For the past few days my students and I have been meeting high level political professionals, some generally well known and others well known in Washington circles. Two things stand out from these interactions: all people want to talk about is Donald Trump, and everyone is struggling to some degree to understand the political moment. Now, I’m reluctant to draw firm conclusions from limited information, and we are only on the third program day, so I may revise my observations as I spend more time here. But it is striking how Trump’s unexpected rise has upended Washington conventional wisdom about how this presidential cycle would develop and left normally fearless prognosticators reluctant to predict what will happen in the fall.
An “anything can happen” mentality seems to have taken hold alongside the fear (if you’re a Republican) or expectation (for Democrats) that Trump’s inevitable nomination will damage or perhaps devastate the Republican brand. These are smart people who know how to read data. They understand the limits of Trump’s support and the difficulty he will have broadening his appeal. At the same time, their inability to see Trump coming—a limitation they share with virtually everybody—appears to have generated the need for some degree of protection against the possibility of being wrong again. I’ve heard Republicans and Democrats make the same internally inconsistent argument: the Electoral College math, Trump’s negatives among key constituencies, his lack of message discipline and his unwillingness to listen to advice all point to a spectacular defeat, threatening Republican control of the Senate and possibly the House—but, then again, this has been an unpredictable cycle, so maybe it won’t play out that way.
What could change things? That part is a little vague. Some mentioned Hillary’s troubled relationship with the electorate, as she will start the fall campaign as the second-least liked candidate in modern history. But they are also aware that she will have the advantage of running against the least liked candidate in modern history, and somebody has to win the election. Others mentioned the possibility that Democratic constituencies are the least committed voters and might stay home in large numbers, giving Trump a narrow but decisive edge. Will they? They certainly turned out for the last two presidential elections, but no one knows yet what the electorate will look like, so—anything can happen. Because Trump has a very narrow but nonetheless mathematically viable path to victory, those who had repeatedly predicted his demise in the primaries are reluctant to reject the possibility, no matter how improbable, that he will be elected, even as they turn in their next breath to the lasting damage Trump is going to cause the Republican Party.
I’m fairly certain I would be hearing a more confident and consistent analysis if polling in states totaling 270 electoral votes showed Clinton comfortably ahead. At that point Trump would not have even a theoretical path to victory. But Trump has scrambled expectations for so long that scrambled expectations have become part of the conventional wisdom—along with the contradictory assessment that Hillary will win big. It could be that no one seems to know what’s happening. Or perhaps everyone knows but few feel confident enough to say it.