- - Monday, May 30, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Donald Trump could not have picked a better opponent than Hillary Clinton. Riding a national anti-establishment wave, he dispatched a host of establishment Republicans and now faces America’s quintessential establishment politician. While unclear if this will be enough for a Trump triumph, it is quite clear Mrs. Clinton is the kind of opponent he is most effective against, and that there could be no better time to do so.

Because it is Mr. Trump, we discount what he has accomplished. However, even if it had been the work of a conventional politician, Mr. Trump’s path so far would have been absolutely remarkable. That it was not done by a conventional politician only makes it more so.

Announcing his candidacy last June 16, he entered at the back of a 17-person Republican field. In less than a year, he plowed through it. Eight of his opponents were in office at the time; nine were or had been governors; and five were or had been U.S. senators. Fully 14 had past experience qualifying them as presidential timber by conventional standards.

Certainly, the crowded field helped him have time to grow his core following. However, it could also have hurt him had he become lost among many. He wasn’t. And it didn’t give him his following nor, as the field shrank, did it stop him from growing it. And he was able to do so nationwide — something none of his geographically bound opponents managed.

Even when the establishment knew its only hope was to unite behind a candidate, and his two remaining challengers attempted to coordinate campaign strategy, Mr. Trump triumphed. Nothing the establishment tried — from candidates to strategy to tactics — stopped his ascent.

Outspoken, frequently outlandish and often outrageous, he has been above all else the political outsider. He has faced and beaten establishment figures, and when he hasn’t faced establishment figures — like Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson — his unconventional style has comparatively cast them as such.

Mr. Trump has grown from a minority candidate (placing second in Iowa with just 24 percent of the vote), into a plurality candidate (winning New Hampshire with 35 percent), then into a majority candidate (sweeping the April 26 crucial five-state contest with 54 percent being his lowest total), and finally into the presumptive nominee. None of these steps were expected a year ago.

While Mr. Trump the candidate and his campaign are unprecedented, his outsider route to the nomination is not. The outsider approach has elected five of the last six presidents. George H.W. Bush, the only one to not be seen as an outsider in comparison to his opponent, also served just one term — while four of the rest (Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama) were re-elected. The outsider approach has overwhelmingly led to the inside of the White House.

It is easy to underestimate Mr. Trump because we estimate him by conventional standards. Now having achieved the unimaginable, he seemingly faces an even greater challenge. Yet in judging his looming clash with Mrs. Clinton, we again may be falling prey to the same conventional standards he has so resoundingly refuted.

While Donald Trump is the ultimate outsider, Hillary Clinton is the ultimate insider. Mrs. Clinton’s credentials have always been her greatest attribute. Yet, in 2016, this attribute has showed its weakness.

Almost as improbable as Mr. Trump’s Republican nomination, so has been Bernie Sanders’ fight for the Democratic nomination.

Although in a comparatively sparse Democratic field, Mr. Sanders was seen as the least likely contender. Now it looks impossible that he will fail to take Mrs. Clinton the distance. She has less than a 10 percent advantage (54.6 percent to 45.4 percent) over Mr. Sanders in the number of delegates distributed based on actual voting. In Real Clear Politics’ average of national polling, Mrs. Clinton leads Mr. Sanders just 51.4 percent to 43.4 percent.

Conventional wisdom tells us that Mr. Trump won’t win in November. But conventional wisdom has been wrong — many times over — when it comes to Mr. Trump. That does not mean he should win in November. However, by maintaining his outsider status, he is following his best path for doing so.

The outsider approach has worked for Mr. Trump in the Republican primaries. It has worked for Mr. Sanders in the Democratic primaries. It has also worked for five of the last six candidates elected to be president. And the current circumstances for such a strategy to work as are as good as they could possibly be.

He is also starting off with an incredible, overlooked advantage. The one thing that cannot be taken from him between now and November is the coveted role of outsider. Not only has he cemented it with his campaign for the Republican nomination, Mrs. Clinton is incapable of taking it from him. Therein is Mr. Trump’s opportunity.

After 25 years on the public stage, Mrs. Clinton has no ability to redefine herself. Any attempt to do so only raises her greatest vulnerability: the public’s perception of her as untrustworthy. Mr. Trump, on the other hand, has six months with which to appear more conventionally acceptable, while still remaining the race’s political outsider.

Mrs. Clinton’s camp must be most afraid that Mr. Trump will realize that against her, he has far more room to maneuver than she does. And far more potential to grow his support — as he has already shown he is more than capable of doing.

J.T. Young served in the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget, and as a congressional staff member.


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