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The VICE Guide to the 2016 Election

Here's What Needs to Happen for Donald Trump to Actually Win

Political prognosticators tell us the crazy scenarios that could turn the race in favor of the GOP.
The numbers are not looking good for Donald Trump. Photo by Brennan Linsley/File via AP Photo

At the midpoint of every movie ever made, the main characters always experience a setback. In Toy Story,it happens when the toys get lost; in Jurassic Park, it's when the electric fences get turned off and the dinosaurs are set free to run amok; in the original Star Wars, it comes when Luke and his pals get pulled inside the Death Star. And in the insane blockbuster movie called The Donald Trump Presidential Campaign, this is the midpoint.


The signs of distress for the Trump campaign are obvious. Multiple polls this week showed the presumptive Republican presidential nominee trailing Hillary Clinton in a general election matchup. According to one survey released yesterday, half of Republicans don't even want him as their candidate. According to an analysis of polls from America's favorite prognosticators over at FiveThirtyEight, Trump currently has just a measly 20 percent chance of actually winning the election.

The bad numbers come amid reports that Trump's campaign finance operation is stretched pretty thin, and that the supposed billionaire's personal finances may be suffering as well. Foreign politicians claim he's hitting them up for cash by spamming their email inboxes, which if true, is likely a violation of federal elections laws. At this point, Trump reportedly can't even find Republicans to speak at his convention.

Of course, there is still quite a bit of time for the race to swing in Trump's favor. "It's June, Mike," John Leboutillier, a former New York congressman and Fox News commentator, told me in an email. "A lot can—and will—happen in the next four months. Hillary is totally beatable; Trump can win, but he needs to fix himself and discipline himself."

But with his polling numbers in the gutter—and no sign that Trump will ever stop being Trump—it seems like something pretty dramatic would need to happen to shift the calculus of the race. To find out what that might be, I emailed a few of my favorite election experts and asked them how exactly Trump could win. Their responses below have been edited for length and clarity.


Related: Donald Trump Is An Incoherent Leftist When It Comes to Free Trade

Electoral College predictions as of June 26, courtesy of Frontloading HQ

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics and editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball:
My Crystal Ball website hasn't changed our Electoral College projection since we unveiled it in March: Clinton 347, Trump 191. Now, I'm sure there will be some alterations up or down before November, but the only events I can think of that could produce a Trump victory would be a serious recession, an escalation of terrorism, a Clinton indictment, a plunge in President Obama's popularity, or some combination of these factors. Nothing's impossible but a Trump Administration has seemed quite improbable to us for a long time.

Josh Putnam, political science lecturer at the University of Georgia and creator of Frontloading HQ:
I don't know what would trigger a "game change" for Trump, but it is clear that the end result of that [would be] more Republicans lining up behind him than is the case now. Traditionally, the lead up to and including the convention itself would help to accomplish that goal. However, Stop Trump efforts persist. That may mostly be extinguished once he is formally nominated in Cleveland. But perhaps not.

That uncertainty [explains] the difference between where Trump is in this race and where Clinton is. Everything is relative. Democrats are simply more unified than Republicans right now and that seemingly overcomes any injurious effect a two-term incumbent party might have in the context of "the fundamentals."


Brian Balogh, University of Virginia historian and co-host of the podcast Backstory with the American History Guys:
[There could be] an organized terrorist attack on the American homeland in the last six weeks of the campaign. I believe that those who are "relieved" that Trump's numbers declined in the wake of the tragic shooting in Orlando are mistaken to assume that American voters would react the same way to a Paris-style, or Brussels/Istanbul airport-style organized assault clearly identified with ISIS. […]

An economic downturn, under any circumstances, but given current economic conditions, most likely caused by a continuing wave of repercussions from Brexit, would also make a Trump victory more likely than current polls suggest. Should such a downturn be caused directly or indirectly by Brexit, the irony, of course, is that Trump strongly supports this kind of economic protectionism. But that will not matter to voters who fear losing jobs or income due to declining economic conditions.

Complacency. It is true that Trump is appealing to voters who have not traditionally participated in elections. But it is also true that his strident, racist, sexist and nationalist comments are likely to boost turnout among traditional Democratic-leaning voters who might not otherwise turn out to vote. If such inflammatory Trump comments are either muted, or simply seen as old hat by the time of the election, and if Clinton has her current lead in the polls, it is possible that Trump-hating turnout might not be as high as many currently expect it to be.


Polling in battleground states June 10–22, via Ballotpedia

Richard E. Berg-Anderssen, creator of The Green Papers
The main thing helping Trump right now [is] that he is not the only flawed candidate with rather high "negatives" between the two presumptive major party presidential nominees in 2016. Hillary Clinton certainly has her own "baggage." That was at least part of the reason she failed to win the Democratic presidential nomination eight years ago.

Now, this is not the first time Americans have faced a not-so-great "menu" in an open presidential election—one in which an incumbent is not running for re-election. 1884 [and] Blaine vs. Cleveland [in which one candidate was regarded as corrupt, and the other was regarded as a philanderer]immediately comes to mind, for one, but it means that American voters will have to make a rather hard decision come next November 8, and where the decision is indeed hard, anything can happen!

Jim Barnes, CNN political consultant and author at Ballotpedia:
[E]vents do have a way of changing the political dialogue. In just the past week we had Brexit and the terrorist attack on the Istanbul Airport. Donald Trump's controversial comments about the judge in the Trump University case almost seem like they were made months ago. And who knows what the resolution is going to be in the investigation into Clinton's private email server?

Does Clinton have some important advantages in the presidential race right now? Yes. Is her victory "baked in the cake?" No. Let's see how the rest of the campaign unfolds. It's already been a pretty unpredictable presidential campaign this year. Why should we think it's going to stop being unpredictable?

Follow Mike Pearl on Twitter.