With his decisive victories in New Hampshire and South Carolina, Donald Trump is now the clear frontrunner for the Republican nomination. Anything could happen in a race as chaotic as this one, but with a dominant position going into this week's Nevada caucus, at this point the nomination is Trump's to lose.
The conventional wisdom has decided there's no way Trump can win the general election. He's run so far to the right — and wallowed so much in racist, sexist, and Islamophobic rhetoric — that he can't possibly appeal to swing voters in November.
"Whatever wizardry Trump has used to defy the laws of political gravity has worked only within his party," writes the liberal pundit Jonathan Chait. "Among the electorate as a whole, he is massively — indeed, historically — unpopular, with a public persona almost perfectly designed to repel the Obama coalition: racial minorities, single women, and college-educated whites. It would take a landscape-altering event like a recession for him to win; even that might not be enough."
For an ordinary candidate, this analysis would be totally correct. But it underestimates Trump's shameless political skills. The winning strategy for Trump in a general election is actually pretty simple: Stop saying racist and sexist stuff, pretend he never said racist and sexist stuff, and say whatever he has to to appeal to swing voters.
Most candidates wouldn't have to chutzpah to do this, but Trump has made it amply clear that he does. And it might work.
Trump has already demonstrated he can totally change his political persona
The idea that Trump could completely change his political identity to appeal to a new group of voters isn't hypothetical. It's exactly what he did in the past few years as he began to seriously consider running for president as a Republican.
Before the turn of the decade, Trump portrayed himself as a fairly conventional liberal. He declared himself "very pro-choice" on Meet the Press in 1999. The same year, he declared himself "very liberal when it comes to health care" and expressed support for a universal health care system. He was also a big fan of Hillary Clinton, giving to her campaign repeatedly in the 2000s and describing her as a "terrific woman" as recently as 2012.
Now, of course, Trump is running as an avowedly pro-life conservative who considers Obamacare to be a "disaster" and has described Clinton as "the worst secretary of state in the history of our nation."
These flip-flops have not, apparently, hurt him very much with Republican voters, who supported him by a wide margin in New Hampshire and South Carolina.
Swing voters are easy to fool
Of course, this won't fool everyone — or even most people. It certainly won't fool people who have been paying close attention to the race. But it doesn't have to fool everyone. It just has to fool enough people to get Trump more votes than his Democratic opponent.
And here he has two major facts about the American electorate working in his favor. One is that most Republicans will vote for him simply because they can't stand his Democratic opponent. Second, the swing voters who ultimately decide who will win the general election tend to be low-information voters.
If you don't have a clear partisan bias, that's probably because you haven't been paying enough attention to politics to form one. And that also means you probably haven't been paying attention to the many times Donald Trump has made racist, sexist, and Islamophobic comments.
Once these independents start paying attention, they might hear things about how Trump behaved like a bigot and a boor during the primary campaign. But week after week, they'll also see Trump on television saying reasonable, non-bigoted things. Maybe Trump will acknowledge that he went a little too far during the primary campaign. By the time November rolls around, accusations of bigoted behavior in 2015 and early 2016 will seem like ancient history.
Swing voters know that politicians often dig up dirt about their opponents and cast it in the worst possible light. Presumably, Trump's campaign will have dug up some dirt about the Democratic nominee as well. Many voters who like Trump's new persona — and his new persona will be carefully tailored to appeal to frustrated independents — will be willing to give him a pass.
How voter cynicism could help Trump
Meanwhile, Trump has been signaling all along that some of his more outlandish statements weren't serious.
"When I'm president, I'm a different person," Trump said in January. "I can do anything. I can be the most politically correct person you've ever seen."
In a weird way, admitting his own capacity for mendacity actually reinforces the central theme of his campaign: that he's a winner. Trump's view is that winning is the most important thing, and that you should do whatever it takes to win. If that requires the occasional fib or flip-flop, that's a price worth paying to come out on top.
And voters have become so cynical about politics that it just might work. Voters — especially low-information swing voters — think everyone in politics is lying constantly anyway. The big problem with politicians like Barack Obama and Marco Rubio, from Trump's perspective, is that they lie for the wrong reasons: to line their pockets and help their cronies.
In contrast, the argument goes, Donald Trump's lies and flip-flops are in service of a greater goal: to make America great again and help ordinary Americans. If you have to vote for a scoundrel anyway, you might as well at least vote for the scoundrel who's in your corner.
To be clear, I'll be appalled if Trump adopts the mendacious strategy I'm describing. There isn't actually any reason to think that President Donald Trump would do more to help America "win" than Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Hillary Clinton, or Bernie Sanders would. Trump will deserve to lose if he adopts a strategy that insults the intelligence of American voters.
But Trump deserves to lose the Republican primary for the same reason. And instead he seems to be winning.