A lot of people have woken up to the realization that Donald Trump could really be the Republican presidential nominee.
Too many liberals and Democrats are saying that's a good thing — not because they feel Trump would actually make a better president than, say, Marco Rubio, but because they are convinced Trump will go down in flames in a general election.
Trump is so unpopular, so unpredictable, such anathema to how politics is run that he surely would be a terrible general election electorate, they argue. But these were the same things many said about Trump's chances of success in the Republican primary. And Trump proved them all wrong.
So I will say this: If you are someone who does not want Donald Trump to become president of the United States, stop rooting for him to get closer to becoming president of the United States.
Much as people had to grapple with the notion that Trump can get the nomination, they must also grapple with this fact: There is a chance that he will win the presidency.
It is irresponsible to root for Trump to get closer to the presidency if you think he's bad for the country
Some liberals and Democrats are pro-Trump because they think Donald Trump would be a better president than the other Republicans pursuing the nomination for president. (Those people include Vox's Matt Yglesias.) But many liberals and Democrats are pro-Trump because they think he's a weaker candidate in the general election than, say, Marco Rubio, and therefore his nomination makes it more likely that Hillary Clinton (or even Bernie Sanders) will be the 45th president of the United States.
It is this second type of person that I have an issue with. It is irresponsible to root for the victory of someone you genuinely believe is the worst option to run the US. Because as unlikely as you may think a Trump victory is, it is absolutely possible. It is, in fact, more likely than you think.
It's playing Russian roulette, but with democracy.
When John McCain picked Sarah Palin to be his running mate in 2008, liberals were horrified. They acknowledged that she had political appeal, as a popular female governor who'd picked some fights with big business. But the VP is famously one heartbeat away from the presidency. And many people felt that putting Sarah Palin on the ticket to win the election wasn't worth the risk of Sarah Palin becoming president of the United States.
There's obviously an important difference between this and liberals rooting for Trump: They're not the ones picking him, and presumably they'll vote against him in November even if they want him to win the nomination now. But they don't actually have control over what other people will do.
You can pick a vice president for political reasons, but what if you die? You can cheer on an opponent for political reasons, but what if you lose?
A lot of things we thought we knew about elections are wrong, and that means we could be wrong about Trump being a terrible candidate
If you've been reading election coverage in the past couple of weeks, as Trump totally dominated the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries and then the Nevada caucuses, you've probably seen references to The Party Decides — the 2008 political science book that a lot of experts saw as the explanation for why Donald Trump would never become the Republican nominee.
Obviously, the past few weeks have forced many of those experts to reconsider — arguing that the book wasn't as clear-cut as they thought it was, that it simply couldn't predict the age of social media campaigning, or (in an amusing, if not quite persuasive, argument) that the Republican establishment read all the articles saying the GOP would stop Trump and concluded that they didn't have to do anything individually to make that happen.
But the Trump phenomenon is bigger than a single book. As this post by Lee Drutman on the Polyarchy blog explains, a lot of things we thought we knew about elections are wrong.
So far, we've learned that everything we know about party primaries is wrong, but primaries don't happen in a vacuum. You shouldn't expect that the totally unpredictable 2016 Republican primary will be followed by a totally predictable 2016 general election.
"Predictability" goes both ways. Political scientists don't expect 2016 to look exactly like other elections of the recent past. But they also don't think the rise of Trump proves that 2016 will be a "realignment" election that fundamentally reshapes the American electorate.
The American party system has transformed itself several times over the past 200 years — political scientists and historians differ on whether we're currently in the middle of the fifth or sixth iteration of the party system, depending on how you're counting. (If you're interested in learning more about this, the New Yorker's Jill Lepore recently wrote about the history of party systems.)
It's possible we are in the middle of another realignment. But most political scientists now believe that these realignments are gradual — they don't take place over the course of a single election. In other words, we can't predict exactly how the 2016 election will look different from 2012.
And don't forget that unpredictable outside events can shape an election. We don't know what's going to happen to the economy, or to national security, between now and November.
Here's the bottom line, according to UC Berkeley's Eric Schickler: "If a political scientist knows for sure there's no way Trump can win, they also probably thought for sure there was no way he could win the nomination, so I'm not sure how heavily I'd weight that."
Take a page from the political scientists. If you didn't take Donald Trump seriously nine months ago, it turns out you were wrong. If you were wrong then, you should think very hard about whether you might be wrong again now.
A lot of people really do like Donald Trump enough to vote for him
Here's the biggest lesson I have had to learn from the primaries so far: Donald Trump's fans really will turn out to vote.
I was among the people who thought that Trump's strong poll performance might not mean much. Trump was more popular among people who were less politically engaged and therefore less likely to vote.
The primaries — especially the South Carolina primary and the Nevada caucuses — have proved me and a lot of others wrong. States are seeing record turnout. And those voters are turning out for Trump. (For a deeper dive into the implications of Republicans' record primary turnout, read my colleague Jeff Stein.)
It started in Iowa: Voters who'd participated in the Iowa caucuses before strongly preferred Ted Cruz to Trump. But first-time caucus-goers preferred Trump — and they made up 45 percent of all caucus-goers.
