As we head into the Democratic National Convention, Hillary Clinton is maintaining a low-single-digit lead over Donald Trump nationally and in key swing states. While she is currently favored to win, the risk she could lose is real — her lead is only on par with where John Kerry was at this point in 2004.
It raises the question: Where would the Democrats be right now if they hadn’t nominated such a deeply unpopular nominee to go up against Trump? This was entirely plausible: The party cleared the field of other candidates before the primary began to make way for Clinton. But imagine Clinton never ran. The convention might look very different — with Democrats poised for a historic landslide.
This week, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) will formally accept the Democratic Party’s nomination for president — and polls suggest that she’s poised to secure a landslide electoral victory the likes of which Americans haven’t seen in a generation.
Polls show that Gillibrand, a well-liked political newcomer in the mold of Barack Obama, is up 15 points in the polls and a heavy favorite for election. Her dominant position is largely the result of an extraordinary fluke — Republican voters selected Donald Trump in the 2016 Republican primaries — allowing her to overcome a situation in which Emory political scientist Alan Abramowitz’s “Time for Change” model suggests a generic Republican would be expected to score a narrow win.
At this point, a repeat of the 1992 election seems entirely plausible. Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson has mounted a strong third-party bid, appealing to Republican voters dissatisfied with Trump and looking for a protest candidate. Johnson has risen enough in the polls that he may qualify for the presidential debates — and pave the way for a Gillibrand landslide.
A Democratic victory, which is expected to come with down-ballot gains for Democrats, could cement Obama’s legacy as one of America’s most influential presidents. History suggests the GOP will bounce back from this fiasco faster than people think. But when they come back up for air, it will have to be as a party that accommodates the new social and political realities of 21st-century America.
A meme led to a political earthquake
It all started innocently enough with the 2012 Texts From Hillary meme, which liberals loved, but which alerted Clarence Finney of the State Department’s Freedom of Information Act office that something was amiss. Way back during the Bush-to-Obama transition, Finney remembered having been told that Secretary Clinton didn’t intend to use an official State.gov email account. The photo reminded him to follow up with a question of whether that was still the case several years later, and he was told that it was.
The staging of the photo strongly suggested that Clinton was conducting official State Department business via a mobile device and something other than the State Department’s official email servers, raising red flags about both FOIA compliance and potential security risks.
Finney quietly shared his concerns with House Republicans, who immediately announced hearings into the matter. Clinton, under pressure from party leaders to avoid sinking Obama’s reelection bid, called and apologized for her “careless” decision-making, and announced plans to step down after the election while confirming to confidants that she’d lost her stomach for battling this kind of persecution and was ready to pass the baton to a new generation of leaders.
All eyes initially turned to Vice President Joe Biden as the Democratic frontrunner.
But behind the scenes, Clinton was whipping support from women’s groups and female elected officials for her once and future protégé, Kirsten Gillibrand. Gillibrand started the campaign as a largely unknown figure whose first name was constantly being misspelled, but as a lone woman amid a crowded field of men she rapidly stood out, and more and more Democrats decided to proclaim, “I’m with her.”
A broad fundraising and volunteer base of women from across the party’s various constituencies — Elizabeth Warren and Randy Weingarten but also Ruth Porat and Sheryl Sandberg — let her rack up wins without defining herself any more sharply than “generic Democrat.” Picking Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed, a former US Army paratrooper, added a little macho factor to the ticket without doing much of anything to sharpen the campaign’s ideological profile.
Republicans don’t know what to say
This somewhat unlikely ticket of low-key senators who aren’t especially well-known for anything in particular turned out to be perfectly suited to the moment at hand.
The GOP convention in Cleveland illustrated the dynamic that had already been at work for several months. With Trump and the Republican congressional leadership not seeing eye to eye on what issues to emphasize or even basic topics like “should we disband NATO and let Russia conquer large swaths of Eastern Europe,” the party desperately needs to unite over its common enemy. But Republicans don’t really have anything in particular to say about Gillibrand.
