National Review’s Useless, Misguided War on Trump

On Thursday night, National Review launched a broadside on Republican frontrunner Donald Trump, urging voters to shun him, and the editors solicited editorials from 22 prominent conservative personalities doing the same. The editorials range from well-reasoned critiques to unhinged attacks, culminating in this final take from the editors: “Donald Trump is a menace to American conservatism who would take the work of generations and trample it underfoot in behalf of a populism as heedless and crude as the Donald himself.” Sadly, these editorials are little more than a shout into the anti-Trump echo chamber rather than being a compelling argument to current Trump supporters that they should support someone else. All this does is allow members of a pundit class which too often criticizes rather than offer solutions (criticizing is far easier) to feel comfortable that at least they “warned the base” while staring aghast at the popular will of voters (at least according to current public polling).

For years, conservatives have rightly lambasted liberal media bias because straight news should be delivered without opinion and opinion pieces should be fair and rooted in reality (ie just because a piece is “opinion” does not make the use of misleading statistics to validate a point justified). However, we must apply the same scrutiny to biases we agree with as with bias we disagree with it. On this account, hypocrisy (on both sides) run rampant because it is easier to forgive the missteps of kindred souls. Sadly, personal dislike towards the subject can lower the quality of discourse, and on this count, it does feel like authors of this “National Review Symposium” are suffering a bit from Trump Derangement Syndrome, letting personal animus bleed into their writings, causing them to overstate their case and the danger Trump poses.

I am no Trump supporter and am extremely unlikely to vote for him in a primary (though at this stage, I would support him in a general election vs. Hillary Clinton), but I still feel like we should be fair to him. It is increasingly difficult to find such analysis; there is merely hate and love, few rational pieces. My main sticking point with Trump is his “Muslim ban,” which to me manages to be impractical, irrational, and immoral, but one can feel that way while agreeing with him that politicians are beholden to the donor class. changed his mind. Any voter is free to find these answers unsatisfactory and choose someone else; however, I question the sweeping argument that those “new” to conservatism are unfit to lead it. With the standard caveat that Trump is no Ronald Reagan, the fact is Reagan was an FDR-supporting, New Deal Democrat who left the party in 1962 and ran as a conservative for California Governor in 1966. Based on the arguments in the symposium, it seems the writers would have opposed Reagan in 1966, questioning his sincerity. In fact, I hope they would have; otherwise, they would be holding Trump to a different standard, which is unfair. As Reagan showed though, sometimes betting on a new face can work very well.

Voting for Trump is definitely a wager, given his flip-flops, but he is not alone on this account. Rubio and Cruz are first-term Senators (like Obama) with no major accomplishments in the Senate—voting for them is clearly a gamble. Jeb Bush hasn’t held office for a decade and is comically inept at making an argument. An effective user of the bully pulpit he would not be. Christie’s second term has left much to be desired. In my estimation, Kasich has the strongest record, though some will question his Medicaid expansion (full disclosure: I have donated to the Kasich campaign). Candidates are human beings; they will be flawed. Voters must decide what assets they seek and what flaws are acceptable. It is easy to oppose candidates by focusing on the flaws, which is what National Review did on Trump. Did the writers have the willingness to stand together and support someone else? Of course not. That’d be hard.

Much of the attack on Trump continues to center around his populism, which just boggles the mind. If a candidate isn’t focused on improving the lives of working people and middle class, why are they running? Rather than attack Trump personally, which will merely cause his supporters to tune out, we should embrace his populist focus but argue that different solutions will help Americans more. For instance, a bigger EITC and more progressive code would be a more effective tax plan than Trump’s. On this front, the symposium comes up woefully short. Trump plans are attacked but alternative are not offered. What’s the point of this? Even if Trump’s plans stink, what’s to say others have better plans? After all, Cruz’s European VAT plan is seemingly designed to hurt workers to the benefit of corporations and their owners (read: donors). All we hear from most candidates is a rehash of 1980 economic policy as though the problems have not changed since then. Trump is one of the few to be intellectually honest enough to suggest we try some different policies.

