In becoming the Republican Party's presumptive presidential nominee, Donald Trump has reaped the benefits of good fortune in several ways, including having a divided GOP field as well as a news media entranced by spectacle. But Trump is going to need further breaks if he is to defeat Hillary Clinton.
The notion of an actual President Trump has gathered speed lately, with polls showing him having erased Clinton's earlier advantage and being in a statistical tie with her. Both candidates have, as many have pointed out, extraordinarily high unfavourable ratings, with 46% of those surveyed in a new Washington Post poll viewing the former secretary of state as "strongly unfavorable," compared with 45% for Trump along those same lines.
Clinton's current clashes with rival Bernie Sanders may make her a more formidable general-election candidate, just as Barack Obama became battle-tested eight years ago following his protracted nomination duel with Clinton. But for now, they're hurting her. In particular, Sanders' and his supporters' gripes that the party seems bent on paving the way for her nomination have reinforced the perception – which Trump already has played up – that she's mainly the candidate of those "elites".
Alarmed senior Democrats are intervening to try to help out Clinton and promote party unity, and there's every chance that this intraparty squabbling will be old news within a few months. But the longer that process takes to iron out, the more it obviously helps Trump.
Given the degree to which much of the electorate passionately abhors Trump, his goal is to get voters to despise Clinton even more. This is where he hopes his accusation-centric campaign creates enough fissures to stir up more doubts about Clinton, and that she proves herself awkward at parrying them.
That won't be easy. For all of her oft-observed faults as a campaigner, Clinton and other Democrats are unlikely to be caught off guard by the incoming barrages, and have quite an arsenal of their own to use against Trump. In particular, their party holds major advantages over Republicans in its sophisticated use of technology to identify and turn out supporters, and Clinton's top digital strategist indicated it is saving much of its firepower for the autumn.
But the endless mudslinging could lead would-be Clinton backers in the "I'm-disgusted-with-the-whole-process" category to stay home. And it could nudge others who aren't enthusiastic about Trump, but who are clamouring for change, to turn out – especially in such key states as Ohio and Florida.
The best card he could play, in that regard, would be a federal indictment against Clinton in connection with her use of a private email server while serving at the State Department. The recent speculation is that that doesn't seem likely to happen, and even one prominent far-right conservative is downplaying the possibility. But even so: would the lack of an indictment keep Trump from talking about it, and avoid disparaging the FBI's handling of the matter?
Meanwhile, there's the separate series of lawsuits that doesn't involve classified emails and that Clinton's campaign has dismissed as a nontroversy. Several of Clinton's former aides have been deposed. Assuming this stays in the news, will the public be able to distinguish between the legal developments, or will they lump them together? If it's the latter, that helps Trump.
Policy-wise, Trump would benefit if current events align with the areas with which he is most comfortable. If a major disruptive national-security incident of some kind occurs in the US – or even on the soil of a key US ally – between now and November, he will seize every opportunity to advance his easy-to-grasp argument: This proves that we're weak. With me, we'll be strong.
As Trump's campaign already has demonstrated, seemingly anything is possible."
Likewise, some troubling global fiscal news over the coming months would play into his message of economic pessimism and give him a pedestal on which to tout his business record. It wouldn't matter if the impacts did not hurt the US over the long term; all he would need is a few developments that could benefit him in creating a climate of doubt. But again, he would go up against not just Clinton but the Obama administration, which is proud of its record and would move quickly to extinguish any economic-related fears in the twilight of its time in office.
Respected political analyst Charlie Cook notes that within the Republican Party: "Trump must convince a significant number of party members who clearly do not like him to vote for him anyway." A certain element of that group is never going to support Trump, put off by his insufficient ideological identity and stockpile of divisive statements. But if some of those Republicans come to regard control of the US Senate as being in serious jeopardy, then Trump is likely to reap at least some benefits. For now, there are five toss-up races that could determine which party is in power in 2017.
And of course, Trump could pick a less-volatile and more experienced Republican politician as his vice presidential nominee. If the selection doesn't rile up his base, it would reassure some elements of the GOP that his presidency would have someone with prior government service to serve as a possible – emphasis on possible – check on the chief executive.
Much of the speculation in this regard has centred on Tennessee Republican Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who has not endorsed Trump but who has praised some of his foreign-policy remarks. Like Trump, Corker is a wealthy businessman who has made clear his exasperation at how Washington works. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a 2012 White House aspirant, also is said to be in the running.
It's probably a lot less likely that Trump would pick one of his better-known (but disparaged) ex-rivals, such as Florida Senator Marco Rubio. But as Trump's campaign already has demonstrated, seemingly anything is possible.
Chuck McCutcheon is a Washington, DC journalist and co-author of the 2012 and 2014 editions of the Almanac of American Politics. His latest book is Doubletalk: The Language, Code and Jargon of a Presidential Election.