A really great example of this is what happened in Nevada. In 2012, only 33,000 people caucused in Nevada. In 2016, more than twice as many did: 75,000. And they voted for Trump in large margins, across age groups, ideologies, issue priorities, you name it.
Someone in line at the Trump event is trying get a bucket of Bud Lite thru security— Holly Bailey (@hollybdc) February 24, 2016
This tweet got a lot of laughs Tuesday night among people following caucus results. But it's as good an illustration as any that while people might not be intimately familiar with the political process, they're getting involved to support Donald Trump.
Republicans will warm up to Trump if he's their nominee
The flip side of all of this is that many Republicans who are already involved in politics really don't like Donald Trump. They really, really don't.
Political strategist Rick Wilson wrote a post at the conservative blog Hot Air titled, "With God as my witness, I will never vote for Donald Trump." Leon Wolf, a lead blogger at RedState, says he'll crawl over broken glass to vote against him. Freshman Sen. Ben Sasse says he will "never" vote for Trump. The list goes on.
I don't think Wilson, Wolf, and Sasse are liars. But they don't necessarily reflect the views of the broader Republican electorate, even the ones who really don't like Trump.
It looks like opposition to Trump has hardened as many Republicans actually prepare to vote against him in the primaries, but there's no reason to think that's permanent. Many Republicans are likely to reconcile themselves to Trump after he officially wins the nomination. Even if they don't like Trump, they may very well vote for him.
"We know partisans vote with high loyalty to their party even when the candidate is not one that they like," says Berkeley's Schickler. "And that's as much about keeping the other guys out as having your person in." In this case, he adds, "'Clinton' is a very negative symbol among a lot of Republican voters."
In other words, Republicans — even the ones who say they really hate Trump — may have a change of heart once they are staring down a ballot with Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders on it.
Besides, we've seen this before. In 2008 and 2012, the Republican Party nominated someone a lot of Republican voters didn't like. In fact, the myth persists to this day that Mitt Romney's defeat was in part the result of conservative Republicans who couldn't bring themselves to vote for him. But all evidence suggests that idea is not true. Republicans did fall in line for Romney.
Schickler and other political scientists stress that we don't know for sure this will happen again. In particular, Schickler says, there's a possibility that Republican leaders will urge voters not to support Trump.
That wouldn't destroy party loyalty, but it would dampen it. "Typically, these days, about 93, 94 percent of partisans vote for their candidate for president," Schickler says. "Could that dampen it to 80 percent? Sure."
But that presumes that most Republican leaders will be vocally anti-Trump throughout the general election. And that is a very big assumption to make — one that is not necessarily supported by the facts.
Remember that during the very first Republican debate last summer, every major Republican presidential candidate promised to support the party's eventual nominee. At the time, this was seen as a clever trick to get Donald Trump to back Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio. But now it looks like the party has committed Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio to supporting Trump in the general election.
Add that to the fact that Trump is now collecting endorsements from elected Republican officials — he even has more Senate endorsements than Cruz, who is a sitting senator — and it seems the party apparatus is likely to line up behind the nominee, even if it's Trump.
Some liberals appear to be skeptical of this — Republicans hate him so much! — but if you look closely, it's already happening. Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus is already saying it.
According to Politico's Daniel Strauss, Priebus is spinning it as a quid pro quo: The RNC will give Trump's campaign access to its money, its field operations, and its voter targeting, but it will also give him "messaging" help, which Priebus not-so-subtly hopes will bring Trump in line with the Republican establishment's preferred ideology and tone. But Priebus is quick to dismiss any "discipline" effort as "ridiculous."
Simply becoming the nominee will give Trump access to the same resources any other Republican would get — including the RNC's new and improved get-out-the-vote and voter-targeting operations, which they've put a lot of energy into over the past four years to close their biggest gap with the Democrats.
Even if you are inclined to take the assumption that the party will line up behind Trump with a grain of salt, that's very different from assuming the party won't line up behind him. If the Republican Party really is in the midst of a fundamental realignment, that's not going to trickle down immediately to voters.
"When people identify with a party, that's a really strong connection," says Indiana University political scientist Bernard Fraga. "In the 1960s and the '70s, when we saw a realignment of parties, party still took a really strong place in people's thinking. It took time."
We can't predict how Trump will be able to expand his appeal
One of the easiest ways for liberals to dismiss the possibility that Trump will actually win the presidency is to point out that even though Republican voters have warmed up to him, he's still unpopular among general election voters as a whole — maybe even more unpopular among Democrats and independents than he was when he launched his campaign.
It probably wouldn't be wise to put too much stock in that.
For one thing, while most political scientists believe a candidate's "unfavorables" (the percentage of voters who say they have an unfavorable opinion of him) are a good predictor of the limits of his appeal, not all of them agree.
"I may be unusual, but I don’t think 'favorability' is a great concept," says Hans Noel of Georgetown University, who also contributes to the Mischiefs of Faction blog hosted on Vox. "At the end of the day, 'favorability' is going to be just as endogenous to everything else as any other evaluation of the candidates."