In particular, they signal out Trump’s trade rhetoric, and while not all of his China claims are backed by fact, toughness with China and the threat of some trade restrictions are not inherently anti-conservative. Chinese companies steal our intellectual property, often don’t pay what they owe American companies, get state sponsorship, and the government hacks into our companies to steal trade secrets. While we focus on the currency that is the least egregious thing China does. Should we ignore these actions, which have hurt American workers, in the name of free trade? That seems asinine. Ultimately, the President’s job is to better the country. Heck, even Reagan expanded farm subsidies for exports to the Soviet Union to help U.S. farmers. The rise of China has greatly lowered U.S. inflation, thereby increasing growth indirectly by boosting our purchasing power, but it has not driven much growth directly. Unless, the other country plays fair, free trade for the sake of it isn’t wise or good for the public. That does not mean a 45% tariff is the right policy response, just that mindlessly supporting free trade is neither conservative nor good policy.

Absolute rigidity is a sign of intellectual smallness not of adherence to principles. Opposing the bank bailouts of 2008 (which turned a profit, mind you) is not conservative; they saved this country from Depression. They are one of the few economic policies for which George Bush deserves praise. To criticize Trump for supporting them is laughable. Maybe letting the financial system implode is theoretically conservative, but how is ruining the lives of 100 million people the right thing to do? Again, it is easy to shout from the bleachers when you don’t have to solve the mess transpiring on the field.

Trump is the only leading candidate who consistently speaks to the needs of the middle and working class, demographics the GOP desperately needs to do better with, and there is a greater battle in conservativism here. While Trump is out of the orthodoxy on many issues, many “conservative” intellectuals and politicians have abandoned conservative’s populist roots over the past 15 years, focusing too much on top marginal tax rates, defending things like the carried interest loophole, and emphasizing the elimination of the estate tax. Fundamentally, conservatism is rooted in an optimism of the capacity of ordinary people, which is why we prefer to leave them with power rather than hoard the power among a band of so-called experts within government. In some circles, this optimism in the public has morphed into a simple disdain for government and emphasis on total adherence to principles.

There is a greater war within conservatism between the doctrinaire elites (think George Will) and the pragmatic populists (think Bill O’Reilly), and this National Review-Trump feud is just the latest battle. Trump is an imperfect vessel for his side but the sneering of NRO won’t sway anyone, just entrench both sides further. Being a doctrinaire is easy when on the sidelines critiquing those in the arena, but the fact remains that at the federal level, establishment conservatives and liberals have failed for 15 years to help the middle class. America does its best when pragmatic populists like Reagan lead it, and we should hope this side wins the war for conservatism.

At least Trump is emphasizing the needs of workers. That’s more than most candidates can say. Let’s embrace his focus, prove to those making under $50,000 that conservatives actually care about them (which we have failed to do), and offer different, compelling solutions. What the National Review did surely helped to stroke egos, but it didn’t boost the discourse. It’s high time we realize conservatism’s failures post-Reagan have created Trump. He’s a reminder we’ve lost our way. Directing our ire at him is a waste of time, direct it at the leaders (ie George W Bush), pundits (George Will), and rent-seeking donors whose intellectual rigidity and outdated policies have failed.

Median wages are lower than 15 years ago. Unlike Trump, that is actually something to be embarrassed about and have an emergency symposium on.

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The GOP Establishment Has Itself and George Bush to Blame for Trump’s Rise

With each passing day, it appears to be increasingly likely Donald Trump captures the Republican nomination given his committed base, strong national numbers, a lead in New Hampshire that is insurmountable so long as “establishment” candidates like Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, John Kasich, and Chris Christie split the vote, and a Teflon-like insulation from his own statements. From George Will declaring a Trump nomination could be the end of the Party to discussions of an anti-Trump PAC, the establishment is up in arms over Trump’s rise and seems to be blaming the base for his success: supporters are falling for a cult of personality, they’re unsophisticated, just looking for a loud candidate, and so on.

I too am a Republican who is no Trump supporter but am tiring of the establishment’s blame game. If they want someone to blame, they should try looking in the mirror lest we forget how Trump was treated in 2012. Rather than ignoring him as a fringe figure, Mitt Romney gladly visited the Trump International Hotel in Las Vegas to receive his endorsement in person. Plus, Romney originally planned to have Trump make an appearance at the Convention, only to be cancelled due to a Hurricane. Rather than ignore Trump, the Party decided to embrace and therefore legitimize Trump. If Trump is to be considered a monster, then Romney and the establishment are Dr. Frankenstein. They’ve lost control of their creation (as though they ever had control), and he’s turning out to be quite popular with the villagers.

