By Picking Donald Trump As the GOP Nominee, Republicans May Have Handed the Presidency to Hillary Clinton

Why did GOP voters pick such a weak general election candidate?


Foter / Gage Skidmore

Last night, the Republican party effectively handed its presidential nomination to Donald Trump. And in doing so, they may have handed an easy general election victory to Hillary Clinton. What in the world were Republican voters thinking? 

In normal circumstances, Hillary Clinton, who is virtually certain to be the Democratic presidential nominee, would almost certainly be the least liked major party presidential candidate in decades. But amongst the general electorate, Trump is viewed even worse. An April poll by The Washingotn Post found that 67 percent of adults view him unfavorably, and a result that is consistent with other polls. Trump is particularly disliked by women, with multiple polls finding that more than 70 percent view him unfavorably. As a Quinnipiac University pollster told Politico in March, those numbers alone make it very difficult for Trump to win in a general election.

And, indeed, early polling suggests that Trump would fare poorly—very poorly—against Hillary Clinton in a general election matchup.

Trump trails Hillary Clinton by a whopping 13 points in a national poll by CNN/ORC released yesterday, and he's down by about seven points in an average of polls pitting him against Clinton. That gap may close somewhat as the broader public looks more closely at the two candidates, but it means that Hillary Clinton is likely to start the race with a big advantage.

Trump's team, in response, has argued that he would upend the usual electoral map, winning working class voters that Republicans wouldn't normally be able to reach. He might change the map, yes, but most likely by making it more favorable to Clinton. Trump is currently running behind Clinton in at least four states—North Carolina, Arizona, Missouri, and Utah—that Romney won in 2012. And Romney, as you may recall, lost the election.

Anything can happen in an election, of course, and external shocks, in particular, could scramble the race in a variety of ways. Trump is an unusual enough candidate that we should probably have slightly less confidence in our ability to model any race he's in.

But the reality, as Nate Cohn writes pursuasively in The New York Times, is that just about every data point we have right now suggests that Trump would be a historically weak candidate—even against someone who would normally be considered a fairly weak candidate, like Hillary Clinton.

In giving the nomination to Trump, then, Republicans may have ensured a win for Clinton—the outcome that, in theory, the party was trying to prevent.

This isn't some startling new conclusion. Trump's weakness as a general election candidate has been apparent for months. And yet Republican primary voters appear to have, if anything, warmed to him as the election has gone on. He won Indiana with slightly more than 53 percent of the vote last night, beating out the combined vote total of both of his rivals, Ted Cruz and John Kasich, suggesting that Trump's success is not strictly a result of the fractured field.

So what's going on? The general presumption when looking at these races is that primary voters take electability into account in their decision process. That just doesn't seem to have happened this year, and it's one of the reasons that campaign staffers and election analysts have struggled to understand what voters are thinking.

Maybe, though, it did happen—but Republicans just didn't accept the evidence that was in front of them.

I haven't seen any recent polling, but as the race was moving into high gear last October, an Associated Press-GfK poll found that Republican voters viewed Trump as the most electable candidate in a general election. That was wrong based on everything we knew then, and it's even more wrong based on what we know now.

And yet this may explain the mystery of why Republican voters ultimately went for Trump. They really thought they were selecting the most electable candidate. 

If that's the case, the race makes a lot more sense, putting Trump's popularity in perspective and helping to explain why GOP voters seemed to settle on him as the field narrowed.

It's also rather telling about the gullibility of Republican voters, and their disconnection from the rest of the country.

It's probably unreasonable to expect most voters to keep up with the finer points of political polling (although primary voters do tend to be more politically involved and informed than the general population). But it shouldn't have required a deep dive into the survey numbers to see Trump as an unappealing candidate and a bad general election bet.

Just listen to what Trump says about women and immigrants and Muslims, to the shameless ignorance with which he discusses public policy, to the weird conspiracy theories he floats and the many, many, many blindingly obvious lies he tells. Most of country looked at Trump's campaign and, the polls show, really didn't like what they saw. That's precisely why his unfavorables are so high.

Republican primary voters, on the other hand, saw the same campaign and nodded along, thinking, that guy is electable, and we want him to be our nominee. They thought not only that they liked him, but that the rest of the country would too.

That's how disconnected Republican voters are right now, how unable they are to see things as the rest of the country sees them, or, indeed, to even understand that the rest of the country sees things differently, even when it is in their own interests to do so. That disconnect is what resulted in Donald Trump winning the nomination, and it is likely to ensure that Hillary Clinton becomes the next president of the United States.