In other words, favorability is prone to change as the campaign shifts into general election mode. Most politicians, as they shift into general election mode, make efforts to expand their appeal beyond their party's base. It would be easy to dismiss the possibility that Trump will do that — his ideas seem so extreme and outré, and he appears so allergic to any of the conventional techniques politicians use to weasel out of giving offensive answers.
But if you pay close attention, you can see that he is more willing to learn some of the political arts than others. He's definitely learning to campaign.
On February 1, Trump lost the Iowa caucuses — in large part, most analysts believed, because he hadn't put together a solid enough get-out-the-vote operation, known in political jargon as a "ground game." Trump actually made comments in the ensuing days that he hadn't known that was a thing he needed to do. He and his campaign learned from the loss.
When Trump won the New Hampshire primary, he praised his campaign's "ground game" — using those words. And for the next caucus (where get-out-the-vote matters more than primaries), in Nevada, he assembled enough of an operation to positively trounce both Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.
Watching Trump start to move to the center in preparation for the general election is like when the velociraptors learned how to open doors.— Justin Halpern (@justin_halpern) February 26, 2016
It's less clear whether Trump will be willing to abandon policy positions he's run on, or which ones. But he's shown a remarkable ability, so far, to get voters to ignore any inconsistencies in his statement or record.
More importantly, many liberals think Trump is unelectable because he's too conservative for America, and that's just not accurate. Trump isn't Barry Goldwater or even Ted Cruz. To assume that Trump will have to "run to the center" in the general campaign is to make the same kind of assumptions about left, right, and center that led a lot of people to believe Donald Trump couldn't win the Republican nomination.
His populist ideology doesn't easily fit either party's platform, but it describes plenty of American voters. And many of those voters are moderates or independents. In fact, Trump's base of strength in the primaries has been among moderates.
Here's who's voting for Trump in one chart. https://t.co/3ugjEwcnvM via @esoltas pic.twitter.com/6HAn1niLuN— Joe Weisenthal (@TheStalwart) February 29, 2016
This is extremely important for two reasons. For one, it means that many of the voters who are typically assumed to be swing voters — middle-class suburban whites — are, quite possibly, already enthusiastic about Trump. But it's also another reminder that we can't predict how the 2016 general election campaign will shake out. Because Trump isn't a typical candidate who's run to the "right" for the primary election and will have to run to the "center" for the general, he could find other ways to expand his appeal that might not seem obvious right now.
Don't assume that nonwhite voters will save you
A lot of the pro-Trump-to-be-anti-Trump liberals assume that nonwhite voters will save them.
That's a slightly dismissive way to put it, but it's not inaccurate. As Slate's Jamelle Bouie, for one, has argued, Trump's nomination would motivate millions of Latino (and Muslim) voters to the polls to ensure that the man scapegoating them for the nation's problems doesn't get anywhere near the presidency.
It is certainly the most plausible argument against the likelihood of a Trump presidency. The problem is that it's being taken as a given — of course nonwhite voters will turn out in droves to oppose Trump — when that's not at all the case.
"Generally, when a campaign is premised on 'we're going to get a bunch of people who haven't voted in the past; they're going to save us,' that hasn't worked out," says Schickler.
Electorates in presidential elections are a lot more diverse than the ones in midterm elections. But in part, that's because campaigns are able to work harder to get everyone to turn out. It's not automatic.
And while partisans might largely be voting against the other candidate when they get to the polls, there just isn't evidence that hatred of the other party's nominee is enough to get people to the polls who wouldn't otherwise vote.
"I haven't seen a lot of evidence demonstrating that you can have a candidate that drives turnout for the other side," says Indiana University's Fraga. The "other side" — in this case, the Democrats — still has to work to motivate its own voters.
That's not an easy thing to bet on, especially when it comes to Latinos. Even in presidential elections, Latinos don't have a consistent record of high turnout. And Fraga points out that this isn't the first recent election where immigration has been a key issue. "In 2014, 2010, 2012, immigration was a big issue for the Latino community, we saw some big voter registration efforts," he says. "And Latino turnout was the lowest it's ever been in 2014!"
He adds, "If Clinton says, 'I'm going to work super hard to mobilize Latinos,' really devoting lots of resources to it — and I think she is doing that so far —" then she could definitely win on the Latino vote. "But then, is it a story of Trump mobilizing Latinos, or of Clinton devoting the resources to mobilizing Latinos?" Put another way, would Trump do anything to help Democrats that Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio wouldn't?
There is one important caveat here, Schickler says. "There's good evidence in political behavior research that fear, anger, risk of something being taken away is a good motivator for people to vote." If Trump poses that kind of existential threat to Latino voters, it might help. But that only works under one condition: "People need to think it's likely that he'd win."
In other words, if Democratic and liberal elites (not to mention the media) are convinced that nonwhite voter turnout makes a Trump presidency impossible, they need to be willing to bet on a close general election race to bring out Latino voters.
That's the logic of rooting for Trump to root against him: It only makes sense if there's no chance in hell he'll be the president of the United States. We simply can't say for sure that he won't. Why would you want to take that chance?
Correction: Eric Schickler is a political scientist at Berkeley.