The establishment’s blame goes beyond the actions in 2012 and is more fundamental. The Republican Party has a George W. Bush problem, and his economic record is partly responsible for Trump. The establishment has yet to come to grips with the economic failings of Bush’s Presidency, which left the working and middle class in worse shape.

The core of Trump’s support comes from working people. For instance, the latest national CNN poll showed Trump with 42% among those earnings under $50k and 46% among those who did not graduate college. The CNN poll is consistent with other national polling. Blue collar workers have clearly gravitated towards Trump.

Now, I am no defender of Barack Obama’s economic policies, and GDP growth during this recovery has been slower than under President Clinton or Reagan. Like many Americans, I blame subpar growth on Obama’s tax and regulatory policies, and the facts are that while job growth has been solid, real median incomes have fallen to $53,657 in 2014 from $55,313 in 2008, per the Census Department. Additionally, in December 2008, America had 12.9 million manufacturing jobs. As of November 2015, that number is 12.3 million, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

For many Americans, the state of the economy is still fragile, and angst remains. Unease with Obama policies could explain why voters are seeking change, which would imply more support for Republicans, but it does not explain why so many voters are totally ignoring establishment choices in favor of someone as unorthodox as Trump. It is here where Bush comes in.

On the positive side, under President Bush, we enjoyed nearly 3 consecutive years of unemployment at 5% or less, roughly full employment. However, the Bush economy was not great for everyone. GDP growth averaged a meager 2.1% during his two terms, and the middle class did not enjoy much of this growth. Just as under Obama, real median incomes fell under Bush, from $57,724 in 2000 to $55,313 in 2008. Even more importantly to understand the Trump phenomenon is the decline in manufacturing employment, from 17.2 million in December 2000 to 12.9 million in December 2008. Of course, millions lost homes in a financial crisis for which Bush bears some responsibility. The political establishment of both parties have failed working and middle class Americans for at least fifteen years now.

Unsurprisingly, republican voters are willing to look outside the establishment, which has failed them economically for years. Moreover, the establishment, by focusing all of its ire on Obama, has not reached out to workers in a compelling fashion to explain how the GOP can make the economy work for them. While he may be selling a false bill of goods (what makes for good politics is not necessarily good or plausible policy), Trump has made a clear and simple case to workers, essentially: you’ve been screwed by incompetent politicians who work for donors not you, who negotiate terrible trade deals with China, and who have let illegal immigrants undercut wages whereas I will work for you and bring back your jobs. Let’s be honest, if you’re a white guy working in manufacturing, it has probably been a tough decade, and this pitch is compelling.

At the very least, Trump is making an overt effort to show he cares about the middle class, something other candidates and the establishment at large have been unable to do. Rather than recognizing the problems of today differ from 1980, we often reflexively revert to Reaganism (perhaps because Bush policies didn’t work so well). Some, like Carson, push flat taxes that would likely hurt the poor. Senator Cruz is pushing a Business VAT that would disincentivize employment (probably not a good sell to workers), and while Rubio has more interesting economic policies given his new child tax credit, he has not made a sustained pitch to the working class on economics, focusing on foreign policy instead, though that may be changing.

For Republicans to win national elections and possibly put Upper Midwest states in play, they need to do better with working and middle class Americans. To do so, the establishment must recognize its economic policies have failed in the 21st century (as have Democratic policies). In many ways, workers are worse off than 20 years ago, which is a stinging rebuke of our political establishment. Until the republican establishment admits failings and modernizes conservative principles to solve 21st century problems (for example, negative marginal tax rates), the GOP establishment will justifiably continue to lack any credibility with its working and middle class voters.

Trump’s proposals are ultimately simplistic and essentially are “blame the other guy (with other guy being China, Mexico, Vietnam, Donors etc.),” but he is the only major candidate arguing to workers he cares about their well-being. No wonder they are flocking to him. The base is not failing the establishment. The establishment has failed its base for 15 years with lousy, outdated, and unoriginal economic policy offerings, and until they recognize this, blue collar republicans will be receptive to outsiders like Trump.

Bush failed the middle class. Unless the GOP intellectual elites cede this and make necessary policy updates, Trump won’t be an aberration. He’ll be the first in a long string of populist outsiders while the power of the establishment continues to atrophy.

