What if? How Trump or Sanders could actually win the White House

trumpsandersThe best polling and election data we have available right now — along with a common sense review of the electoral map for November — all suggest that America’s political system is once again on track to elect a fairly moderate, mainstream, middle-of-the-road politician to the White House. Our next president is very likely to be Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton.

But it is interesting, and perhaps informative, to consider the scenarios where in this remarkable election year a very different outcome could result. It’s not likely, but we could see Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders taking the oath of office next January. Here are three ways that could happen. The unifying theme of these “what-if” scenarios is  they all require a big, surprising event to flip the race’s narrative.

Scenario One: Hillary agonistes

Let’s start with Hillary Rodham Clinton. This race is, as of late March, hers to lose. She holds a commanding lead in the Democratic primary, polls show her with a clear path to the nomination, and she looks set to face a fractured, volatile Republican Party. For Team Clinton, it’s all good.

So the first thing that Sanders and Trump need is for Clinton to stumble badly. It appears highly unlikely that Clinton will be indicted by Federal prosecutors for her handling of a private email system while she was Secretary of State, but that kind of event would represent a nearly fatal blow to her candidacy.

It’s also possible that Clinton or her sometimes provocative husband, former President Bill Clinton, could stumble into a truly race-resetting gaffe. This, too, appears unlikely. One of Clinton’s faults as a politician is her plodding caution. But this trait makes it harder for other candidates to wait patiently hoping for a big break.

If something dramatic does happen, timing will be everything. A blow-up that occurs in the Clinton camp before the Democratic convention, would position Sanders to step in. If it happened after the convention, when Clinton is the nominee, Trump will benefit.

Scenario Two: Trump the Strongman

Polling data and the long history of American general elections both suggest that Donald Trump could be a truly disastrous general election candidate. He has all the red flags of a George Wallace or a Barry Goldwater, with none of their ideological clarity or heft.

The latest survey from the New York Times found that 75 percent of independent voters now have a negative view of the Republican Party. Conservative leaders are all but promising to mount an independent Republican challenger to run against Trump in the general election.

That all adds up to a formula for electoral disaster. Some pundits say the debacle could be so big that the House and Senate could be in play.

So given those headwinds, how does Trump prevail? Events this week in Belgium show us one horrific but plausible scenario. If between now and November a medium- to large-scale terror attack (or, worse yet, multiple terror attacks) were to occur in the United States, Trump’s strongman persona could shift in the voters’ minds.

Currently, his “I have a good brain” brand of braggadocio is the stuff of Saturday Night Live lampooning. But if Americans find themselves truly frightened and enraged in the months and weeks leading up to the election, this could change fast. Trump’s factually inaccurate anti-Muslim rhetoric could begin to resonate well beyond the roughly 40 percent of the GOP base where he’s now winning votes.

This is also an election where gender is certain to play a subtle but significant role. If America views itself as “under attack” we could see more voters overlooking Trump’s baggage and his lack of national security or foreign policy experience, simply because he talks tough and he’s a man.

Scenario Three: Sanders as the Fourth Candidate

Talking about Bernie Sanders’ big what-if scenario takes a bit more explaining. The Vermont Senator has run a brilliant, surprising, and fatally flawed campaign. Brilliant because he quickly projected a series of ideas and a political persona to a national audience, capturing the imagination of millions of mostly white liberals. Fatally flawed because he failed to connect with the broader coalition of voters who, taken together, decide Democratic primaries.

Without a big and timely assist from Clinton (see Scenario One above), Sanders appears set to join the long line of close-but-no-cigar liberals (Paul Tsongas, Jerry Brown, Mario Cuomo…) who make up a fascinating footnote of Democratic Party history. But I think there’s actually a plausible scenario where Sanders could re-emerge in the general election, running as an independent.

We already know Sanders never really wanted to run as a Democrat and has always viewed the party with suspicion. “I am not a Democrat,” he famously told the Progressive magazine. He said, “The Democratic Party does not represent, and has not for many years, the interests of my constituency, which is primarily working families, middle-class people and low-income people.”

Earlier this month, Politico reported Sanders had no interest in challenging Clinton in 2016. He preferred a third-party bid, but his advisers talked him out of it. During an appearance this month on MSNBC, Sanders acknowledged that he was a Democrat as a matter of convenience and calculation. “In terms of media coverage, you have to run within the Democratic party,” he said.

To his credit, Sanders skillfully used the Democratic primary to leverage media attention and national exposure, catapulting himself from a role as a largely unknown U.S. Senator from a small, rural state in the Northeast to a liberal leader of national prominence.

So what does he do with that influence if he loses the nomination to Clinton?

At first blush, it seems like he has no choice but to step back and accept defeat. That’s what he has promised to do. A third-party run for Sanders would almost certainly be disastrous. Even if he partnered with yet another party of convenience (the Greens?) it would be challenging for the Vermont Senator to petition his way onto the ballot in all fifty states. He would, as he has acknowledged, almost certainly split the center-left vote in ways that could usher in a Trump victory.

