Alan Abramowitz emailed Paul Krugman with nine reasons why he now thinks that Donald Trump just might become the Republican nominee for president. The details don’t much matter. Really it comes down to this: Trump is way ahead in the polls. The only “establishment” candidate likely to be able to catch him is Marco Rubio. No one really takes Ben Carson seriously — and for very good reason: he is a nutcase, and that becomes clearer and clearer every day. Other than the Christian nationalists, he has no base. So it really does look like a race between Trump and the even worse Ted Cruz.
Krugman noted this should come as no surprise. Why should the Republican establishment think that its base of voters would “be reasonable” about who they flock to. That very establishment has pushed a domestic policy of “death panels!” and a foreign policy of “Benghazi!” Thus, we have two kinds of Republican candidates: people who are crazy and people who pretend to be crazy to get elected. As Krugman said, “Primary voters are expected to respect that?” Actually, I think it is worse. How are primary voters even supposed to know the difference. From their perspective, the “establishment” candidates are just the ones who seem less authentic.
Under normal circumstances, a Trump or Cruz Republican nominee would be a good thing for Democrats. But I can’t help remembering that a lot of liberals were pleased when the Republicans nominated Ronald Reagan in 1980. “The people will never elect a McCarthyite freak like that!” Well, they did. And in a landslide. Will the American people, in their good sense, elect Donald Trump or Ted Cruz? Under the right circumstances, absolutely. This is one of the reasons I’ve been saying for years that the best thing for the Democratic Party is if the Republican Party started acting like a normal political party and less like a revolutionary power.
Let’s look at the political science of it. I expect the economy to continue to improve for the next year. The Federal Reserve may screw that up, but I’m betting not. Given that, the Democrats have a huge advantage in winning the presidency. If the economy tanks, the election will be the Republicans to lose — pretty much regardless of who they nominate. But my great concern is how the Democrats could lose the 2016 election, even with an improving economy. Sadly, it wouldn’t be that hard.
Political scientist Lynn Vavreck explains what needs to happen in her book, The Message Matters: The Economy and Presidential Campaigns. Most presidential elections are about the economy. So if the 2016 election is about the economy and it is doing well, the Democrats win the election. I’ll bet a thousands dollars on that right now, and I am neither a rich nor a betting man. But if Trump or Cruz become the Republican nominee, they may not make the election about the economy. Obviously, what an election is about is not entirely up to the candidates. But they would both push immigration and terrorism. And if they could get the country to care about that and talk about that, they could win. It wouldn’t be a large win — it would be a squeaker. But it wouldn’t matter; it would still be a win.
Still, would that work? There is a second part of Vavreck’s analysis: the issue that Trump or Cruz would run on would have to be one that the Democrat would be vulnerable on. Let’s assume the Democrat is Clinton. I don’t see her all that vulnerable. Sure, when ten Republican candidates stand on a stage by themselves, they take it for granted that she’s been a terrible Secretary of State. But I don’t think that’s generally believed. If anything, most Americans think Clinton is a bit too much of a hawk.
The main thing is that a Trump or Cruz candidacy throws a random element into the campaign. Regardless who the Republicans nominate, I will be nervous for the next year.