The State of the Union: Strong But Unsatisfactory

Later today, President Barack Obama will deliver his final State of the Union Address, filled with the typical pomp and circumstance. Following the pattern of virtually every speech given by each of his predecessors in the Modern Era, Obama will declare the State of our Union is “strong” or something to that effect. Democrats certainly will hope voters feel exactly that way in November as they try to retain the White House for a third straight term, a feat they have not accomplished since President Truman. However, the leading Republican candidate, Donald Trump, has a campaign slogan (Make America Great Again) that could be taken to imply the state of our union is not strong.

So cutting through the partisan spin; what really is the state of the union? I would argue it is strong but unsatisfactory. The fact is that America is the best positioned nation in the world, but there is still much work to be done. In this sense, both sides have valid points to be made; our situation is not necessarily as dire as republicans campaigning suggest while there are greater risks to our future than the President has conceded.

To be frank, the fact we are strong is not really an accomplishment for the President. While we were in deep recession in 2009 when Obama assumed Office, America was still the strongest nation on earth. While our banking system had been crippled by the Housing Crisis and Lehman failure, requiring the Bush Administration to launch widespread bailouts to avert Depression, the worst of the financial crisis had passed by January 20, 2009, and depression was off the table. America was still the center of innovation with the best technology firms in the world residing here, mainly in California. We were the clear global hegemon economically and militarily.

Today, I would argue that last sentence still rings true. Yes, GDP growth has been undeniably sluggish, but our economy is far larger than any other, and it adds far more value than export-driven China, which has run into significant problems of its own of late. The official unemployment rate is down to 5%, and even if we adjust for some of the cyclical weakness in the labor force participant rate, unemployment would be 6.5-7%, which is neither great nor horrible. Yes, China is saber-rattling in the South China Sea, and Putin has caused problems in Syria and Eastern Europe, but our military and naval wherewithal is without rival.

China’s military might is entirely regional, and Putin lacks the economic power to exert influence much beyond his own borders and Syria. Given his nuclear arsenal, we cannot force him to do anything, but he can’t force other nations to do much either. He and China are undoubtedly challenging the U.S. Security Order with limited successes, but the fact remains, there is nary a region in the world where we are not a key (if not the key) player. America is the lone indispensable nation on the face of the earth. The setbacks and loss of influence in the Middle East, parts of Eastern Europe, and select spots in South Asia are not markers of inevitable decline but rather missteps quickly reversible under new, more assertive American leadership.

Consider the following questions. Is there a nation you would rather be today than the United States? Would you trade America’s future for that of another nation? Is there a more dynamic economy on earth? Would you swap our military power for that of another country? Is there a nation where you can enjoy more political freedoms or economic potential than here?

Chances are you would answer “no” to all (or at least most) of those questions. How then, can one say the state of our union is anything but strong? Again, the same was true in 2008, and it is a testament to just how well positioned America is and how dynamic the American people are that these statements are almost taken as a given. Being “strong” is really not an accomplishment of the President; the accomplishment is not torpedoing that strength, something almost no President could manage to do. That is why the American people rightly demand more than a strong state of the union.

Now, Obama has some indisputable accomplishments. The economy is stronger than in 2008, but it is not strong enough. GDP growth of around 2-2.5% has been positive but not spectacular. Real median income is lower than in 2000; the typical worker has not felt this recovery. This has been a problem for 15 years and is a serious challenge neither party has done a good job of addressing. We need to make structural reforms, restructure our tax code, and improve education to build a stronger economy from the bottom-up to grease the tracks of upward mobility. A poverty rate of 15% continues to be a stain on this country, and our programs need to focus more on lifting people from poverty rather than simply making poverty more comfortable. We need to reform, and yes cut, entitlements like Medicare and Social Security to ensure they will be solvent for those of us who really need them in our later years. Is our economy strong? Yes. Satisfactory? No.

Beyond economics, we have unsatisfactory progress in other areas. Race relations are not where they should be, and in too many communities, police-community (particularly in black precincts) relations are not where they should be. Many parties (from a media that generalizes every story to bad cops to self-aggrandizing community leaders) share the blame, but we need to take steps in local communities to rebuild trust. Gun violence is too high, and this nation does not handle mental illness as well as it could. There are no easy answers, and the gun issue is too often politicized. The scourge of violence is real though. Is our culture strong? Yes. Satisfactory? No.

