Prof. Lawrence Jacobs, political studies, University of Minnesota, began his Monday lecture by asserting that “there is absolutely a path for Donald Trump to win the presidency.”
“I’ve been saying this all year long, and I think it’s even more true today,” he said.
Jacobs explained to a crowd of nearly 200 students and professors how Trump, whether knowingly or not, capitalizes on modern trends in public opinion to attract voters.
‘Absolute Disaffection’ with Government
The Trump campaign, like that of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), capitalized on high levels of voter outrage to garner support, according to Jacobs.
“There is a level of absolute disaffection from our political process, [and] it’s not just Donald Trump’s creation,” he said.
Jacobs argued that political dissatisfaction could have arisen from a series of political calamities in the early 21st century, including 9/11, the Iraq War and the 2008 recession.
“[If] you look at the last 15 to 20 years, there is a lot there to say ‘the elites who are governing aren’t doing a great job,’” Jacobs said.
Highlighting a pervading theme this election season, Jacobs said a majority of Americans do not believe that the government works in their favor.
“We can see that the idea of government benefiting all [instead of a few] is at or near an all-time low,” he said.
Trump’s ability to navigate voter indignation and transform it into support may be a leading factor in his political rise, according to Jacobs.
“He’s an actor on stage taking advantage of the props that are there for him to use,” Jacobs said.
Backlash from the Older Generation
A generational shift toward a more liberal society — in both America and Europe — has left a substantial number of disgruntled conservatives in its wake, according to Jacobs. He said that many of these contrarians favor “strong” authoritarian leaders — like Trump — to counter the change in social values.
“You hear Donald Trump refer to [these changes of values] as ‘political correctness,’ which have provoked a backlash,” Jacobs said.
Jacobs said a similar phenomenon exists in Europe, where polling data demonstrates that those disaffected by societal liberalization tend to prefer leaders who they believe will not acquiesce to legislative or social pressures.
“[Trump] is on the stage and is speaking to [this sentiment] loudly and clearly,” Jacobs said.
‘Racial Resentment’ and the Republican Vote
“If you look at the Republicans who are most racially resentful, Trump has a 30 point lead over McCain and Romney,” Jacobs said. “Donald Trump and these appeals he is making [have] catalyzed a whole set of voters who’ve been out there for a while. He didn’t create them, but he’s speaking to them, and they’re hearing him.”
Jacobs predicted that Republicans — including about 90 percent of those who participated in the “Never Trump” movement — will rally around the party’s nominee. This “tractor beam” effect could even contribute to a Trump election victory, he said.
“Party identification counts for a whole lot of what goes on in elections,” Jacobs said. “It’s quite likely that if you are a Republican, you will come home and support [Trump].”
Jacobs argued that, while Trump does not exemplify modern Republican thinking, voters are so mentally wedded to their party that they will still vote for its nominee.
“A party is a powerful psychological and emotional attachment,” Jacobs said. “It is something that identifies who you are and what you believe.”
Jacobs justified his statement with a poll showing that roughly 50 percent of Republican adults would be upset if their child married a Democrat. This figure has increased tenfold since 1960.
“So, when someone says ‘I am a Republican and I am not going to vote for Trump,’ be skeptical,” he advised. “This helps to explain why the margin that Hillary Clinton once had [in her favor] is shrinking.”
Jacobs mentioned sluggish GDP growth during Barack Obama’s presidency, the current Democrat presence in the White House and Hillary Clinton’s perceived lack of integrity as other reasons explaining Trump’s viability as a candidate.
The Case for Clinton
However, Jacobs acknowledged that Clinton has several distinct advantages over Trump. Some of these strengths, including a pre-existing Democratic tilt in electoral votes, are structural. Others directly follow from Trump’s political approach.
Not the least of Clinton’s advantages is that Trump is a “weak candidate,” according to Jacobs.
“Donald Trump may be the most destructive candidate I have ever seen,” Jacobs said. “You might be wondering, how would Donald Trump do if he weren’t so suicidal politically?”
Jacobs added that Trump’s subpar campaign outreach, especially compared to Clinton’s extensive use of precise voter targeting and message tailoring, may be decisive in the election’s outcome.
“When people say ‘Donald Trump is not creating a campaign organization,’ it’s a big deal,” Jacobs said. “Campaign organization matters.”
Jacobs’ lecture was the first in “The Making of the President 2016” speaker series at Cornell. The series’ next event is a panel discussion on race, social movements and the election on Oct. 3 in Lewis Auditorium.