Predictions are difficult, especially about the future, as Yogi Berra reputedly said. (The quote is also attributed, perhaps more reliably, to Niels Bohr.) But when has that ever stopped anyone?
A few months ago a Norwegian newspaper columnist named Frank Rossavik interviewed me for a book he is writing about American politics. As a follow-up, he emailed me some questions about Donald Trump and the current election, which I answered as best I could. I thought that our readers might be interested in the exchange:
1. Say Trump wins Ohio and Florida, and does well in the other contests tonight: How do you think the rest of the process will unfold?
Trump is the leader in delegates, but is still far from having the majority he needs to be nominated. There are two possibilities: either he wins enough delegates in the remaining primaries to have a majority at the convention on the first ballot, or he doesn’t. If he has a first ballot majority, it is all over. He is the nominee. If he doesn’t have a first ballot majority, or at least come within a few votes of a majority, he is unlikely ever to get one. On that scenario, we have an open convention, something that happened often in our earlier history. There will probably be quite a few ballots as the delegates try to settle on a nominee. In that event, Ted Cruz could wind up as the nominee, or else someone like John Kasich or possibly Marco Rubio will emerge; or perhaps someone who has not even been a candidate.
2. Will the GOP be able to stand united behind Trump as a candidate?
Not entirely, certainly. Some Republicans would disavow Trump. Others—like me, for example—would vote for him, but otherwise not lend him any support (e.g., by contributing to his campaign or promoting him on my web site). But hardly any Republicans would vote for Hillary Clinton, so these defections probably won’t be too important. Bear in mind that quite a few potential voters always stay home because they don’t much like the candidate. A lot of conservatives didn’t turn out to vote for John McCain in 2008 or Mitt Romney in 2012. Will the number who refuse to vote for Trump be any greater if he is the nominee? I don’t know; it could quite possibly be smaller. Plus, of course, Trump will draw a lot of votes from Democrats and independents. His appeal is basically non-partisan.
3. What would or could be the consequences (for the GOP)?
I don’t think there will be much in the way of long-term consequences. Trump will do quite well; in my opinion, he will most likely defeat Mrs. Clinton if he is the nominee. Even if he loses, it won’t be a catastrophic defeat like, say, George McGovern in 1972 or Michael Dukakis in 1988. So the GOP will not, in that sense, be damaged.
What we are seeing in both parties is a rebellion against the “establishment.” I can never quite figure out what that means, but the revolt has been going on for a while. The so-called Tea Party movement dates to 2010, and in 2012 many Republican-leaning voters didn’t vote because they saw Romney as too “establishment.” My own opinion is that a rebellion against the establishment—which seems to include just about everyone who has ever won an election—is too inchoate to result in much in the way of lasting change.
If Trump doesn’t get the nomination, some of his supporters may be outraged and refuse to vote, but hardly any of them will vote for Clinton, and I don’t think any negative reaction from Trump voters—quite a few of whom are not Republicans–will have much impact on the election.
4. Is there any chance of a split, temporary or permanent?
I see zero chance of a permanent or long-term split in the Republican Party. The two-party system is deeply embedded in American politics, and third parties don’t last. Bear in mind, too, that the GOP is on the ascendancy. It is the Democrats who are in trouble long-term. Currently, two-thirds of all state legislative bodies are in Republican hands, 60% of governors are Republicans, and Republicans control both the House and the Senate. The Trump phenomenon results in part from the expansion of the GOP to its strongest position since the 1920s.
What could happen is an independent candidacy in 2016. If Trump doesn’t get the nomination, he may run as an independent. He would draw quite a few votes and maybe even win some states, but independent or third-party candidacies have zero history of actual success in the U.S. I also am not sure to what extent Trump’s ability to get on various state ballots as an independent may have passed by the time of the convention. The conventional wisdom is that an independent run by Trump would throw the election to Hillary Clinton, and that might well be true. It would depend in part on who gets the Republican nomination, and one would have to look carefully at the relative handful of swing states to see what his impact would be there.
If Trump gets the nomination, there may be efforts by a handful of high-minded Republicans to mount an independent race with someone like Mitt Romney as the nominee (although I don’t think Romney would do it). I think any such effort will fizzle, and probably such a candidate would not get on the ballot in very many states.
Everything considered, I think it likely that Trump will be our next president. Crazed attacks on him from the Left and by liberal reporters only increase his popularity. A good candidate could beat him, but Hillary Clinton is a terrible candidate, and I doubt that she can do it.
What happens then? I think a Trump presidency would not be as dramatic as most people suppose. He has little in the way of fixed policy positions, and not much knowledge of how the federal government operates. He would be forced to rely heavily on advisers, whom he would probably pick from the middle of the road, as Trump is basically a centrist (albeit not a very well-informed one). I think we would see a sort of compromise administration that, in the end, would be about 2/3 Democrat and 1/3 Republican. That’s what happened here in Minnesota when we elected a former professional wrestler and actor, Jesse Ventura, as governor. In policy terms Trump would be a severe disappointment to his followers—the ones who care about policy, anyway.
One possible caveat: if Trump really does take aggressive action against illegal immigration, and acts within his executive powers to cut down on legal immigration—positions that are supported by a large majority of voters—he could be popular no matter how much he stumbles on other fronts. More likely, though, I suspect that both he and the voters will have had enough after four years and he will quietly retire from office after one term.
PAUL ADDS: My crystal ball is cloudy, but I can confidently disagree with one word in John’s post — the word “quietly” in his last sentence.