In foreign affairs, we do not have a clear strategy to permanently roll back ISIS from Iraq and Syria and its outposts in Libya and elsewhere, though our military certainly has the capability to defeat the terrorist organization. We have ceded influence to Iran in the Middle East. Our Eastern European allies are on edge as NATO seems ambivalent about a bellicose Putin, and we are not investing sufficiently in a 21st century Navy that can guarantee freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. We have the tools to address these international challenges; it is just a matter of gathering the will and thinking in years not weeks when budgeting and planning. Is our international standing strong? Yes. Satisfactory? No.

The President is right to say the state of our union is strong, and America continues to be the world’s best positioned nation—the world’s only superpower. That said, republicans are right to say we can do a lot to make America even stronger and build an economy that works better for everyday citizens. GOP candidates need to refine their rhetoric and avoid doom and gloom, which is not in sync with reality.

The genius of America is that we are always striving to make the country better because the pursuit of happiness and liberty is an unending effort. We are never satisfied with the state of the union. The GOP should offer clear contrasts with and criticisms of current policy but must maintain optimism. We are an optimistic people, and the optimism is entirely justified.

After all, how else should we feel about the strongest, most morally just nation on earth that serves as a beacon of hope for oppressed people the world over?

Feckless Actions That Caused a Firestorm

Earlier today, President Obama unveiled a batch of executive branch actions with the purported intention of cutting gun violence. While too often castigating his opponents on the issue as either heartless or in the pocket of the gun lobby, on the whole, the President offered an impassioned, compelling argument for more action on the gun issue, capped off by Obama startlingly and powerfully shedding tears as he discussed the horrific Newtown murders. Unsurprisingly, many in the GOP were up in arms (a sample: Trump, Cruz, Ryan, Price), and depressingly, some commentators even suggested Obama’s tears were fake.

Many on the right have put themselves in the position of simultaneously arguing President Obama’s actions won’t do anything yet pose existential threats to our constitution and the 2nd Amendment (this seems to be the NRA’s argument), which is a difficult if not impossible case to make. Sadly, by so quickly rushing to politicize the issue, many Republicans have shed the high ground as Obama’s orders are toothless, intended to rev up a political base needing motivation ahead of an Election. Will they solve the problem? No. Are they legal though? Almost certainly.

Aside from some uncontroversial actions on mental health, the thrust of the executive actions are focused on what it means to be a gun dealer. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) is clarifying what it means to be a gun dealer, namely whether or not a gun-seller has to get a background check on the gun-buyer. Given Obama’s directive, the ATF has attempted to guide sellers whether they need to seek a license and thereby get background checks, and it’s a mess.

Obama is not to blame for why the rules are a mess. Congress is because it consistently writes vague laws, leaving it to the Executive Branch to fill in the details. By doing so, the Congress abdicates its legislative authority to the regulatory bodies under the President. Congress has no grounds to write intentionally vague laws and then complain over the interpretation. Here is the text of the law Obama is clarifying:

The term “dealer” means (A) any person engaged in the business of selling firearms at wholesale or retail, (B) any person engaged in the business of repairing firearms or of making or fitting special barrels, stocks, or trigger mechanisms to firearms, or (C) any person who is a pawnbroker. The term “licensed dealer” means any dealer who is licensed under the provisions of this chapter.

….The term “engaged in the business” means—

as applied to a dealer in firearms, as defined in section 921(a)(11)(A), a person who devotes time, attention, and labor to dealing in firearms as a regular course of trade or business with the principal objective of livelihood and profit through the repetitive purchase and resale of firearms, but such term shall not include a person who makes occasional sales, exchanges, or purchases of firearms for the enhancement of a personal collection or for a hobby, or who sells all or part of his personal collection of firearms

In plain English, if you occasionally sell a firearm, you do not need to get a license. This exception, created by Congress, is what is referred to as the “gun show loophole” as at gun shows some individuals may decide to sell a gun or trade with another collector to enhance a collection. However, those who make a business selling guns have to follow the same legal procedures whether selling in their store or at a show. There is no exception for all sales at gun shows—the gun show loophole is really a misnomer.

The law begs the question though: when does occasional cease to be occasional? When does having a hobby turn into a business? We would all probably agree that selling 1 gun per year counts as occasional but selling 3,000 would not. However, Congress has left a massive gray zone; they intentionally ducked the issue, avoiding controversy, and passed it off to the President. There is no numerical definition for occasional, and Obama does not attempt to set one. There is as plausible an argument to be made that 50 sales ceases to be occasional as 100 sales. Don’t be surprised if different Presidents enforce at different levels; Congress’s vagueness and cowardice has empowered the Executive to do just that.

