That's a fairly depressing headline to wind up 2015, I fully realize. However, I've been noticing that Democrats -- all the way up to and including Hillary Clinton herself -- seem to be awfully complacent about the possible outcomes of next year's presidential race. This could be dangerous, because nothing in politics is ever written in stone, and this election cycle has been more unpredictable than most already. While most people inside the Beltway are slowly wrapping their minds around the concept that Donald Trump could win the Republican nomination, the conventional wisdom is that if the race boils down to Trump versus Clinton, the foregone conclusion will be Hillary handily defeating The Donald in the general election.
Me? I'm not so sure about that. Maybe it's because not much surprises me anymore in the political arena, or maybe it's because Washington conventional wisdom has been so spectacularly wrong about the GOP race so far. Which leads me to end 2015 on a very cautionary note -- because it is not impossible that Donald Trump becomes America's next president.
Now, I'm hedging my predictions with that "not impossible," which is a pretty low bar for these sorts of things. I still do believe that Clinton versus Trump means the most likely outcome -- by far -- is that we all get to see the first woman sworn in as president, a little over a year from now. The odds are overwhelmingly in Clinton's favor, at least if the election were held next week. But, of course, it's not going to be held next week, as we've got a little more than ten months to go before we all get to vote in the general election. Ten months is an eternity in politics. Anything could happen, to put it another way.
It's even premature to consider the matchup between Trump and Clinton, I should also mention. Donald Trump might eventually implode, and Bernie Sanders could surprise the political establishment by beating Hillary Clinton (it happened before with that black guy with the funny name, if you'll recall). But at this point, Trump-versus-Clinton does look like the most probable outcome, so that's what I'm going to focus on for today.
As I see things, there are four major events which could derail Clinton's chances of ever occupying the Oval Office. The timing of these events might matter, but almost all of them could pop up at any time during the campaign. The classic example is an "October surprise" -- something that occurs so close to the actual election that it is first and foremost on the minds of voters when they cast their ballots. So while timing may play a major factor in how damaging each of these scenarios could be, if any of them do happen Hillary Clinton will have that much harder a job convincing the voters to support her in November.
Clinton leads Trump in most early head-to-head polling, but polling this early isn't exactly carved in stone. Although pundits scoff at the overall level of support Trump may now have, the early polling shows that if Trump becomes the nominee, most Republican voters will wind up supporting him. The alternative, to them, is unthinkable (Hillary Clinton is flat-out hated by a certain portion of the electorate). At worst, they may stay home, but they may hold their nose and vote against Clinton (rather than "for Trump") in the end. Clinton holds a lead in head-to-head polling, but it is by no means an insurmountable lead, this early. A swing of five or six percent might put Trump on top -- meaning it could be a closer race than predicted.
Working from the assumption that Clinton and Trump will be the nominees of the two major parties, here are the four things which could spur just such a swing from independent voters. In other (and scarier) words, these are the things I think could hurt Clinton's chances so badly that we wind up with President Trump. In no particular order, and without even attempting to assign any sort of probability of any of these happening, here are the problems Clinton could face.
F.B.I. investigation concludes
This is the Holy Grail for many Republicans. Many have already convinced themselves that this is why Hillary Clinton is unelectable, in fact. At some point next year, the F.B.I. could announce the conclusion of their investigation into Hillary Clinton's email server. President Obama's Justice Department has been incredibly harsh on some people for classified information leaks, and if such leaks are identified by the F.B.I., Obama will be under enormous pressure to do something about it.
It will depend on how bad the investigation's conclusions are, and it will depend on when the investigation wraps up. If this news breaks in the next few months, it could even influence whether Clinton beats Sanders for the nomination. If it comes out over the summer, Republicans will be talking about nothing else during their convention. If it comes out in October, the damage may be impossible for Hillary to overcome.
Of course, the conclusions of the investigation may be a whole lot more benign than most Republicans are now fervently hoping for. Clinton hasn't been adversely affected politically by the whole Benghazi thing (outside of a group of voters who are never going to vote for her in any case), so this could be another tempest in a teapot that fires up the right wing but doesn't matter much to independent voters.
This one would likely have to happen pretty soon to have any real effect on the election (unless it was a collapse on the order of the Great Recession). We've been in a very slow and very long recovery since Obama's first year in office. Jobs have been created and the economy is now doing so well the Fed is raising interest rates again. But because it has been such a long recovery, some economists are starting to wonder when the business cycle will shift again, turning the economy downwards.
I'm a firm believer that the economic cycle is not much connected to politics. It's largely independent of actual policies from Washington. Oh sure, some political tweaking of the economy has direct effects, and some long-range policies can serve to set the stage for a collapse (the repeal of Glass-Steagall, for instance). But in general, the economic boom-and-bust cycle isn't all that connected to politics.
If the economy does go south in a major way next year (with enough time for voters to react to it), then what might happen is that historical norms take over and the party that's held the White House for two terms fails to win a third term. This has only happened once since the 1950s, in fact, when George H.W. Bush won a third Republican term in 1988. Barack Obama beat his own historical odds when he got re-elected, because no president had won re-election with the economy in such bad shape (people were predicting Obama's loss purely on the unemployment rates, at the time). If the economy has problems next year, independent voters may be looking for a change in November. Which would be bad news for Hillary.
Hillary Clinton is one of the oldest candidates for president America has ever had. She had a health problem just as she was ending her stint at the State Department. It is impossible to predict if such an event could happen again to her, but campaigning for president is a very stressful endeavor. Viable presidential candidates have been taken out of the running previously in American politics solely for health problems (or even the perception of health problems by the public), so this could be disastrous if it happens during a public event.
If Hillary Clinton collapsed at the podium -- on camera -- while giving a speech in mid-October, Donald Trump will certainly not be shy about ripping into Clinton for her "weakness" (as he would surely put it). A perceived health problem might just hand the election to Trump, although with this one the timing might be key. Clinton's campaign hasn't really been adversely affected by what happened three years ago, so it's impossible to say how this could affect her overall chances. But if it did happen, the closer it happened to the election, the worse it would be for her.
The timing, in this case, would matter greatly. The last news of terrorist attacks gave Donald Trump his biggest boost in the polls yet. Of course, those polls were only conducted among Republican voters, but even so Republicans usually have a natural advantage over Democrats in the foreign policy field (and even more so on the "keep us safe" issue). If a terrorist attack on the lines of the San Bernardino shooting happened next October, Hillary could see any lead she had over Trump disappear virtually overnight in the panic which would ensue.
Of course, all of these scenarios are wild cards to some extent or another. Nobody can predict what sort of effect any of them would have on the presidential race. Sometimes candidates react to crises in ways that come back to bite them. It's certainly possible that Trump could react to one of these events in a way that disqualifies him for office among a large swath of voters.
Even having said all of that, I still urge caution for Democrats who may be in the mood to lift a triumphant glass of champagne at year's end, toasting the prospects of running against Donald Trump. Yes, the man's a clown. Yes, he'd likely be the easiest candidate for any Democratic nominee to beat. Yes, he says things which large groups of voters are offended by. But all of that in no way guarantees a victory for the Democrats. Hillary Clinton may get her fondest wish and the Republicans may nominate Donald Trump. But it is not outside the bounds of possibility that something happens on the way to the election that allows Trump to become our next president. Stranger things have indeed happened in politics. I'm not saying toasting Trump-as-nominee isn't appropriate, mind you (since I do think he'd be the easiest Republican to beat), but I do think toasting the inevitability of "President Hillary Clinton" is a wee bit premature, that's all.
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