With general election now underway, segments of the professional commentariat and the anti-Trump right are jointly fostering a conventional wisdom that Hillary Clinton would be losing, perhaps badly, if any of Donald Trump’s 16 Republican primary contestants had managed to defeat him this spring.
For Republicans, this is both a tragic and bracing conclusion—tragic for the opportunity lost; bracing for the implication that underneath the necrotic tissue of Trumpism you’ll find a mostly healthy political organism.
For political writers, it’s a remembrance of things past but hopefully not lost—a time when presidential campaigns were exciting yet value-neutral competitions between teams with familiar players.
These are comforting notions to the people who hold them. Conservatives have dedicated their livelihoods to an ideology that’s now under threat. They have a rooting interest in portraying Clinton as an unrightful victor, like a defendant acquitted on a technicality. Political journalists, meanwhile, would like to make bigger issue of Clinton’s cynicism about the press. They are more comfortable writing and talking about liberals vs. conservatives than about Democrats vs. white ethno-nationalists. This election is frustrating the media’s preference for, and comfort with, two-handed journalism.
But their shared thesis itself is, at best, a deeply underdeveloped one. Clinton may have lost an election against a different candidate; she’s by no means guaranteed to win this one. But to assume it was Republicans’ to lose, you must first blind yourself to quantitative facts and strong assumptions about our politics that weaken the idea fatally. Yes, Trump is a uniquely bad candidate. But for reasons internal and external to their party, this election was never going to be a cinch for the GOP. To believe otherwise is to ignore the root causes of the party’s current illness.
The bases of the Clinton-should-be-losing argument are simple: She’s very unpopular for a major party candidate; it is historically difficult for one party to win three consecutive presidential elections; and in head-to-head polls taken during primary season, Clinton fared poorly against more traditional candidates like John Kasich and Marco Rubio.
It’s not that these observations are inaccurate. But they lack the persuasive power to demonstrate that Clinton would be getting slaughtered if she hadn’t lucked out and drawn Trump as her opponent. As data points, they support the argument that she would be facing a much more challenging race—and would be likelier to lose—if she were running against someone competent and well liked. But they aren’t sufficient to justify the certainty we’re seeing that she’d be losing handily to any other candidate.
After all, part of the reason other Republicans polled better than Trump against Clinton is that they themselves were losing, and as such were spared the scrutiny and negative attention that Clinton has endured for 25 years. Moreover, just four years ago, a competent candidate advanced the generic conservative agenda that Kasich and most non-Trump Republicans ran on this year; but the voters rejected Mitt Romney. These vulnerabilities (whether they belonged to Kasich or Rubio or anyone else) would’ve been held up against Clinton’s just as Trump’s have, and any gap that existed at the end of the primary would have narrowed.
Isolating Clinton’s vulnerabilities also entails ignoring basic structural advantages Clinton would enjoy no matter who her opponent was. With the parties ideologically and racially sorted as they are today, the electoral college (and the voting-age population more generally) confers a natural advantage on Democrats. Clinton could underperform Obama’s reelection campaign considerably and still win. The economy is growing, creating jobs, lifting wages, buoying Obama’s approval rating (now above 50 percent) and in turn buoying Clinton, whose surrogates include the most famous and popular politicians in the country: Obama, his wife Michelle, Joe Biden, Bill Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren. Trump has no comparable surrogates, but even the most-respected Republican in the GOP wouldn’t enjoy nearly as influential a support team.
But the biggest flaw lies with the thought experiment itself, rather than with any particular way you run it through your mind. Even if Trump had never entered the race, the nominee would still have had to prevail in the Republican primary, a process that entails appealing to the same ethno-nationalist base that Trump fully embraced. There’s a reason Rubio and Kasich fared far worse than Ted Cruz, who almost never led Clinton in head-to-heads, and who in turn fared worse than Trump. The whole construct is built upon what the writer Richard Yeselson has described as “the ahistorical anti-structural view of Trump as just a GOP screwup,” a curse that struck the party rather than a product of its political culture. There is no Republican politician who deserves the assumption he’d be beating Clinton handily right now, because no politician who survived the primary could avoid severe damage himself.
It was hard to see in real time, because the race was fraught, and liberals are prone to panic—and Barack Obama really did blow that first debate—but Romney lost that race before the general election had even begun. The internal politics of his party were just that toxic. Clinton is decidedly not Obama, but any qualified Democrat would stand a good chance of beating the nominee of a party as sick as that.