Obama is essentially telling his ATF to be more stringent in its enforcement of occasional, which Congress has granted him the right to do. Obama is not threatening our Constitutional balance of power; rather, Congress has abdicated its constitutionally prescribed ones, signing them over to the President. This is not the act of an Imperial President but the result of an Impotent Legislature. If Congress does not feel the intent of their words are being enforced, they have the ability to pass a new law more clearly stating what “on occasion” means, thereby restricting the President’s discretion. Barring that, what Obama did was perfectly legal. It also isn’t dangerous to our Constitution; unless one wants to argue existing laws and their gray area unjustly infringe upon the Second Amendment, a tough sell both in the court of public opinion and in the court of law.

These actions barely move the needle and will have next to no impact on gun crime as so few gun sales will be impacted. Few mass murderers purchased guns in a sale that would have been regulated differently thanks to these changes. This is political theater with the President trying to show he is doing something to rev his base while implicitly acknowledging to do something more sweeping Democrats need to take congress, meaning those who want tighter gun control have to get out and vote. I think it is clear that Obama wants to fundamentally change our gun laws, but (unlike on immigration and soon perhaps GITMO), he recognized his limits and acted within them. It makes for good base politics but will have an imperceptible impact on gun violence.

Instead of attacking Obama for showmanship and impotence while acknowledging that in his heart he wants to see lower gun violence (and arguing he is just pushing the wrong proposals), some on the right reflexively and sadly attacked his motives, suggested he was destroying and 2nd amendment, and lamented the uselessness of his actions. Again, the second and third points seem incoherent when paired together. This is an example of Republicans politicizing the issue as much as the President to enthuse their own base ahead of an election.

Sadly, it increasingly seems like both sides lack the will for a substantive discourse on this (and other) issues, preferring to gin up their respective bases rather than making persuasive arguments and finding common ground. We keep yelling past each on guns, achieving nothing. Meanwhile, China lands planes on disputed islands in the South China Sea, Iran and Saudi Arabia inch closer to conflict, and North Korea may have conducted a nuclear test. No wonder people hate politics.

 

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Trump’s Path to 270

Without a doubt, Donald Trump was the political story of 2015, showing more staying power than just about every analyst predicted. Back in mid-September (when I began pondering probabilities), I thought Trump had a 20% chance on the nomination and now give him a 30.8% (4/13) shot (chart below) with a growing risk I am too low. A Trump nomination scares the establishment in part because they believe he cannot beat Hillary Clinton, and most public polling shows him faring worse than either Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz. This begs the question: should he win the nomination, can Trump actually win the general election? While he would start out as a clear underdog, I do see a viable path for Trump to get the needed 270 electoral votes and would peg the odds in the 10-20% range.

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Now, two major caveats: first, any chance for Trump to get to 270 assumes that a well-funded moderate republican does not run as a third party candidate. Such a candidate, perhaps aiming to help republicans hold the House and Senate by keeping Clinton’s share of the vote in the low 50%’s, would stop Trump from having a realistic shot, a republican Ralph Nader if you will. This analysis assumes a 2-candidate race. Second, events can overwhelm political candidates; for instance, the failure of Lehman Brothers ended any chance John McCain had of being President in 2008. If on Election Day Barack Obama sports a 30% approval rating, democrats will not win a third term, almost regardless of who Republicans nominate. Conversely in Obama sits at 65%, Clinton will almost surely be President. Presumably, concerns about a Trump candidacy reside not in these “tail scenarios” but assume the dynamics stay somewhat similar, ie Obama approval in the 43-53% range. As such, that is the focus of this analysis. Arguing Trump could win if the Obama Administration totally implodes doesn’t really address the question after all.

Recognizing his flaws (and strengths) as a candidate and the fact he would be an underdog, Trump would need to pursue an entirely different electoral strategy than the “generic” Republican, which would manifest in two ways: the states he focuses on and his VP. Conventional wisdom is that Republicans should not have another all-white male ticket, needing to perform better with women or Hispanics. Along those lines, the path to 270 consists of carrying the Mitt Romney states, adding Florida, Ohio, Virginia, and then one of: New Hampshire, Colorado, Iowa, Nevada, or Pennsylvania. That makes sense and is the most plausible strategy for most Republicans, who carry those states by turning out a few more Republican voters, slightly improving on Romney’s share of the white vote by lessening the gender gap, and doing upwards of 10% better among Hispanics. Thread the needle appropriately, and the party can squeak past 270.

