Resolved: either party could have easily won this election

We’re far enough in now that it’s pretty much 99.99% likely that if either party had made a different choice, that that party would have easily won the election.

First, I present Matt Yglesias’ article in Vox about candidates and their approval ratings:

Candidates simply do not win with underwater approval ratings, much less candidates as deeply unpopular as Clinton and Trump are. Many candidates with POSITIVE approval lose elections. The only reason either of these candidates has a hope of getting into the White House is because they are facing each other. and even then, the winning candidate will likely get no more than 45% of the vote. and it won’t be because some rich billionaire promising change ran third party. We have the same third parties now that we had 20 years ago and they always get a million votes or so, tops. This year they will get 7-10% of the vote. That’s a sign of just how deeply unpopular these candidates are and that’s a pool of voters who would already be in a decent candidate’s camp, if one was running on the major party tickets.

So I think it’s pretty much settled now that if it was Kasich, Pence, Ryan, Rubio, or Scott Walker against Clinton that the GOP would win by a solid margin. And if the Democratic candidate was Kaine, O’Malley, or Biden against Trump that it wouldn’t even be a contest. It’s one of the most predictable things in politics: popular candidates beat unpopular candidates. Unless Clinton or Trump could have found a way to bring those other candidates as far down into the dumps as they are, they’d have no chance. And history says they would fail, since historically, no matter how hard another candidate has tried, you can’t get your opponent to be as deeply unpopular as either Clinton or Trump are. Obama got Romney down to -5 approval or so. That effort would not be enough for Clinton or Trump to win.

More people view Clinton favorably than any Republican you listed and everyone but Pence is underwater.

Kasich 37.4% (-0.3%)
Pence 36.3% (+4.0%)
Ryan 32.3% (-10.3%)
Rubio 34.9% (-11.1%)
Walker 22.7% (-14.7%)

Clinton 41.5% (-13.7%)

You could maybe make an argument for Kasich or Pence, but Ryan, Rubio, and Walker would probably not be a better position than Trump.

All data from HuffPost Pollster.

But if they were in a Presidential race the undecideds would have an opinion, and in the absence of major scandal or likeability issues it’s hard to see a GOP candidate falling to Clinton/Trump levels of unpopularity. With Trump and Clinton, there’s real reasons. What reasons would bring Paul Ryan or Marco Rubio down to that level? I can see them failing to get into positive territory but they’d still enjoy a big lead over Clinton in approval. At worst, we could assume that Ryan and Rubio would be “generic Republican”.

Here’s what happens when I scale things up so that there are no undecideds…

	Favorable	Unfavorable	Difference
Clinton	42.5		57.5		-15.0
Rubio	43.1		56.9		-13.7
Ryan	43.1		56.9		-13.8
Walker	37.8		62.2		-24.5

I’m not really seeing a popularity blow out here. Except in Walker’s case. That guy is really unpopular.

That’s not a reliable method. Do you have reasons why Rubio or Ryan would be as historically unpopular as Clinton or Trump?

Because they’re down double digits in favorable minus unfavorable when only three in four people know enough to have an opinion. Furthermore they’re better known among Republicans right now so they’d probably do even worse than my scaling method indicates. Finally if they said things necessary to win the Republican nomination that would bother a lot of people that don’t have an opinion of them now.

You said in the OP, “Candidates simply do not win with underwater approval ratings…” These two are hugely underwater in approval ratings.

Here’s another reason. The latest poll that asked about both Clinton and Ryan was a YouGov/Economist poll that was in the field Sep 10 - 13. Clinton clocked in at -7 while Ryan put up a rocking -13. I don’t see reason why Ryan would automatically be more popular than Clinton in the alternate universe you propose.

Because Paul Ryan has no scandals and no inflammatory statements, and his rating was positive for most of the year. Not sure what would send him down so recently. Probably just polling noise. I notice Kasich went negative too, so maybe the public’s just that surly at the moment.

I don’t agree that any other Dem candidate would have had an easier time vs Trump than Clinton. I don’t worship at the altar of fav/unfav numbers.

Clinton had, and has, the best chance of beating any Repub.

On the Repub side, the problem is, you can’t remove the Trump phenomenon from the equation. If Trump didn’t exist, I think Kasich, Bush, Ryan, and possibly Rubio would beat Clinton. Cruz would have had a shot, Walker less so.

