The Republican candidate Donald Trump enjoyed a stunning victory against his rivals in the South Carolina primary election this weekend with a 10% lead over his closest rival Rubio and Cruz running at third place. He gained the support of evangelical Christians (despite not knowing the names of the books in the Bible), independents, moderates as well as a surprisingly high proportion of college-educated voters along with his base of white blue-collar supporters.
Trump is ahead in the majority of states coming up on Super Tuesday on 1 March and time is running out for the Republican establishment to stop him winning the race. There is a small chance that Marco Rubio may make the mother of all political comebacks in the coming weeks, but with the momentum behind Trump, it is not a realistic scenario.
So, let us assume that Donald Trump does secure the Republican nomination by the beginning of May and the Republican establishment finally bows to political reality. What happens next? Most observers have noted that Trump has started to moderate his rhetoric and tone from the earlier months of his campaign, as he starts to appear and act more ‘presidential’. Trump’s negative ratings among Democratic and minority voters are very high and if he has any chance of winning the presidency, than he will need to moderate those negative perceptions.
According to the polling group Rasmussen Reports, in a head to head with the likely Democratic candidate Hilary Clinton, Trump enjoys a sizeable lead on whom voters trust more to handle the economy and job creation (48% to 39% with 14% undecided). Focus groups show that Trump’s record as a businessman plays well with voters and it is certain that Trump will emphasis the skills acquired as a businessman in his pitch to the voters.
On the hot topic of immigration, Trump posts a 49% to 38% lead in voters trust on this subject, despite the heated criticism he has received with his policies of building a wall on the border with Mexico and shutting out Muslims from entering the United States. The ‘cultural populism’ of Trump’s anti-immigrant/Muslim policies has been very divisive and will likely be diluted or downgraded as Trump starts to actively court Democratic voters.
I predict that Trump will aggressively occupy the economic populism of Bernie Sanders campaign in the coming months with strong attacks on Wall Street bankers, the financial establishment and a venal political class. Hilary Clinton will be characterised by the Trump campaign as a liberal elitist more concerned about the interests of her super-rich donor friends in Goldman Sachs than the working man. Wall Street bankers are one of the most loathed groups in America and the lingering sense of anger that not a single banker has been sent to prison in the aftermath of the financial crisis in 2008/2009 is fertile territory for a consummate populist like the Donald.
Expect to see a signature policy, simple and clearly understood, aimed at Wall Street, designed to appeal to Democratic leaning voters. Maybe Trump will propose a retrospective Wall Street Justice Bill, which creates a new definition of economic criminality, aimed at making it much easier for the FBI/Justice department to lock away hundreds of crooked Wall Street bankers. Such a policy could drive a huge wedge between Clinton and millions of her own supporters and lead to a surge of support for Trump’s populist economic agenda. This will form part of his strategy to win the White House with a narrative of Trump leading a popular revolt against a corrupt political and financial elite, personified by Hilary Clinton.
Regrettable as it is to ponder such a grim possibility, a major terrorist attack this year could lead to a rise of support for Trump’s ultra-hawkish domestic security positions as concerns about jihadi terrorism rise to the top of voters concerns. Currently, Trump and Clinton are level on perceptions on which the public trust more on national security, a remarkable feat considering Trump has never held public office. A major terrorist attack in Europe or small scale attacks by lone wolf jihadists in America this year is considered very likely by counter-intelligence professionals and could materially impact the course of the presidential race.
To summarise, for Trump to win the presidency may appear shockingly improbable right now, but should he play his cards right over the coming months and campaign on a broadly popular economically populist platform and tone down his rhetoric, he can defeat Hilary Clinton on 8 November 2016.