Donald Trump is a much stronger presidential candidate than Mitt Romney

As Donald Trump’s nomination has begun to look inevitable, Mitt Romney has begun giving GOP primary voters advice on how to vote strategically to stop Trump—advice that happens to be geared to creating a brokered convention, where GOP insiders could pick whoever they want to be the GOP nominee. Whoever they want, including, as it happens, Mitt Romney.

This is a dumb idea for many reasons. If Trump got a strong plurality of the GOP delegates, only to have the nomination stolen from him at a brokered convention, it would destroy the GOP. Literally—I mean there’s a strong chance it would lead to the GOP going the way of the Whig party. A brokered convention would be the perfect excuses for Trump to do the third-party run he’s been threatening all primary season. Trump wouldn’t win as an independent, but neither would the “official” GOP nominee, so Trump would get his revenge on the people who cheated him out of his glory.

But the other reason nominating Romney through a brokered convention is a terrible idea is that Romney was a terrible presidential candidate. Remember, Romney was running on a platform that consisted entirely of:

  1. Knee-jerk opposition to everything Obama did, without any alternative policies beyond huge tax cuts for Mitt Romney’s friends.
  2. A religious conservatism that, even at the time, was obviously a fading force in American politics. (Already by 2012, the percentage of Americans supporting gay marriage was in the high 50s.)

Worse, leaked video footage showed Romney blatantly insulting a huge portion of his base, saying that if you didn’t pay federal income tax in 2011, that must mean you’re dependent on the government and will never take personal responsibility for your life. What Romney was apparently too out-of-touch to realize was that “people who paid no income tax in 2011” included red state retirees and blue collar workers still struggling to find work after the Great Recession—the very people who made up much of Romney’s base.

If in December 2012, you had sat down to design the perfect anti-Romney to win the White House for the GOP in 2016—and you had no moral scruples as to how anti-Romney would go about doing this—you might have designed a candidate very much like Donald Trump.

Trump’s alternative to Obamacare is laughably vague, but he at least has the sense to reassure voters that it won’t involve letting people die in the streets. Indeed, he fearlessly embraces the entitlement programs—Social Security and Medicare—that ideological conservatives have always been uncomfortable with but that the GOP’s aging base loves. The tax-cutting agenda is there, but Trump’s heart clearly isn’t in it, except when he boasts of the number of people who will pay no taxes under his plan (a feature Romney would see as a threat to personal responsibility).

Trump pays lip service to religion. This is clearly a farce, but the farce has an upside: at a time when many people are worried that Trump could turn out to be literally Hitler, no one seems particularly worried that he might roll back gay rights. In place of religion, Trump has found a culture-war issue more suited to the times: immigration. And he ties his anti-foreign demagoguery in to people’s economic anxieties, telling people that their economic woes come from China and Mexico taking advantage of incompetent US leaders. This is a view of economics I absolutely reject—but it’s not as facially absurd as the claim that the solution to our economic woes is a tax cut for Mitt Romney’s friends.

Trump has obvious liabilities. But unlike Romney, he has yet to be caught on tape secretly insulting nearly half of the electorate. Romney won 61% of the white working class vote in 2012. Many commentators have assumed there’s no possible way the 2016 GOP candidate could top this. But imagine what could have happened in 2012 if the GOP had run a candidate who didn’t obviously hold the lower-income portion of his own base in contempt.

If all this sounds hypothetical to you, I’m from Wisconsin, and in 2012 I begged conservative-leaning friends back in my home town not to vote for Romney, using his callousness towards the lower-income Americans as my main argument. I was surprised by how readily my normally-quite-conservative friends agreed with me. I remember one saying something to the effect of, “You know, most of the time I think the stereotype of Republicans only caring about rich people is unfair—but with Romney, it really seems to be true.”

If you want to run the numbers, the poll aggregator site Real Clear Politics has a useful tool that lets you plug in vote shares and voter turnout numbers for different demographic groups, and see what it does to both the popular vote and electoral college totals. I’ve played around with a variety of numbers, but here’s a simple one you can test on your own: add 5% to the GOP share of the white vote, subtract 10% from the GOP share of the Latino vote, and add 10% to Latino turnout.

Under this scenario, the Democratic candidate wins the popular vote by a 1.4% margin. But it moves Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Florida, and New Hampshire into the Republican column, giving the Republican the electoral college by a 94 vote margin. The problem, for Democrats hoping Trump’s anti-immigrant comments will sink him, is that Latino voters aren’t concentrated in swing states. In the long run, it’s entirely possible that Latinos will turn Texas into a blue state. But expecting this to happen by November of this year is probably too optimistic.

All this said, if a Trump vs. Clinton general election were held today, I’d expect Clinton to win by margins resembling Obama’s 2012 victory. But suppose that, after a string of victories in winner-take-all primary states, Trump locks up the GOP nomination in early May. He’ll then have six whole months to focus on attacking Clinton, swinging to the center or even launching some attacks from her left. And remember, he doesn’t have to get most voters to like him—he just has to get them to dislike Clinton more. If there’s one thing Trump has shown he’s good at, it’s attacking his opponents where it will hurt.

None of this should be taken as even a partial endorsement of Trump. It’s a warning not to underestimate him. Because you know what other politician exploited working-class economic woes to win electoral victories while running on a platform of far-right xenophobic nationalism, despite being initially dismissed by many observers as totally unelectable? Hitler.

(I’m sorry, that was kind of a cheap shot. I have another post in the pipeline that will include a more serious discussion of why the thought of a Trump presidency terrifies me. I promise.)


4 thoughts on “Donald Trump is a much stronger presidential candidate than Mitt Romney

  1. //I have another post in the pipeline that will include a more serious discussion of why the thought of a Trump presidency terrifies me. I promise.//

    I am really looking forward to this, because I know too many people who are in love with Trump and I feel like your analysis will be more persuasive than I’ve managed to be.

    Considering the consequences (i.e. Democrat nominee almost definitely wins, GOP probably dissolves), would you like it if the GOP had a brokered convention, or would there be nasty side effects that I’m not considering?


  2. I doubt the Republicans have any illusions on this point. If they unseat Trump and run Romney, I think they’ll do it knowing they’re handing Hillary the presidency. The point isn’t to make Romney plesident, it’s to prevent Trump from being the face of the party for the next 4-8 years.


  3. “what other politician exploited working-class economic woes to win electoral victories”
    Nothing what you write comes as a surprise for this Dutchman. Because I have seen it happen in my native country: Geert Wilders.
    And yes – Hitler, Wilders and Trump do follow the same electoral strategies.


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