OFF TO THE RACES

Donald Trump’s Glass Jaw

Hillary Clinton figures to score an easy knockout over the GOP front-runner.

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Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
March 24, 2016, 8 p.m.

It’s easy to un­der­stand why Re­pub­lic­ans are so frus­trated about this pres­id­en­tial elec­tion. Both his­tory and a highly vul­ner­able pre­sumptive Demo­crat­ic nom­in­ee ar­gue strongly that this should be a very win­nable elec­tion for them. Yet things don’t look very rosy for the GOP right now.

There is a pen­du­lum ef­fect in pres­id­en­tial elec­tions. After a party has held the White House for two terms, voters usu­ally feel it’s time for a change. In 1960, after eight years un­der Re­pub­lic­an Dwight Eis­en­hower, Demo­crat John Kennedy won. After eight years un­der Kennedy and Lyn­don John­son, Re­pub­lic­an Richard Nix­on won in 1968. After two terms un­der Nix­on and Ger­ald Ford, Demo­crat Jimmy Carter won in 1976. After Bill Clin­ton’s eight years, George W. Bush won in 2000. After eight years un­der Bush, Barack Obama won in 2008.

All told, the pat­tern has held in five of six elec­tions since World War II. The lone ex­cep­tion was 1988. After eight years un­der Pres­id­ent Re­agan, his vice pres­id­ent, George H.W. Bush, served one term be­fore los­ing to Clin­ton. There is noth­ing ma­gic­al about eight years, but voters tend to be ready to go in a dif­fer­ent dir­ec­tion, to give the oth­er side a chance. Maybe they don’t like the idea of one party stay­ing in of­fice too long.

Then there is Hil­lary Clin­ton, the al­most-cer­tain Demo­crat­ic nom­in­ee (bar­ring a Justice De­part­ment in­ter­ven­tion). Her num­bers were strong as re­cently as four years ago, with 58 per­cent of voters rat­ing her pos­it­ively in the Decem­ber 2012 NBC News/Wall Street Journ­al poll, com­pared to 28 per­cent who viewed her neg­at­ively, a net of plus-30. In the NBC/WSJ’s most-re­cent poll, re­leased last week, her pos­it­ives were 20 points lower at 38 per­cent and her neg­at­ives had soared by 23 points to 51 per­cent, a net of minus-13. The move­ment wasn’t be­cause of erosion among Demo­crats or rising Re­pub­lic­an op­pos­i­tion, it was be­cause in­de­pend­ents had turned against her. In the Decem­ber 2012 NBC/WSJ poll, her pos­it­ive-neg­at­ive score among in­de­pend­ents was 52 to 30 per­cent (net plus-22), but now those num­bers have flipped up­side-down to 23 per­cent pos­it­ive and 64 per­cent neg­at­ive, a net minus-41.

An­oth­er way of look­ing at it is to com­pare how well Clin­ton and Bernie Sanders fare against vari­ous Re­pub­lic­an con­tenders. In last week’s NBC/WSJ poll, Clin­ton led Don­ald Trump by 13 points, 51 to 38 per­cent, but Sanders was even fur­ther ahead, best­ing him by 18 points, 55 to 37 per­cent. Us­ing the Real­Clear­Polit­ics av­er­ages of all of the ma­jor na­tion­al polls, Clin­ton beats Trump by 9.2 per­cent­age points, 48.5 to 39.3 per­cent, while Sanders wal­lops him by 16.4 points, 54.2 to 37.8 per­cent. Sanders beats Ted Cruz by 8.7 points, 49.7 to 41 per­cent, while Clin­ton edges out Cruz by just 1.4 points, 46.4 to 45 per­cent. John Kasich beats Clin­ton by 5.2 per­cent­age points, 48 to 42.8 per­cent, but Sanders slips by Kasich by six-tenths of a point, 45.3 to 44.7 per­cent (the mar­gins in both Kasich match­ups were stat­ist­ic­ally in­sig­ni­fic­ant).

The point of this is not to trum­pet Sanders’s strengths. Once a Re­pub­lic­an ex­plained to voters what it means to be a demo­crat­ic so­cial­ist, Sanders’s num­bers would likely look very dif­fer­ent. In­deed, he might well be­come an even-less-elect­able Demo­crat­ic nom­in­ee. But his com­par­at­ive strength now shows what a Demo­crat without Clin­ton’s polit­ic­al bag­gage might do, par­tic­u­larly against sev­er­al flawed GOP nom­in­ees.

Pres­id­ent Obama’s job-ap­prov­al rat­ings, on the oth­er hand, are not bad at all: 49 per­cent ap­prove and 46 per­cent dis­ap­prove in the new NBC/WSJ poll, a marked im­prove­ment over sev­en years of dis­tinctly lackluster rat­ings. He seems to be de­fy­ing the two-term curse.

It’s only slightly fa­cetious to sug­gest that giv­en the prob­lems fa­cing the parties and their lead­ing can­did­ates, a placebo nom­in­ee might well be do­ing bet­ter. While Ted Cruz is al­most surely not the ideal Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­ee, he runs bet­ter than Trump, with Kasich do­ing bet­ter than either of the oth­er two. In­deed, just about any non-po­lar­iz­ing Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­ee could do quite well against Clin­ton. A Trump nom­in­a­tion would seem to be the worst out­come for the GOP since he may be the only ma­jor Re­pub­lic­an fig­ure who can’t beat Clin­ton.

What is so un­usu­al about this Re­pub­lic­an race is that it isn’t about ideo­lo­gic­al ex­trem­ism. In 1964, the Re­pub­lic­an Party, then a cen­ter-right party, got car­ried away with Barry Gold­wa­ter and drove off a cliff, los­ing in a land­slide to Pres­id­ent John­son. In 1972, the Demo­crat­ic Party, in those days a cen­ter-left party, drove off the oth­er cliff with George McGov­ern, and got thumped by Pres­id­ent Nix­on.

Now the GOP has be­come a right party and the Demo­crats a left party, but the Re­pub­lic­ans seem in­clined to choose a nom­in­ee with little dis­cern­ible ideo­logy. Speak­ing to The Wash­ing­ton Post ed­it­or­i­al board this week, Trump painted him­self as a non­in­ter­ven­tion­ist and a pro­tec­tion­ist, 180 de­grees from where the GOP has stood in re­cent years. But Trump is run­ning on an­ger, not philo­sophy, and sadly many Amer­ic­ans are in sym­pathy with his mood.

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