However given his incendiary rhetoric, Trump is unlikely to do better than Romney among Hispanics, and he may also struggle to close the gender gap. In fact, his rhetoric and call for mass-deportations could make it easier for Clinton to turn out even more Hispanic votes than Obama was able to. At the same time (despite being perhaps 40x wealthier), Trump seems to connect with middle and working class white voters far better than Romney, given his focus on returning manufacturing jobs and blaming China, Mexico, wealthy donors, and stupid trade deals for our economic ills. More than anything, Trump is running as a populist. Remember, the country has shed about 5 million manufacturing jobs in the past 20 years, so this message can resonate in particular areas strongly. Doubling down on this rhetoric could help Trump increase white turnout and improve upon Romney’s share of the white vote in some states, meaning he could have a better chance in Pennsylvania than Florida.

Now, that sentence should make clear how poorly positioned Trump would be. Despite getting crushed nationally, Romney nearly held on to Florida (losing by less than 1%) while Pennsylvania is a perpetual “fool’s gold” for republicans. Polls often show a somewhat tight race, but its electorate is just not very elastic (i.e. there are few voters who switch from party to party), meaning republicans almost inevitably come up short. Unlike say New Hampshire where a large swath of voters are independent-thinking, making it possible for a GOP win, there are so few winnable true independent PA voters that is a monumental undertaking for the GOP to get to 50.01%. If you are betting on PA over FL, you are starting at a major disadvantage as a Republican candidate. Below I have placed the two maps that are the most probable Trump paths to victory (note Romney Plus includes all Romney states while Upper Midwest includes all Romney states less North Carolina) as well as each state “in play” by the share of their 2012 electorate that was white and the share of the white vote Romney and Obama received.

Upper Midwest Path (275 electoral votes):

www_270towin

Romney Plus Path (274 electoral votes):

nc.png

New Hampshire (52-46.4% Obama): 93% white, (51-47% Obama)

Iowa (52-46.2% Obama): 93% white, (51-47% Obama)

Minnesota (52.7-45% Obama): 87% white, (49-48% Romney)

Wisconsin (52.8-45.9% Obama): 86% white, (51-48% Romney)

Ohio (50.7-47.7% Obama): 79% white, (57-41% Romney)

Pennsylvania (52-46.6% Obama: 78% white, (57-42% Romney)

Colorado (51.5-46.1% Obama): 78% white, (54-44% Romney)

Michigan (54.2-44.7% Obama): 77% white, (55-44% Romney)

Virginia (51.2-47.3% Obama): 70% white, (61-37% Romney)

North Carolina (50.4-48.4% Romney): 70% white, (68-31% Romney)

Florida (50-49.1% Obama): 67% white, (61-37% Romney)

Nevada (52.4-45.7% Obama): 64% white, (56-43% Romney)

Now, there are some interesting takeaways here. The states the generic Republican would focus on have on average a lower share of the white vote (NC, FL, VA for instance), which follows from their desire to increase Hispanic support. Longer-term, this is a strategic necessity for the party as the white share of the vote declines every day. However for Trump, the focus lies on the Upper Midwest and Rust Belt where weakness among Hispanics is a near irrelevancy.

It is also unwise to think of “the white vote” as monolithic, just as it is wrong to lump all Hispanics or women together. Trump is unlikely to do demonstrably better among upper class whites or those in the service sector than Romney; instead, his focus would be on the working class and those in manufacturing. His economic rhetoric is directed at these individuals, and much of his support in primary polls comes from these voters. These voters are far more prevalent in PA, MI, OH than in VA, CO, or FL. In other words, there is more room to “grow” the white share in the upper Midwest. In states like FL (61%), VA (61%), NC (68%), there is a case to be made that Romney did nearly as well as possible among white voters while leaving some on the table in MI, WI, IA. For instance, Romney’s strong performance with whites and the risk of higher minority turnout due to Trump mean North Carolina could plausibly fall to the Democrats while stronger turnout and support in the Western Half of the state could put Pennsylvania in the GOP column.

