Editor’s note: This week Sean Phillippi begins a weekly column for TFS with his latest thoughts and observations from around the political landscape.
By Sean Phillippi
Anyone who says that they know what is going to happen with this November’s presidential election is either lying to you, lying to themselves, or they simply don’t know what they are talking about. In politics, a week is a long time, so very little is definitive almost 6 months out from Election Day. That being said though, the most surprising thing in what has been an unusual and unpredictable election is that we already know what the possible trajectories this race will take are. We know what will likely be the decisive question, even if we don’t know the answer to the question that will dictate who our next president will be. We have seen this movie before, and there is little doubt that our next president will ride a wave into the White House even though we don’t yet know who that president will be.
The presidential election this cycle has mirrored two prior elections that were similar one significant aspect, and those elections, 1964 and 1980, diverged to have two very different endings. In both of those elections the answer to one major question determined who became the leader of the free world: Did the American people trust that the Republican nominee was qualified for the job of president in general, and Commander in Chief in particular. That threshold question of whether we can be confident that Donald Trump is both qualified and competent to lead our country, and can be trusted with the nuclear codes, will largely dictate whether he or Hillary Clinton will be sworn in as our next president. Trump will either clear that threshold or he won’t, and with a question like that close doesn’t count.
Barry Goldwater failed, in 1964, to pass that threshold and he lost by more than 20%. In 1980 Ronald Reagan passed that threshold in the lone presidential debate, and that debate performance catapulted him to an almost 10% win. While we don’t yet know whether Trump will pass that threshold, the early indications do not bode well for him. Trump shows shockingly little knowledge about foreign policy and world affairs, and while he is not a stupid man he has yet to show any interest in learning even the basics about those subjects. This election will vacillate over the next several months, and I suspect that we won’t have a firm answer to this decisive question until the presidential debates that start in late September.
One major component in answering the Commander in Chief threshold question about Trump is temperament. Trump keeps saying that he can be presidential, but has shown almost no self-control. If he can show that he can be diplomatic when it isn’t easy, and prove that he can be calm, composed, and graceful under pressure (especially in the general election debates) he will go a long way towards beating Hillary Clinton. Any unforeseen event that may shake up the election will likely be seen through the lens of, and help provide an answer to, whether Trump is capable of being president. I, for one, cannot wait to see who fills the role of Chief Troll for the Clinton campaign. Pres. Obama, Pres. Clinton, and Sen. Warren are leading contenders for the job right now, and if Trump can’t handle critical Twitter posts then he likely won’t be seen as up to the job of being in charge of the nuclear codes.
If you don’t think Trump can become President, remember that in 1980 Carter viewed Reagan much like we view Trump today. If you think Trump’s negatives are too high, less than 12 months ago Trump’s negatives among Republicans were sky high and he was able to turn those numbers around. Anyone who thinks Trump has no chance to win is naïve. Every major party nominee has a legitimate shot at becoming president. Hillary Clinton is a clear favorite, though, for two reasons. First is that,
unlike Trump, there is no question that Clinton is both capable and qualified to do the job of being president. Second is that it seems more likely than not that Trump will fail to pass the threshold question of whether he is prepared to be Commander in Chief.
Even if Trump fails the Commander in Chief test, and Clinton looks to have her election sewn up, Democrats will need to work that much harder to run up the score. This is because Democrats, especially in Florida, desperately need to start re-building their bench and there will be no better way to do so than by winning down ballot races in a landslide election that might otherwise be out of reach. When you have the political winds at your back, you need to take as much real estate as possible. A lonely landslide for Clinton that maintains the status quo will be an opportunity lost, and an opportunity like this may not come around again for decades.
I will break down the Electoral College map next week, but the reason why it is very likely that this election will be a landslide one way or the other is because Trump opens up the map much more than any other candidate could have. Trump has a lower floor than any other candidate, but he also has a higher ceiling. If Trump proves that he is up to all aspects of the job of being president, he could win states that haven’t gone Republican since the 1980s. Conversely, if Trump fails to prove that he has the basic skills to do the job of president Hillary Clinton could win states that haven’t been won by a Democrat in a generation. The stakes for this election couldn’t be higher, and it is guaranteed to be a wild ride, so buckle up and be sure to invest in popcorn futures if you have any spare cash.
Sean Phillippi is a Democratic strategist and consultant based in Broward County. He has worked for campaigns on the federal, state, and local levels, including the Florida Democratic Party and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Sean is the Managing Member of TLE Analytics LLC, the political data and consulting firm he founded in 2012.