Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Could Trump Have Beaten Hillary in the Democratic Primary?

After elections, you see a lot of Monday morning piggybacking, and after elections that no one called, you see a particularly large amount of people trying to find their own relevancy.  Part of this is reality-you learn things after an election that you didn't know.  Clearly, for example, Hillary Clinton should have had a better turnout operation in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania-I doubt for the rest of her life that a day won't go by that she won't think about those three states with regret.

But with that second-guessing, there's also a mountain of terrible theories that float around, and I want to dismiss one I read this weekend on the Washington Post.  Essentially a former Clinton aide postulated that, had Donald Trump in 2009 started planning to be a Democrat, rather than a Republican, he would have been able to beat Hillary Clinton.

It's a sexy idea, one that feels as much clickbait as theoretical postulating, so I wanted to examine it a bit since my gut reaction was "hell no!" but that's been my reaction to most things involving the new president.  After all, Trump proved in 2016 that he is able to make a strong connection with voters, and knows how to play a political game (or at least surround himself with people who do).  He's also shown a remarkable fluidity when it comes to deciding his worldview.  It's worth noting that in 2009 we hadn't had his crusade against Barack Obama over the racist birth certificate allegations, or his cozying up to Mitt Romney, or the cavalcade of xenophobic, sexist, and hard-line conservative platform ideas that came out during the primary.  At that point he was just the billionaire star of a hit reality TV show who had had a series of tabloid marriages/divorces and regularly claimed he could be president if only he were to run.

So let's assume that Trump doesn't believe anything he has said on the campaign trail and that he, in fact, had instead of attacking Obama spent most of the past eight years focused more on making Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney look like villains.  Let's assume that he never uttered the words "birth certificate" but instead focused on just his attacks on Goldman Sachs and trade deals, trying to fill the void that Bernie Sanders left in the race for the White House, perhaps even supplanting Bernie Sanders but with a bigger name recognition and a more dynamic stump presence.  Let's assume that he never uttered anything derogatory publicly about Megyn Kelly or the disabled or communities of color.  Assuming all of this...he still wouldn't have won the Democratic Primary.

Don't get me wrong-I think he could have done better than Democrats probably would like to admit.  After all, Democrats have something of a history of falling for larger-than-life, hyper-populist figures in primaries (Gary Hart, Jesse Jackson, Howard Dean, Bernie Sanders), but they never nominate them.  The reality is that at the end of the day the Democrats may "want to fall in love," but that's a recipe for winning a general election theory more than a primary.  In the primaries, they teach the establishment candidates a lesson by pulling them to the left on issues while they romance someone "outside-the-box," but at the end of the day they pick Walter Mondale or John Kerry or Hillary Clinton.  They want a progressive, but one that looks good on paper, and Democrats worry more about electability than the Republicans do, who usually let their gadfly candidates make it a bit further before they coalesce.  The last truly outsider candidate the Democrats nominated was arguably Jimmy Carter, and that was 1976-an election pretty much any Democrat could have won (and Carter did a fine job of nearly losing it in spite of himself).

Trump would have been an easier catch than Howard Dean or Bernie Sanders, quite frankly.  For starters, some of the issues that the GOP didn't care about the Democrats would have.  His history of rent evictions for African-American voters might not have mattered in the GOP primary or, sadly, the general, but it sure as hell would have mattered in the primaries, particularly when compared to the civil rights record of the Clintons.  Trump's double-speak might have helped there somewhat (saying the Clintons were worse with the crime bill), but the Access Hollywood video would have surfaced much earlier if the Clintons were in the race, as Hillary Clinton wouldn't have been as afraid of going after Trump in the primary as, say, Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio (relative political neophytes) were.  That would have destroyed Trump, a thrice-married playboy, with female voters.  Without female voters or African-American voters, you don't win a Democratic primary-you have to have at least one.  Trump would have been cooked by the things that he was able to survive the general with, mostly because those voters who were going to be most offended were already largely in Clinton's pocket in the general.  This also doesn't bring in the fact that Democrats don't care as much about "success in business" records as Republicans do (name me one Democrat who ran on his "business acumen" in a presidential primary and was successful), nor that Clinton is genuinely beloved by a large swath of Democratic voters.  One of the reasons that Sanders couldn't gain enough traction is that hitting Hillary Clinton too hard was going to have a "let's rally behind her" moment that Democrats almost always have with the Clintons.  Trump couldn't have been as vicious as he was to Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz as he was with Clinton without it costing him severely.

Now, Trump in the race could definitely have altered the race, and may have led to Clinton being defeated, but it wouldn't have been Trump that would have done it.  I suspect that if Trump's running as a populist candidate, Bernie Sanders probably doesn't get much oxygen-Trump could dispatch Sanders, who is less known than Clinton, with relative ease.  Bernie became a sacred cow after the election, after all.  If Trump were to go in for a huge negative blitz against Clinton over the emails and the Clinton Foundation, it probably would have killed his campaign just as badly as it killed hers.  This would have left room for a third leg in this race, someone of strong moral character, who has bonafides as a populist but also as a "nice guy" to counter all of the negative in this race.  Yes, I think that Joe Biden could (it's possible Hillary also still wins, though decidedly more damaged than she ended up) have won the nomination were Trump running as a Democrat.

Would this have made a partisan difference in the results of the election?  Who knows.  Biden is more personally popular with swing voters than Clinton, but he wouldn't have been facing Trump in the general-he would have faced Jeb Bush (who was the leader up until Trump dethroned him-perhaps that would have stuck as he was long expected to be the nominee), or Marco Rubio, or Ted Cruz, or perhaps another candidate entirely would have won the primary (Mitt, anyone?).  But to say that Trump would have won as a Democrat-I'm not buying it.  This was a Republicans Only situation, and they fell for his line.

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