The dust has cleared from the March 15th primaries and it's clear Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic presidential nominee. It's less clear if the Republican nominee will be Donald Trump or a forced "marriage" orchestrated by GOP leaders. Nonetheless, three factors will determine who wins on November 8th.
Theme: Although presidential candidates talk about many specific issues, ranging from healthcare reform to immigration, typically there is one dominant theme that differentiates the Republican from the Democrat. Initially, in 2008, that theme was how to handle the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; Republican McCain wanted to "double down" and Democrat Obama wanted to withdraw troops. In the fall, because of the onset of "the great recession," the central theme shifted to the economy. Obama won because voters felt he was best able to handle the economic crisis.
In 2016, the emerging theme is national unity. Although Trump promises to "make America great again" and bemoans a broken society, his day-to-day message is savagely divisive - he disparages Muslims, Mexicans, women, reporters, the disabled ... everyone but White men. Trump presents himself as "a divider not a uniter." In addition to being a megalomaniac, Trump is a blamer.
In distinction, Hillary Clinton is running as a uniter. She has chosen to build upon the success of the Obama Administration (Barack's approval rating hovers around 50 percent) and promises evolutionary change: "America has never stopped being great, our task is to make America whole... It will take all of us working together to knock down these barriers to stand for the basic proposition that yes we are all created equal." It's a positive counter to Trump's omnipresent negativism.
If Trump and Clinton are the candidates there will be a clear thematic contrast: "Make America great again...my way" versus "Make America whole." Trump will hammer Clinton on trade and money in politics. Clinton will respond with evidence of his Trumps cancerous personality: his insults, mischaracterizations, and lies.
It's safe to assume this will be a very negative presidential contest. Trump will attack Clinton's credibility. And, Clinton will attack Trump's credibility (there's abundant material). In a mud storm, voters will have to decide which candidate can lead American forward.
Media: Even though Donald Trump is weak on national policy, he garners most of the media attention because of his bombastic style. Writing in "Rolling Stone," Matt Taibbi observed Trump "is pulling 33 times as much coverage on the major networks as his next-closest GOP competitor, and twice as much as Hillary." Writing in "Wired", Issie Lapowsky noted, "Nine of the top national networks have mentioned Trump a stunning 258,831 times since June. That's more than Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, and John Kasich combined." In December, "The Nation" contributor John Nichols wrote that Trump had gotten 23 times as much coverage as Hillary Clinton.
Trump has conducted a media-savvy campaign combining astute use of social media -- particularly Twitter -- and an aggressive style that sets out each morning to dominate the day's news cycle.
After the July Democratic and Republican conventions, the amount of media coverage given to the candidates should move towards parity, but expect Trump to continue to get more attention. Writing in "Alternet," Mark Peysha observed that Trump has "highjacked"politics: Trump is consciously creating controversy. He has targeted, "millions of people who resent the Obama administration." Trump will continue to be outrageous until the election.
During the primaries, Hillary Clinton's social media presence has not been as strong as that of Bernie Sanders and significantly inferior to that of Trump. This aspect of her campaign must improve before the election.
Infrastructure: No matter how much they have been inflamed by the political "issue de jour" or the latest media flash, on November 8th voters have to cast their ballots. While there were many reasons for Obama's wins in 2008 and 2012, one of them was his superior ground game: Obama had more boots on the ground than did his opponents and therefore he got more of his voters to the polls.
In 2016, there are likely to be 10-16 swing states, including Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin. The campaign infrastructure will be crucial to getting voters out in these states.
So far, the candidate with the best get-out-the-vote structure is Hillary Clinton. The worst is Donald Trump.
Bottom Line: In a Clinton-Trump contest, there is a path that leads to Clinton's victory. Clinton can neutralize Trump's divisive message by campaigning as a uniter. (No doubt as Trump senses he is losing, he will become even more vitriolic.) Trump will likely continue to dominate the media, but Clinton has better grassroots support and, therefore, should turn out more voters on November 8th.