencies. But the reality is that Hillary Clinton is a very different person and politician than President Obama; she won’t similarly electrify and inspire. That doesn’t mean she is a weak candidate, however.
What she can and must do is repeatedly stress her credentials and qualifications to be president, which are extraordinary by any objective measure, and warn Americans about the dangers of selecting someone as inexperienced and erratic as Donald Trump to be the next president. These may be the most persuasive arguments that can be made to those floating voters who aren’t instinctively drawn to the Republicans or Democrats and typically decide presidential elections.
Furthermore, because personality will be a big issue in this race, Clinton has considerable work to do to win over the hearts and souls of the American people. In this regard, some frank answers – including admissions of error and apologies – to the inevitable questions about what she has gotten wrong in her long career in public life – from trade deals, to the use of military force, to her email server – are warranted and may go some way to ensuring that more voters trust her.
Their campaigns will equally entail careful balancing acts. They each have significant political strengths and weaknesses. Their choice of running mate can help to accentuate the former and, in particular, to vitiate the latter, though not to the extent that is widely perceived. A future column will focus on the men and women Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will consider and why.
Meanwhile, here in Ireland, people are both enthralled and bemused by an American presidential campaign that has already had more than its share of surprises. I suspect there are plenty more to come.
* Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and political columnist with IrishCentral.com and TheJournal.ie. He is also a regular contributor to Irish broadcast media outlets on politics, current affairs and law in Ireland and in the US.