It's time to think about what has previously been in the realm of the unthinkable: Donald Trump might just become the Republican nominee for president. Two months ago, that statement would have elicited nothing but a big old belly laugh from just about anyone who pays any attention to politics. Nowadays, though, nobody's laughing. The very concept has moved from the surreal to the possible. So it's time to actually think about what it would mean for the country and for the Republican Party.
Trump, we were all assured by the inside-the-Beltway media crowd, was going to be nothing more than an entertaining sideshow. His "support," such as it was, would soon collapse, after Trump said something so outrageous that it drove people away. Trump would be a flash in the pan, and then we could all go back to contemplating the Republican candidates who easily met the inside-the-Beltway crowd's measure of being "Very Serious People." Trump would quietly fade away as the real Republican race got underway.
None of that has happened. The inside-the-Beltway crowd has consistently misread Donald Trump's base support. People who support him aren't turned away by Trump saying radical things, instead that is his primary appeal to them. The more outrageous things he says, the higher his poll numbers head. His support has grown to the point where he is in first place not only in most national polls, but now even in many state-level polls (including beating Bush by six points in Florida). Even if his support does eventually begin to decline, Trump is just never going to fade quickly away. Why should he? In the first place, he certainly does seem to be having an enormous amount of fun, and in the second place, he's writing his own checks -- so he can continue his campaign for as long as he likes. Trump is not a sideshow -- he's actually now the main event.
What happens if this continues? Trump is now polling as high as the mid-20s, which could actually be enough to win the first primaries, due to the overcrowded Republican field. If he increases his support slightly, he could easily be the frontrunner in many of the early-voting states. As some of the other candidates run out of money (or out of steam), Trump could actually pick up voters from them.
This could either lead to a wide-open Republican convention, or outright to Trump taking the nomination before the convention even gets underway. I wouldn't want to predict the odds of either of these things happening, but they certainly are within the realm of possibility now. Donald Trump, Republican nominee for president -- not so unthinkable, is it?
The most interesting reaction to watch would be to see what Jeb Bush would do. Since we're charting the boundaries between the thinkable and the unthinkable anyway, it would not be entirely out of the question for Bush to mount his own third-party bid for the presidency, to take Trump on directly. For the past few weeks, people have been contemplating whether Trump will create his own party if he lost the Republican nomination, but now we've got to consider the other side of that coin. Would any other Republican candidate refuse to get behind Trump at the convention, and instead stage a dramatic walkout of delegates, in the Strom Thurmond "Dixiecrat" style? It's certainly also now a possibility.
What would Trump's chances for winning the general election be? Well, your guess is as good as mine. I mean, conventional wisdom would say that he'd get creamed by pretty much anyone the Democrats nominated, but there's nothing "conventional" (to say nothing of the applicability of "wisdom" to the situation) about Donald Trump, GOP nominee. Would a third-party bid help Trump or hurt him? Again -- who knows?
The Republican Party establishment has had to fall in line behind unconventional candidates before. I'm old enough to remember when a B-movie actor (who had co-starred with a chimpanzee) actually became president, much to the consternation of the Republican establishment back then. But Ronald Reagan had at least served as the governor of California -- more political experience than Donald Trump could ever claim. I'm not trying to equate Trump and Reagan, here -- such a comparison isn't really realistic. I'm just wondering whether party loyalty would stretch as far as cheerfully supporting Donald Trump as the party's standard-bearer or not. Even if no other Republican launched a third-party bid, my guess is that there'd be a lot of party regulars who just couldn't support Trump no matter what. But then I could be wrong about that.
I'll put this a different way. I'm pretty certain that Trump as the GOP nominee would lead directly to "President Hillary Clinton," but at the same time I am less sure of that now than I was a few weeks ago. The polls all currently show such a head-to-head contest would be won by Clinton by double-digits, but polls can change over time. Anything can happen in politics, after all. So far, Trump has proven that adage correct, at the very least.
I'm not quite at the point where "President Donald Trump" is within the realm of the thinkable, yet. I still see that as completely unthinkable, in fact. But Trump's continued popularity within the Republican ranks means that it's time to at least consider what would happen to the Republican Party if he actually won the nomination. No matter how much it might terrify the Republican Party establishment, "Donald Trump, GOP nominee" is now a distinct possibility.
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