May 4, 2016
We know Donald Trump has effectively clinched the GOP nomination with historically bad favorability ratings with the general public. We know Hillary Clinton isn’t so popular herself. Comparing Trump to his predecessors is difficult. Ok, damn near impossible. We haven’t seen this mix before.
Back in September, I took a look at the GOP field and attempted to make historical connections. Overall, it holds up better than not, but Trump is clearly unique. He will have a harder than usual time unifying the party. Demographics are stacked against him unless he suddenly gets women and non-white voters to connect with him better.
In a vacuum, he looks like a landslide defeat waiting to happen. But quality of opponent clearly matters. Wendell Willkie was the one nominee with a semi-similar resume. He lost badly after struggling to unify the 1940 GOP. But he lost to FDR as Europe was embroiled in World War II.
Barry Goldwater had different policy positions than Trump, but was equally controversial. He proved unable to unify the party and lost miserably. Establishment Republicans have spent the past 50 years warning of a similar experience. But Goldwater faced an extremely popular (at the time) LBJ, who had recently replaced the martyred JFK.
Perhaps no modern candidate has struggled to keep same-party leaders and elected officials on board as George McGovern did as the first Democrat to win based more on primary votes than insider delegates in 1972. He was obliterated, winning Massachusetts, D.C. and absolutely nothing else.
But he faced a relatively popular Richard Nixon, who had just opened China, raised Social Security benefits and was in the middle of one of the best years for GDP increase in the 20th century. Pre-Watergate, Nixon was known for being a skilled politician who won way more than he lost.
Even if Trump takes after his forebears, none of whom managed 100 electoral votes, I’m comfortable declaring Hillary is no FDR, LBJ, or Nixon, at least not the versions at the height of their powers previous candidates had to contend with. So where does Hillary rank?
Shaky, but strong enough to dispatch Trump as long as she doesn’t get indicted before he loses the Trump University case?
Weak, someone who would lose to any generic Republican, but might defeat Trump if he can’t somewhat improve his negatives?
Disastrous, someone we should expect to lose to The Donald, as long as he can get most Republicans on board and turn out the disaffected less partisan middle aged white men who supposedly make up his base?
We took a very long look at this in the fall, one worth revisiting now. The elevator pitch is she belongs to a group of candidates who often underperformed in primaries, and who did poorly in general elections (when they survived long enough to get there.) These less politically adept nominees were generally worse each time they participated.
Though it often took them two or more tries to get nominated, that second or third effort wasn’t usually a better one. More often than not, the first version was the best. However, gaining points for having tried before, or limited other options, gave them nominations even when they didn’t run well.
George H.W. Bush in 1988, is the only somewhat comparable candidate who was actually elected president, and he failed in his attempt at re-election. Bush 41 benefitted from a strong closing year to the Reagan presidency, and the economy had a good year. First quarter GDP growth for 2016 came in at 0.5%.
Will Hillary mess this up? Is she bad/weak/poor/over-packaged enough to lose to something approaching the current version of Trump?
Read as much of the following as you can tolerate, and decide for yourself. The events of the next several months will tell us more, but this gives us a baseline to start with.
If you’re an absolute glutton, there is a six-part look at each of the main contenders since 1948. It goes in mostly descending order from best candidates (who all won their general elections) to worst (who all failed to get nominated.) It will put our conclusions about Hillary in better perspective.
You can also decide where along the continuum Trump belongs. Enjoy!