Could Donald Trump really win?

Real-estate tycoon Donald Trump is leading the race to become the Republican nominee for president when Americans go to the polls in November next year. Trump, who has little political experience, has sparked plenty of controversy.

Highlights include accusing Mexican immigrants of being rapists and drug dealers, playing to anti-Semitic stereotypes in a speech to the Republican Jewish Coalition, and most recently, calling for a total freeze on all Muslim immigration to the US – including Muslims with American citizenship currently living outside the country.

How is the contest decided?

The process by which the two main US parties choose their presidential candidates is very different from what we’re used to in the UK. Between February and June next year, there will be a series of state-by-state votes to determine which delegates will be sent to each party’s national convention. These votes take the form of either a “caucus” – a small meeting where voting is carried out openly – or a “primary”, where the ballot is secret.

Both Democratic and Republican conventions will then convene in July to select a candidate and a running mate. So to become the Republican candidate for president, Trump has to win a majority of delegates, or persuade another candidate to lend him enough support to gain a majority.

The process begins with Iowa on 1 February and ends with contests in California, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico and South Dakota on 7 June. In the past, candidates who scored wins in early states, such as Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, where Trump leads in the polls, have gone on rapidly to build up a huge amount of momentum. If Trump does well, that could create an unstoppable lead on “Super Tuesday” (1 March), where 12 states hold votes at the same time.

Is that likely to happen?

Trump’s opponents hope that in the next few weeks he will either fade, like eccentric businessman Herman Cain did in 2012, or that as more and more candidates drop out during the process, their supporters will rally around a single anti-Trump candidate. Respected polling analyst Nate Silver, who correctly forecast the outcome of both the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, believes that Trump’s polarising policies will mean he will struggle to win a bigger share as the contest goes on. It may also be that most voters simply aren’t focused on the election as yet, says Silver.

“If past nomination races are any guide, the vast majority of eventual Republican voters haven’t made up their minds yet.” And the betting market (often a good guide) still expects Trump to lose – bookies Betfair has Florida’s senator Marco Rubio as the favourite, with a near-40% chance of winning the nomination. The FT’s Gideon Rachman thinks such a view could be “complacent” – after all, populist politicians have gained surprising levels of support and power elsewhere in the world.

What about Donald Trump and the presidency?

Of course, even if Trump wins the nomination, he will then face the Democratic candidate, almost certainly to be Hillary Clinton. This will be a much tougher contest, especially given Trump’s low ratings with many demographics, particularly non-white voters and women. In fact, says Jonathan Martin in The New York Times, Republican insiders fear that “Trump’s nomination would lead to an electoral wipeout, a sweeping defeat that could undo some of the gains Republicans have made in recent congressional, state and local elections”.

Indeed, comparisons have been made with the 1964 election, which the Republicans lost in a landslide. Betfair again agrees with this assessment, giving Trump a 21% chance of winning the nomination, but only an 8% chance of capturing the White House, implying he would be the underdog in the general election. However, recent head-to-head polls are inconclusive, with one showing Clinton on an 11-point lead, but another showing Trump five points ahead.

Lessons from 1964

The Republicans’ fear is a repeat of 1964, when their candidate, Barry Goldwater, was crushed by Lyndon Johnson, who got 61% of the vote and carried 44 out of 50 states. Goldwater, who once said “extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice”, was also from outside the mainstream of US politics. In the short run, his landslide defeat allowed the Democrats to increase their majorities in both houses of Congress, paving the way for the expansion of welfare.

However, Goldwater’s supporters argue that in the longer run his campaign was instrumental in tilting the Republicans (and America) to the right. Ronald Reagan was a fan, a fact that helped him become governor of California in 1966. He was elected president in 1980.

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