But a fourth-party bid might be more viable. There is widespread talk among high-level conservative operatives who say that if Trump wins the nomination on the GOP side, they will field an “Independent Republican” candidate to be their standard bearer.  Earlier this month, the New York Times reported a coalition of “. . . leading conservatives are prepared to field an independent candidate in the general election, to defend Republican principles and offer traditional conservatives an alternative to Mr. Trump’s hard-edged populism.”

If this happens, if America heads into next fall facing a European-style scrum with multiple candidates on the ballot splintering the general election vote, Sanders may find it tempting to join the fray with his highly mobilized core of passionate voters.

Sanders in a four-way race could be…interesting

In a four-way race, he would have the money, the volunteer base, and the momentum to be a major player. In a fractured fight, He could count on being highly competitive in a number of “blue” states (Michigan!) and he could ignore parts of the south where Republicans will almost certainly prevail anyway.

To give you a sense for how competitive Sanders might be in this kind of contest, consider what we’ve seen so far.  The Vermont Senator has continued to gain rapidly on Clinton in head-to-head polls (actually beating her in one recent national survey).  And the breakdown of primary wins and losses so far in states that could plausibly go Democratic in November looks like this:  5 states that were clear wins for Sanders, 8 states that were clear wins for Clinton and 4 states that were effectively tied.

Granted, Clinton’s wins tended to come in bigger, more populous states.  But if Sanders continue to fare well into April and June, perhaps winning California and tying New York state, the logic for a fourth-party bid could grow.  This kind of push into the fall and the general election would still be hugely risky. If no candidate gets to 270 electoral college votes, the presidency is decided by the U.S. House, which is dominated by very conservative tea party Republicans.

But it’s not a suicide mission. Meanwhile, Sanders is 74 years old. This is his one shot. And he clearly believes that he is better positioned to lead the revolution his followers are calling for.

All of these scenarios are hypotheticals. They all put Sanders and Trump in a position powerful men hate to be in; that is, needing a lucky break, needing big events to curve history in their direction, or needing the race’s front-runner Hillary Clinton to fumble badly.  But 2016 is the kind of election year where it seems like just about anything can happen.

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11 Comments on “What if? How Trump or Sanders could actually win the White House”

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  1. Mitch Edelstein says:

    If the decision goes to the House of Representatives, then each State delegation gets one vote (not one vote for each Representative) the vast majority of states are Republican majority. It is not in the interest of our Democracy to have our Presidential election decided that way.

  2. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Greens already have a presidential candidate, Jill Stein and many Greens appear to actively dislike Bernie.

    As we can see on movie screens everywhere, anything can happen. Superman could fight Batman, but in the real world (and I am beginning to believe that the real world and comic world are essentially the same thing ) Superman and Batman stand for the same thing in general if not on all the specifics and Bernie is not going to fight Hillary to the death knowing that the Joker is likely to take Gotham while they battle.

  3. Walker says:

    Seems to me that third and fourth party bids are extremely unlikely. The GOP is so solidly against Trump that it seems likely that they’ll deny him the nomination at the convention. A Trump third-party candidacy would be VERY likely to throw the election to the House, where Trump would lose, so what would be the point.

    And I believe that Sanders is too decent and too sane to mount a third/fourth party bid– he doesn’t want to go down as a Nader-like spoiler. Remember, this is the man who said “…on her worst day, Hillary Clinton will be an infinitely better candidate and president than the Republican candidate on his best day…” And he knows that Clinton voted the same way he did 93% of the time. He will concede with whatever grace he can muster and try very hard to get his revolutionaries to vote for Clinton.

  4. Walker says:

    “To his credit, Sanders skillfully used the Democratic primary to leverage media attention and national exposure, catapulting himself from a role as a largely unknown U.S. Senator from a small, rural state in the Northeast to a liberal leader of national prominence.”

    This is the type of analysis of strategy that appears to me to completely ignore the real, substantive differences between the candidates. Sanders has gotten where he is thanks to his self-evident integrity and decency. He is the only candidate in the race who doesn’t check the polls before deciding what to say. People love him for that. And he is the only candidate who appears to grasp the economic realities facing the U.S. today.

  5. Ken Hall says:

    “They all put Sanders and Trump in a position powerful men hate to be in; that is, needing a lucky break”

    Agree wholeheartedly with this assessment; however, my contention is that “luck” plays a far more significant role in the outcomes of our lives than humans are likely willing to admit. The richest man in the world owes his success to the fact that when IBM (which controlled 95+% of the computing market at the time) decided to enter the “quaint” little personal computer market in the late 70’s they woefully underestimated the significance of the effort and did not budget sufficiently to enable their team leader to use in-house software engineers to develop the operating system for their PC. When IBM contacted the then mini-company called Microsoft today’s’ richest man did not have the required OS either but his partner knew of a local company that did and in spite of the richest man’s negative views about same he (Paul Allen) bought QDOS for a purported $50,000 and the rest is as they say “history”.

