As a Democrat, I'd feel pretty safe if Donald Trump won the Republican nomination, but I still believe any other GOP candidate would have a shot at winning -- yes, including Ted Cruz. (Please read what Digby writes about Time magazine's willingness to help Cruz repackage himself as a populist for the general election if you dismissed my post about Cruz and Time.) But isn't Cruz almost as unpopular as Trump? Sure, that's what the polls say -- but you don't have to be well liked to beat a Democrat in a presidential election.
We're having the kind of election that's rarely ended well for Democrats: a party establishment favorite is the likely nominee, even though another candidate is generating more excitement. That reminds me of Jimmy Carter beating Ted Kennedy in 1980, Walter Mondale beating Gary Hart in 1984, and Mike Dukakis beating Jesse Jackson in 1988. In all of those years, the general election was a disaster for Democrats. Please note that in 1980 and 1988 that was true even though voters were deeply skeptical of the Republican candidate.
In 1980, Ronald Reagan had terrible poll numbers until March and mediocre poll numbers after that; he'd go on to win a landslide, but he barely cracked 50% of the popular vote. (Carter won 41% and John Anderson 7%.) In the 1988 race, George H.W. Bush's announcement of his candidacy was greeted by that Newsweek "Fighting the 'Wimp Factor'" cover; by July, he was 17 points down in the polls.
These guys weren't loved -- but they won. Richard Nixon wasn't loved in 1972, either -- in early 1972 he was neck-and-neck with Democrat Ed Muskie in the polls. But he beat a candidate who was more progressive than the electorate -- which could happen this year if an underfunded, as-yet-unsmeared Bernie Sanders upends the rules of math and wins the Democratic nomination. If Sanders is the nominee, as I've said, it's likely he'd be attacked most effectively on the subject of the tax increases necessary to pay for his proposals. Remember what happened when Walter Mondale said in 1984, "Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won’t tell you. I just did"? The result was a 49-state landslide for Reagan.
Sanders isn't going to win the nomination. Clinton is, to the great disappointment of many of the voters she'll need in November. In the past, under those circumstances, even little-loved Republicans have won.
I know, I know: There's that emerging Democratic majority people keep talking about. There's the seemingly unchanging partisan map of the states. The Electoral College is wired for the Democrats!
But I think we're being lulled by particular circumstances in recent history. In four of the last six presidential elections, the Democrats had a candidate (Bill Clinton twice, Barack Obama twice) who was young and charismatic and an extremely shrewd electoral tactician fronting a really smart campaign. In 1992 and 2008, Democrats ran as agents of a much-desired change; in 1996 and 2012, they ran as incumbents who'd improved conditions. I know that Democrats came close with candidates who weren't shrewd or charismatic in 2000 and 2004 -- but Al Gore in 2000 ran on peace and prosperity (and still couldn't secure the victory) while John Kerry in 2004 ran against an increasingly unpopular war (and lost outright).
Hillary Clinton doesn't inspire much love; in that way she's like Gore and Kerry. She's not running on peace and prosperity. Her biggest advantage is the likely weakness of her opponent -- but Nixon, Reagan, and Poppy Bush have proved that you don't have to be loved to beat a Democrat.