Additionally in the “near GOP” states like Florida, Romney did a better job closing the gender gap, winning 58% of white women whereas he on average he fared worse in the Upper Midwest (losing 38-60% among women in Minnesota for instance). If the gender gap widens nationally, that likely hurts disproportionately in FL vs. MN where there are fewer women left to lose. It also means Trump can’t pick up Virginia, especially with Northern VA increasingly being the place where Republican dreams go to die, but his anti-trade rhetoric could have appeal in Michigan, which has been ground zero in lost manufacturing jobs.

The path to 270 for Trump relies on recognizing he will likely do worse than Romney with Hispanic and women voters, making states like CO, FL, and VA very difficult, but has room to grow among working class whites in PA, MI, MN, and WI. That means focusing on those states and continuing an economic message focused on lost manufacturing jobs and offshoring. Clearly, that message has resonated with GOP-leaning voters in that cohort, irrespective of whether Trump is actually offering solutions that will fix the underlying problems (another issue entirely). If Trump can hold serve on African Americans (ie keep the pathetic ~4% Romney got), lose Hispanics by another 5-10%, but pick up another 5% of the white vote (ie go from 49% to 54% in Minnesota) by focusing on a message that clearly has some resonance with disenchanted members of the middle and working class, he could pull off a Midwest sweep and sneak just past 270. Is it easy? No, relying on PA and MN (30 EVs) to offset FL (29 EVs) is far from ideal, but it isn’t impossible. In fact, one could argue that Cruz doesn’t have a much better chance than Trump in the General because while Cruz should be able to hold Romney’s Hispanics, he doesn’t (at this point at least) seem to have the same appeal to Americans earning under 50k.

Last, Trump needs to pick a VP in-line with this electoral strategy. Given his outsider message, he also probably couldn’t pick an established politician or DC insider. There would be a logic to say, Governor Mike Huckabee, whose evangelical credentials shore up the right flank and who also has a populist message. However, when you are the clear underdog, it calls for going for the Hail Mary. Going for a 60 yard TD is never the percentage play on a typical down but when on the 40-yd line with 3 seconds on the clock, a big pass is the only shot at winning. With this “play to win” mindset, I would argue General David Petraeus is the wisest VP choice for Trump.

Yes, Petraeus comes with substantial risk (it wouldn’t be a Hail Mary otherwise); namely, providing classified information to his girlfriend over email. However, Clinton is uniquely poorly positioned to make this attack given her far worse email indiscretions. Putting Petraeus on the ticket dares Democrats to get into a fight about emails, and it is almost certainly a fight that will not go well for them. With Hillary as the nominee, his biggest liability is greatly diminished.

On the positive side, his military bonafides would go a long way to give Americans confidence Trump won’t be “trigger-happy” in military affairs and will be getting real advice. That could make a Trump Presidency palatable to many more Americans. Last, as CIA Director on 9/11/12, Petraeus knows what happened in Benghazi and what the Administration knew and when it knew it. He also knows how many security warnings were given prior to then that were ignored. In the past, there have been some incendiary claims that Petraeus wanted the talking points to include more references to terrorism but was silenced by the Administration, which preferred the since debunked video explanation. If these claims are true, could you imagine him beginning his VP acceptance speech at the GOP convention in Cleveland by saying, “Hillary Clinton and President Obama lied to you to win an election”? If that happened (no sure thing), the whole campaign would be shaken. Even without any Benghazi re-litigation, Petraeus, by giving the Trump ticket military credibility, would be a wise VP pick.

Is Trump well positioned to beat Hillary Clinton? No, he isn’t, given the easiest states to pick up, like FL, would be uniquely challenging for Trump assuming likely problems with Hispanic voters materialize. However with much of his campaign focused on the working and middle class, who have been left behind under Presidents Obama, Bush, and to a degree even Clinton, Trump could have a path through the Upper Midwest by doubling down on populist economics and attacks on bad trade deals. It would be a different campaign with different battlegrounds with the potential of being eminently entertaining. A Trump nomination doesn’t ensure a GOP washout, it just means pursuing an Upper Midwest strategy, with maybe a 15% likelihood of success.

Ideal? No. Panic-inducing? Not really, especially if he picks someone like Petraeus to run with. Trump has proven the prognosticators and GOP establishment wrong thus far. Just maybe, he can continue to do so.