    Perhaps the desire by “powerful” men to control their “luck” explains the propensity for such men to conduct their affairs in the proverbial “smoke filled rooms” out of sight of those to be controlled. Could such activities lend credence to the prevalence of conspiracy theories? Perhaps there is more truth to such than we are led to believe by those with designs on “power” and “wealth”.

    My predilection for Bernie follows from the appearance that he dislikes the smoke filled room get togethers by the “good ole boys” nearly as much as do I. It is possible that I am incorrect in my assessment; however, none of the other vipers in the pit are nearly as reassuring.

  6. Agnes M says:

    Forty years of decline in American politics and economic reality. Stranglehold of corporations, fat cat 1% expanding, Citizens United, war costs here and overseas, Climate Change in our face. Could care less for ovary carriers as a determination of who will look out for children and females. Bernie to the end even if he follows through and goes mainstream. Writing him in. Slick Willy does not belong in White House. 150 million dollars of their personal speech funding to special interests lining their pockets tells me that. No dynasties. Trump scare tactics by him or about him won’t convince me or most Americans to choose this ego manic. Nor her. Hillary doesn’t fool me, nor did Palin. I want systemic real change for my son’s generation and beyond. She ain’t it. DINO, Repug Lite… You betcha. Write in Bernie. And continue re-involvement even if it means a another party, Democracy for America movement. The fact that 10 months ago he was barely known, no war chest like Hillary or name recognition and yet is now fully funded by tiny donations and caught the vision of our future-our youth-says something. Listen to these under 30 year olds. It ain’t about their own petty lives, they see a bigger picture. And I don’t trust her and her Estrogen driven Hawkish views either. Bernie will select a amazing Vice President as well to run with. I don’t care that he is 74. Take away her fake blond dye and she got white hair, ask any woman over 50.

  7. Pete Klein says:

    I could vote for Sanders or I could vote for Trump.
    I will not vote for Clinton nor will I vote for any Republican other than Trump.
    It’s entirely possible I won’t bother to vote.

  8. pirateedwardlow says:


    it used to be we alined ourself with people who had our interests in mind.. To some degree we would add, could they get the job done. So one would vote for bush because they wanted a war, or if not a war, a president that would flex muscle around the world (even if created the biggest deficit every).

    Now we seem to want someone who validate our inner believes.

    I like Bernie because I believe the system is rigged. Be it the top 1% profiting off of the declining middle class or even the Democratic Party with a set up to also protect the status quo. Lots of people are tired of thinking the next great hope.. the man of hope and change, will actually give us hope and change. It’s one of the problems Hillary has… she isn’t validating anything most republicans (and many democrats) believe internally.

    Trump is a doing the same in a way different way.

    No one wants to be a racist.. or to be labeled like as one.. so many republicans have racist views.. now they don’t want to be a racist, they want to believe hating all Mexicans or Muslims is not racist, but a valid (rational?) opinion/fact. Both drumpf and cruz are validating republicans every day…

    I don’t know if they consciously would say this, but if drumpf is elected president, it will mean a lot of racist will get to say it is okay to hate large groups of people.

    It is interesting how https://berniesanders.com/issues/racial-justice/ is running on a plattform of inclusion that benefits all, not just a select few, while drumpf has a platform of excluding people (of color) from the greatness of America

  9. Louis Falzerano says:

    The way NPR, and Ncpr has dismissed or totally under reported Bernie Sanders candidacy is appalling. This morning you are promoting Clinton being in Albany for signing of minimum wage bill. You do not say Sanders has been supporting it for years , While Clinton has dismissed it, as not attainable. —————– SHAME

    I am sorry I will not give money to NCPR this cycle. I t will probably take a little time if I ever give again.

  10. Brian Mann says:

    Louis –

    NCPR welcomes all feedback about our reporting and our coverage, as well as that of NPR, positive as well as critical.

    I hope you’ll take some time to look over coverage on our website to see the incredible range of coverage of the Sanders campaign that we’ve aired and published on-line in the last 12 months.

    One story on one day is not indicative of our overall treatment of the race.

    And while our treatment of Sanders certainly won’t echo the zeal or passion of many of his supporters, we think we have given our listeners and readers a good, fair treatment of his ideas, his campaign and his political persona.

    I would remind you that Sanders is one candidate out of morethan 20 who began this political season. While he is your candidate, our coverage and our focus has to be much broader.

    -Brian, NCPR

  11. Louis Falzerano says:

    Sorry Brian it is not 1 story 1 day. It seems to be systemic on Npr , and even your own reporting.
    On friday you did a story where you said Clinton is ahead of Trump by 20 points, And as an aside you said Sanders is ahead by a larger margin. WHAT is that margin?? Look back at your own work
    ( time spent covering each candidate ) I am a constant listener at all times of day. The past year your news room has fallen short on equal reporting!

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