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Trump vs. Clinton is going to motivate record turnout on both sides of the aisle

(Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

One worry often raised about Hillary Clinton's campaign is that she will struggle to generate the enthusiasm, and thus voter turnout, that Barack Obama generated.

All the idealistic energy seems to be with Bernie Sanders this year. If he loses to Clinton, some of those idealists will stay home. Clinton will have trouble reaching the working-class white people that Sanders might have lured across the aisle with his economic populism. She'll have the Obama coalition, only shrunk by apathy.

Or so the worry goes, and it's been exacerbated by fairly tepid Democratic turnout in the primaries (in contrast to GOP turnout, which is breaking records).

It seems to me, however, that such worries are on the verge of being rendered moot. If Donald Trump is the Republican nominee, as looks increasingly likely, turnout will go through the roof, on both sides (or all three sides, depending on what happens).

Turnout in 2008 was around 131,407,000, the highest absolute number before or since and the highest share of the voting-age population to vote in a presidential election since 1968. Both numbers were down a bit in 2012.

If it's Trump versus Clinton in the general, I wouldn't be surprised if both 2008 records are broken. By a lot.

I don't feel confident making any other prediction about how such an election might unfold — the mind, it boggles — but I am certain it will be a fascinating and horrifying train wreck. No one will be able to look away. And by the time November rolls around, everyone will want to vote.

Voters wait in line at a fire station. They are not six feet apart in line, as the CDC currently recommends.
Voters, turning out.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

You will pay attention to Donald Trump, all of you

As exhibit A, I offer Donald J. Trump. Since the moment he descended on his gilded escalator, the nation has been transfixed. He has flouted norms, ignored conventional campaign advice, and put forth an unending stream of offensive (in both senses of the word) rhetoric.

If he becomes an honest-to-God contender for the presidency, all the drama will be amped up. His every statement will mean more, reverberate more. Every cartoon fascist idea he's floated, like banning Muslim immigrants, will take on a fresh frisson of horror for being newly plausible.

And think: The world has only seen Trump in one mode, mocking and contemptuous and boastful. Over the long grind of a presidential campaign (November is nine long months away), we're likely to see other Trumps — maybe defensive Trump, maybe Trump the supplicant, maybe even Trump backpedaling or apologizing. I don't know whether Trump can pull off any of those looks (my guess is no) but either way, it will be captivating.

And a Trump/Clinton race will be extremely polarizing, even by the standards of our hyper-polarized times.

Polarization is no joke.

As Amanda Taub wrote in her fantastic piece, Trump has assembled a coalition of authoritarians that cuts across traditional political lines. If he holds it together, it's possible he could activate the latent authoritarianism of millions of disaffected, angry middle-class whites and draw them to the polls for the first time.

Trump will polarize the Republican Party as well. Some people speculate that moderate or establishment Republicans will simply stay home and sit out the election, but I find that implausible.

Some (my guess: most) will fall in line behind Trump, if for no other reason than to oppose Hillary Clinton, who may be the only figure more hated and demonized on the right than Obama.

And some will make the decision to reject their own party's nominee. Indeed, some have already vowed not to support Trump (see, for example, this open letter from Republican foreign policy types).

Rejecting the candidate that the voters of one's own party selected is a serious thing, an emotional thing, and those who choose it will not abide simply remaining silent, letting things play out. Some may flip to Clinton, some may support a third-party candidate, some may write in a candidate, but they will be stirred up — everyone will! — and they will want to express themselves when the time comes to vote.

Similarly, some have speculated that a Sanders loss will suppress liberal turnout, among white middle-class workers (Clinton's weakest demographic and the target of Trump's economic populism) and professional-class liberals (who, in the course of supporting Sanders, have built Clinton up into a terrifying caricature). Some even predict that Clinton will lose many from these demographics to Trump.

Again, that sounds wildly implausible to me. Most Democrats like both candidates (the loudest exceptions being online). Several months of concentrated Trump are likely to sway even the most stubborn holdouts. As Ben LaBolt, an adviser to Obama's 2008 campaign, put it:

Donald Trump will do as much to unify the Democratic Party as any Democratic nominee is going to. The threat of an opposition that presents the absolute opposite of Barack Obama’s record and temperament may coalesce the party on its own.

As for working-class whites, it is true that there is some overlap between Trumpists and lefties on economic populism. But they arrive there from diametrically opposed directions.

For Trumpists it is an expression of "ethnic democracy," the nationalist notion that government benefits should be reserved for the dominant ethnic group. Democrats arrive there via egalitarianism and a concern for social justice. They don't want to deport immigrants or ban Muslims or crack down on civil liberties or any of the other things authoritarians most prioritize.

How many Democrats (or Independents who lean Democrat, functionally the same thing), no matter how economically disaffected, are willing to make the leap to authoritarianism? Or make common cause with authoritarians? The number won't be zero, but I'd be surprised if it's big enough to make much difference; the fact is, most voters to whom authoritarianism is attractive have already sorted themselves into the Republican Party.

As for minority turnout — the foundation of the Obama victories — the hope represented by Obama pushed it to record highs. The fear of an openly racist candidate who has flirted with the KKK and advocated war crimes may push it even higher.

The election will be a reality show with extremely high ratings

Rubio versus Clinton would have been a fairly boring election, a standard contest of standard demographics and standard ideologies.

Trump versus Clinton will be the opposite of boring. It will be mesmerizing, vicious, hilarious, unpredictable, and, above all, intensely polarizing.

Political scientists have been touting the increasing power of "negative partisanship" in our age of polarization. Most people these days are motivated less by love of their own candidates than by loathing for the opposition party, which is why candidates' idiosyncratic characteristics matter less and less. Most people vote not-Republican or not-Democrat, candidates notwithstanding.

In some ways Trump could scramble this dynamic, just as he has scrambled the Republican Party. His views do not align with traditional party views, and he's not building the traditional party coalition. He'll be hard to peg as a conventional Republican. As David Axelrod told Ezra Klein the other day:

Because his candidacy is so much about him and his persona, I’m not of the mind that taking him apart on policy will be successful. I think you take him apart on his business record and his offensive statements.

Perhaps this focus on character and personal history rather than policy could distance Trump from the GOP and short-circuit negative partisanship, at least on the Democratic side?

Donald Trump is surrounded by life-size “minions” — yellow humanoid helpers from the Despicable Me movie franchise — in an a symbolic approximation of his primary opposition.
Trump and his support team.
Douglas Gorenstein/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images

I think not. While Trump has scrambled the conventional ideological divide, he has done so by aligning around a divide that is in many ways deeper and more fundamental. He has united the authoritarians and the authoritarian-curious. That will, perforce, push non-authoritarians into the other camp.

Negative partisanship between these two coalitions could, if anything, be stronger than the conventional party divide. The split between them traces core issues of identity, the kind of things that stir powerful emotions. It is the kind of fight in which few people will remain neutral.

I'm already on record predicting that Trump will implode and lose the election. I stand behind both predictions, however foolhardy they may be.

But even if you disagree, I can't imagine thinking that a Trump versus Clinton election will be anything but a gobsmacking circus, the closest thing to a reality show yet seen in US presidential politics.

Trump will be Trump, and Clinton will be like the animal tamer with the chair and the whip. Feelings will run deep, passions hot. The stakes could not be higher. Everyone will be riveted.

The ratings will be great. And so will turnout.