Could Donald Trump really win?

Donald Trump has sparked plenty of controversy. But can he really win the Republican nomination? Matthew Partridge assesses his chances.


Is it time we took Donald Trump seriously?

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.

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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 on1 February and ends with contests in California, Montana, New Jersey,New Mexico and South Dakota on7 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), where12 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 of1964, when their candidate, BarryGoldwater, was crushed by LyndonJohnson, who got 61% of the vote andcarried 44 out of 50 states. Goldwater,who once said "extremism in thedefence of liberty is no vice", was alsofrom outside the mainstream of USpolitics. In the short run, his landslidedefeat allowed the Democrats toincrease their majorities in bothhouses of Congress, paving the wayfor the expansion of welfare.

However,Goldwater's supporters argue thatin the longer run his campaign wasinstrumental in tilting the Republicans(and America) to the right. RonaldReagan was a fan, a fact that helpedhim become governor of California in1966. He was elected president in 1980.

Dr Matthew Partridge

Matthew graduated from the University of Durham in 2004; he then gained an MSc, followed by a PhD at the London School of Economics.

He has previously written for a wide range of publications, including the Guardian and the Economist, and also helped to run a newsletter on terrorism. He has spent time at Lehman Brothers, Citigroup and the consultancy Lombard Street Research.

Matthew is the author of Superinvestors: Lessons from the greatest investors in history, published by Harriman House, which has been translated into several languages. His second book, Investing Explained: The Accessible Guide to Building an Investment Portfolio, is published by Kogan Page.

As senior writer, he writes the shares and politics & economics pages, as well as weekly Blowing It and Great Frauds in History columns He also writes a fortnightly reviews page and trading tips, as well as regular cover stories and multi-page investment focus features.

Follow Matthew on Twitter: @DrMatthewPartri