The back and forth swiftly degenerated into a groan-inducing volley where she is accused of “playing the woman card,” to which she responds, “If playing the women card means fighting for equal pay, equal health care, and affordable child care, then deal me in!”
What Republicans have in common is that they really, really, really hate Obama. He destroyed the economy, unleashed a crime wave in our streets, abandoned our boys in Benghazi, and even let Crooked Hillary Clinton run a shady email server outside the regular order of the government. Gillibrand is nothing more than a third term of the same failed policies.
Except Obama, though not the most popular president in American history, is pretty popular, all things considered. The unemployment rate is at a pretty low level, and crime is generally lower than it’s been in generations. Obama ordered the FBI to look into the email thing, and they found that nothing illegal happened and have moved on.
There was something fundamentally bizarre about a week-long GOP effort to tie Gillibrand to Obama when Obama is, in fact, much more popular than the Republican nominee.
The GOP is trying to stanch the bleeding
The main question on Republican minds going forward isn’t how to beat Gillibrand in November — it’s how to contain the collateral damage.
She’s only at 50 percent in current polling averages and could conceivably be knocked down another point or two through a ferocious barrage of attack ads. But with Obama’s approval ratings averaging around 50 percent, it’s hard to see why Gillibrand would go much lower.
Trump, meanwhile, seems maxed out at around 35 percent, since at least 10 percent of the country seems entirely convinced by the basic “Democrats are bad” message but simply refuses to vote for a flagrantly unqualified, racist authoritarian in response. The happy coincidence that the Libertarian Party nominated an unusually well-qualified and broadly respectable ticket in the form of former Govs. Gary Johnson and William Weld has provided a welcome outlet for these NeverTrumpers.
Now that the convention is wrapped up, the quiet discussions happening between Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, key donors like Paul Singer and the Koch brothers, and interest group players like the National Rifle Association and the Chamber of Commerce are about whether the institutional GOP should try to encourage Johnson voters.
The risk for Republicans, at this point, isn’t so much that Gillibrand will win — she clearly will — but that core elements of the GOP base will be demoralized and not vote. That Trump’s biggest fans are concentrated in the liberal Northeast and the Deep South — the two least politically competitive regions in the country — exacerbates their problems. Trumpkins will vote enthusiastically, but they live in the wrong places. The GOP needs observant Mormons in Nevada, rustic libertarians in Colorado, and affluent suburbanites in South Florida.
Rather than trying to persuade them to vote Trump, elites are pondering, maybe it would be easier to simply let Senate campaigns and outside interest groups target certain voters for pro-Johnson message and get-out-the-vote efforts? But this kind of talk has only exacerbated the current tendency of 2016 Republican campaigns to get derailed from their main message in favor of infighting, talking about Trump, and then reverting to the unworkable Obama-bashing message as a least common denominator.
Democrats’ job is to make it bigger than Trump
Democrats are looking at a very crowded speaking roster this week. In addition to addresses from Gillibrand and Reed, we are expecting high-profile speeches from would-be First Gentleman Jonathan Gillibrand, as well as form the party’s now-extensive list of éminences grises — Barack and Michelle Obama, Biden, and Bill and Hillary Clinton, plus inevitable appearances from congressional leaders Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and Chuck Schumer.
President Obama has ordered a somewhat unusual blanket ban on Cabinet members addressing the convention, ostensibly to separate political from governance work, but realistically just to make sure there’s room on the dais for rising stars and people actually on the ballot in November.
The job of a couple of these people is going to be to testify, personally, to Gillibrand’s work in Congress, which has been crucial on a few key issues addressing sexual assault in the military and on college campuses but remains otherwise relatively unknown.
But expect the main theme of many of the speeches — especially from Bill Clinton, who is feeling loose and eager to hop back into the arena now that his wife is essentially retired from politics — to be an effort to paint the entire Republican Party with the Trumpian brush. The goal isn’t so much to win the presidential election at this point as it is to take advantage of the weird confluence of circumstances to shoot down as many GOP senators and House members as possible while they’re isolated, confused, and squabbling.
It should be quite the show.