By most political measures, Donald Trump shouldn’t be in the White House. That’s not an assessment of his policies or fitness for the job. Rather, it’s judging by the rules that once seemed to govern presidential campaigning.
Trump never held office, never served in government or spent a day in military uniform. His campaign was slipshod; he was vastly outspent by his Democratic rival and faced strong Republican opposition after a hostile takeover of the GOP.
Perhaps most striking, more than 60% of those surveyed thought Trump was unqualified to be president the day he was elected. The same exit polls found Trump viewed favorably by fewer than 4 in 10 Americans; only 1 in 3 considered him “honest and trustworthy.”
Those are the sort of vital signs that should render a candidate dead on arrival, election day being the occasion of their unceremonious burial. Trump, though, had the great fortune to face an opponent, Democrat Hillary Clinton, who was also deeply unpopular and, worse, represented for many change-hungry voters the hated status quo.
Which raises a question on Trump’s first anniversary as president: Was his victory a fluke?
Or did Trump’s improbable win signal a fundamental transformation in presidential politics, shattering norms and paving a path for other candidates with scant experience, or outsiders from the executive suite, Hollywood, the sports world or other less-conventional breeding grounds?
A definitive answer is years away. But at the very least, Trump’s presidency has made it impossible to ignore those White House prospects who once might have seemed far-fetched, or good only for a few laughs.
“You can’t be as dismissive of nontraditional candidates as we’ve historically been,” said Charlie Cook, who has dissected thousands of campaigns, conventional and otherwise, in more than three decades of election handicapping for his nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “We all have to exercise a little more humility than we did two years ago.”
Her rapturously received Golden Globes speech produced a Winfrey-for-president boomlet that quickly dimmed but has not completely died, and why should it? A similarly aspirational address turned Barack Obama from an obscure Illinois state senator into an overnight political phenomenon and launched him, ultimately, to the White House.
You can’t be as dismissive of nontraditional candidates as we’ve historically been.
Clearly, many of the rules of political engagement have changed.
How else to explain not just Trump but Bernie Sanders, who seemed like comic relief when he launched his 2016 bid for the Democratic nomination. The 70-something democratic socialist with the flyaway hair and corned-beef thick Brooklyn accent not only threatened to capsize the Clinton juggernaut, but took in a staggering sum — more than a quarter of a billion dollars — in the process.
“All of the traditional gatekeepers have become less important … as the process has been democratized through social and popular media,” said Anita Dunn, a longtime Democratic strategist who served as a senior political advisor to Obama.
Party bosses, the first line of scrutiny, no longer vet presidential candidates. The political punditocracy, another early arbiter of supposed electability, has lost much of its Olympian influence.
A cable subscription or a Wi-Fi connection is all a person needs to see and hear the White House contestants and render judgment. Trump required little more than “his political instincts and a microphone,” said Barry Bennett, an advisor to the highly improvisational campaign — though it helped considerably that Trump faced a sprawling and self-destructive Republican primary field before advancing to the general election against the shopworn Clinton.
Big donors still exercise enormous sway over the presidential nominating fight. But as Sanders and others before him demonstrated — Republican John McCain in 2000, Democrat Howard Dean in 2004 — it doesn’t take a passel of millionaire backers to create a viable candidacy. Not when a nationwide army of small donors can be mustered with the click of a mouse or swipe of a smartphone app.
Of course, the true test will come when, and if, Trump seeks reelection in 2020. Already, there are dozens of prospective opponents eager to challenge him, and that’s just on the Democratic side.
His dismal poll numbers — the worst for any president at this early stage of his term — would suggest Trump is an easy mark, his odds of winning a second term exceedingly long. But predicting the result of an election this far out is like forecasting the weather for Nov. 3, 2020, and likely would prove just as reliable.
There is, however, a pattern going back many decades that suggests that if Trump loses, it will be because voters are seeking someone utterly unlike the current chief executive.
To cite just a few examples: the patrician George H.W. Bush yielded to the empathetic Bill Clinton; the undisciplined Clinton to the moralistic George W. Bush; the swaggering Bush to the cerebral Obama; the deliberative Obama to the impulsive Trump.
The past year of Trump’s unorthodox presidency suggests unhappy voters would hunger for someone diametrically different: a drab longtime political insider, marinated in the Beltway culture, seeking a return to business as usual.
That’s hard to envision, given the abiding contempt for Washington and its swampy ways.
But nothing should surprise anymore. Few, including Trump, expected him to be sitting where he is today.