Trump Can’t Win. But Clinton Could Lose By Ignoring America’s Desire for Change.

Donald Trump is probably the weakest general election nominee in modern history. His negatives are through the roof among almost all but conservative white men, and he would have to outperform Mitt Romney’s numbers among blue-collar whites by double-digit margins. Short of some outside force like a major recession or terrorist attack, there is practically nothing Donald Trump can do to win the presidency.

Which in turn means that the race is Hillary Clinton’s to lose. It would certainly be difficult for her to lose it. She will likely exit the Democratic convention with a formidable lead and the endorsement of her only rival after a primary campaign that dealt few significant blows. Her biggest advantage is a gender gap that Trump is unlikely to erase, and that Clinton herself would have to faceplant somehow to lose.

But that doesn’t mean that Clinton can’t potentially lose it by missing out on the anger of the electorate and its desire for change, and by misunderstanding Trump’s strengths and weaknesses. Alex Pareene and Thomas Frank point the way. First Alex Pareene:

Democrats could, for example, take their famously thin-skinned opponent, who is easily provoked into absurd and unpresidential tantrums when his insecurities are mocked, and they could bestow upon him a nickname that instead serves to reinforce his own (imagined) toughness.

They could call him, I don’t know, “Dangerous Donald.”

“Dangerous Donald.” Democrats are going with “Dangerous Donald.” Did they try testing “Sexy Donald” first? “Leather Jacket Donald”? Jared Leto lived in an abandoned insane asylum for a month to get into character as “Dangerous Donald.”

It’s entirely possible that the campaign research shows a bunch of centrist voters and Kasich Republicans who are amenable to this line of attack. Perhaps the Clinton camp sees her path to victory as lying not with disaffected low-propensity voters and populists, but rather with upper middle class frequent voter Bloomberg types worried about the potentially disruptive effects of Donald Trump.

But that’s not a good bet. One of the lessons of both Sanders’ and Trump’s successes is that a very large number of voters are looking for a disrupter. As Trump swings to the center insofar as he can and the press enables him in the hopes of tighter, more interesting election, Trump’s willingness to make waves will become more and more of a positive with the electorate. Clinton is a famously cautious politician, and it cost her against the less experienced Barack Obama in 2008 by misjudging the primary electorate’s desire for hope and change. That same caution could cost her as well in 2016 against Trump, just as it led her to underestimate Sanders.

On a related note is the misguided instinct to respond to Trump’s “Make America Great Again” message by essentially insisting that everything is just fine and that “America is Already Great.” Cue Thomas Frank:

Clinton has scolded her rival for wanting to break up Wall Street banks since such a policy, by itself, would not also end racism and sexism. (In point of fact, the black middle class was disproportionately damaged by the detonation of the housing bubble.) Clinton’s unofficial slogan, “America never stopped being great” — supposedly a searing riposte to Trump’s “make America great again” – sounds like the kind of thing you’d see inscribed in a country club logo. In her words, we can hear the call of contentment, a would-be catchphrase for a generation of satisfied people…

It’s not just Clinton. Barack Obama himself, partly to defend his economic record, has been sounding similar notes:

Barack Obama offered his own variation on the complacency theme during a meeting in March, in which he announced: “America’s pretty darn great right now.” Unemployment was down from the awful heights of a few years prior, the president reported, and businesses were hiring. Any residual economic complaints, he suggested, arose from “an alternative reality . . . that America’s down in the dumps”.

This is not messaging that is going to work down the stretch in November. Yes, economic signs are up, unemployment are down and even wages at long last are rising. But it’s less about raw numbers and figures than it is about uncertainty. The great shift of risk from the asset class to the wage class remains, many workers don’t even know if their industry will exist in a decade or two, and the economy that so many Silicon Valley types celebrate as nimble and dynamic is shorthand for singing for your unstable supper every month in the 1099/gig economy. For these workers–and they’re most of America–the country hasn’t exactly been feeling great for decades, and certainly not since the Great Recession. If they’re forced to choose between a lousy candidate who says he’ll make the country better again, and one who says the country is already awesome but we just need to lift a few barriers that affect the most disadvantaged, you can be sure that many people will give the lousy candidate they don’t like a second look.

By himself, Donald Trump isn’t capable of winning the presidency. But if Clinton underestimates the anger of the electorate, its dissatisfaction with the economy even among the fairly well-to-do and its desire for significant change, she could make enough unforced errors to lose the election regardless of Trump’s strategy or the endless slew of negative oppo she throws at him.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.