Forget about the primary for a few minutes. If the increasingly less unthinkable happens and Donald Trump becomes the GOP nominee, could he actually win the presidency?
The conventional wisdom has been that a Trump nomination would be a disaster for the Republican Party, to the extent that some Democrats are almost cackling with glee at the thought. "Thank God for Donald Trump," liberal radio host Bill Press told RealClearPolitics recently. "I think he's the best thing that’s ever happened to the Democratic Party this year."
But is it so certain that, if nominated, Trump would lose? Nobody thought he'd do this well in the primaries, and head-to-head polls show him competitive with Hillary Clinton. So I called up six pollsters and asked them to really consider the seemingly ridiculous: If Trump won the nomination, could he actually win the presidency?
Overall, pollsters from both parties think a Trump presidential victory may be unlikely — but not impossible. "I deal in probabilities," says Mark Mellman, CEO of the Mellman Group, a Democratic polling firm. "The probability of him winning the general election is extremely low. But is it zero? No."
The Democratic pollsters I spoke to, like Stan Greenberg and Fernand Amandi, argued that Trump had offended so many different groups that it's really tough to imagine him building a general election coalition. But both qualified those statements to clarify that if something really, really bad happened — an economic collapse or a devastating terrorist attack — Trump's chances could improve.
Meanwhile, Republican pollsters, like John McLaughlin and Ed Goeas, argued that Trump can win because conditions are ripe for any Republican to win. Obama's approval ratings are tepid, and most Americans think the country is on the wrong track. And though most voters view Trump unfavorably and think he's untrustworthy, similar numbers feel that way about likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
Six ways Donald Trump might get the chance to make our country great again
I had to press some pollsters harder than others to get them to cough up scenarios that could elect a President Donald J. Trump. But when I did, these were the possibilities that came up most:
1) The economy collapses, and the nation turns to Trump to help us win again
The state of the economy has a huge effect on presidential election results. So an economic crisis would likely help any candidate from the out-party — even Trump. "The economy's fairly robust right now in macro terms," says Greenberg. "But if this were 2008, and there was so much frustration with the bailout of elites and a real economic crisis, then I could see a scenario." Indeed, bailouts in particular would likely play to Trump's strengths, since he's criticized elites in both parties.
2) A cataclysmic terrorist attack lets Trump claim he predicted it
Several pollsters brought up the possibility that an utterly devastating terrorist attack under Obama could elect Trump — and indeed, Amandi argues that the billionaire is planning for just that possibility with his call to ban Muslims from entering the US. "His only shot to win in the general is the 'I told you so' campaign, if there is a major, major terrorist attack," Amandi says. "In the casino magnate style that has always been his life and persona, he is betting it all on this one issue." And Trump already claims to have predicted 9/11.
3) The Democratic nominee gets some really bad news — the worst!
Of course, scandal or other bad news about the Democratic nominee (whom most pollsters expected to be Hillary Clinton) could do a great deal to help the Republican — even if it's Trump. Few pollsters wanted to go into such possibilities in detail on the record. But you can imagine that bad news breaking about Clinton's health, or from the investigation into the handling of her private email server, could damage her prospects. (Though it should be noted that Trump is older than Clinton, and there could be scandals in his background too.)
4) An independent candidate enters the race — and Trump profits
The possibility of Trump running as an independent has often been discussed. Yet it also seems possible that if Trump wins the Republican nomination and Clinton (or Bernie Sanders) wins the Democratic nomination, some other enterprising rich person — for instance, Michael Bloomberg — might see an opportunity to win as a centrist. That candidate would be highly likely to lose — but who would benefit? "If that independent candidate starts peeling away more support from Hillary Clinton, then Donald Trump could win with 38 percent of the vote," says Doug Usher, a pollster at the bipartisan firm Purple Strategies.
5) The silent majority appears, and they want TRUMP!
When I first asked Greenberg whether Trump could win a general election, he said, "No, he can't." But, he added, he does feel the need to "step back and question myself on that. Does [Trump] have an appeal to white working-class voters who are deeply frustrated by the country and are marginalized by political elites?" Trump's opposition to trade agreements, his focus on immigration, and his talk of companies selling out America all could theoretically win the support of white male working-class voters who haven't turned out in recent years.
6) Trump builds the biggest, most beautiful Etch A Sketch you've ever seen
In early 2012, a top Mitt Romney adviser, Eric Fehrnstrom, was asked how some of the conservative positions Romney had staked out would play in the general election — and he delivered a memorable response. "You hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes," Fehrnstrom said. "It's almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up, and we start all over again."
It sure seems unlikely that Trump could pull off a makeover like that. "Shaking the Etch A Sketch didn’t work well for Romney, and it’s going to work even less well for Trump because he has a much more firmly negatively etched image," says Mellman. "He would have to pull off a David Copperfield act of amnesia," says Amandi.
But Trump loves winning, and if such a shift improves his chances of winning, he may well try to make it happen. "We shouldn't presume that he's put himself in a position that he can't move from," says Usher. "If Trump found himself losing, he would change. He could moderate, start to find support from disenfranchised folks beyond the hard core of the Republican Party, and build a coalition."
This year, Trump has done better than anyone has thought he'd do, and the one consistent lesson of the election so far has been that we shouldn't underestimate him. So if these pollsters are right, Democrats hoping that a Trump nomination will bring the GOP down in flames should be careful what they wish for. You never know what might happen.