You cannot remove the extreme name recognition factor from these candidates. That changes the race utterly.

DonLogan is correct about the Trump phenomenon. But I have the opposite point of view. Trump’s closeness is due entirely to his media presence. If an ordinary candidate would have run, the electoral map would merely copy Obama’s. It probably will in any case. Remember that I guaranteed a win for Clinton six months before the first primary. I’ve never seen any reason to change that prediction. Blue is blue.

There has been a trend in Senate elections recently, especially on the Republican side, where the primary voters have been throwing up some extreme candidates who lost the eminently winnable general election. I think that we’re seeing this phenomenon here on a national level to some extent on both sides (although I’m really referring to popularity and not saying that I believe Trump and Clinton are equivalent candidates).

In a world comprised solely of Democrats and especially of Democratic primary voters, Clinton’s reasonably popular. If the world consisted entirely of Republican primary voters (God help us), Trump would have high favorables. So what we are seeing here are polarized political parties, whose choices don’t necessarily match the non-partisan public’s and definitely not the other party’s.

If anything, I would expect this trend to intensify.

Wrong. First of all, let’s not forget that for many years, GOP election strategy has focused largely on constructing lies about their opponents. Hillary’s unpopularity stems in large measure from the propaganda machines of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Donald Trump and the other GOP liars. Do you really imagine that these blowhards would have found nothing to lie about were O’Malley or Biden the candidate?

Comparing the popularity of a candidate to a non-candidate is pointless. Anybody who becomes a nominee loses popularity; he or she becomes the target of organized political attacks. It doesn’t matter what their history is; if there’s nothing else available, a scandal will simply be made up.

If one party had a candidate with high positives and the other with high negatives then it would make a difference. Both parties could have nominated candidates with high positives and then it could be just as close. Trouble is neither party is loaded with very high positive potential candidates. I think the hatred of Trump within the GOP is largely because they knew Hillary and her high negatives would be the Democratic candidate and they could have wanted someone less vulnerable on their side. I don’t know that they are right, it’s much more complicated than that, and Nemo is correct, once nominated candidates become targets and their appeal will rapidly diminish.

Many of the issues and characteristics of candidates are just a framework for justifying people’s choice publicly, their choices are actually based on more gut level decisions made before they know the specifics.

Paul Ryan favorability.

He’s been underwater all year, and for the vast majority of the last three years.

The ratio of people who view him favorably to unfavorably is about the same as Clinton’s. I think that the mistake you’re making is conflating the intensity of the some people’s dislike for Clinton as somehow magnifying her favorable rating. It doesn’t work like that. A real scandal can generate some real unfavorability. Fake scandals push people who answer somewhat unfavorable to answering strongly unfavorable.

Paul Ryan is a historically unpopular Speaker of the House and would be a historically unpopular presidential candidate. A generic Republican would be a historically unpopular candidate right now. These are the times in which we live. The Republican Party favorable rating is -26.5. Dems are at -2.5.

Yeah, but that’s a liberal decimal point.

The phrasing ‘we’re far enough now’ strikes me as odd because the real race has changed so significantly over recent weeks, being close to tied. It seems further from ‘99.99%’ likely now that some other Republican would be running better than Trump than it was when Trump was behind by a McCain v. Obama type margin or more.

I’d mainly have preferred another Republican because they’d have actually been a Republican and an honorable choice (not necessarily a ‘right’ choice, that’s a difference in political opinion, long let it flourish). Whether or not they’d be in a better position to win, I agree with many of the comments, is more debatable.

One aspect I haven’t seen mentioned is uniting the GOP. This is somewhat a weakness of Trump’s, among ‘true conservative’, suburban’ and/or ‘establishment’ Republicans, though the passage of time and natural focus on the Democrat opponent seems to have partly fixed it. But Ryan for example as a parachuted in candidate would have faced a much larger problem uniting the party, in that case from the populist grassroots faction which supported Trump. Those people hate Ryan to begin with, he’s a big target of demonization on talk radio, a ‘RINO open borders globalist’. Translation: he obviously doesn’t care much about holding some absolute line on illegal immigration and is still for free trade, whereas his real calling is to address the eventual fiscal train wreck with a smaller govt oriented solution. Those on the left are likely to oppose him for the latter reason and that’s a fair enough difference of opinion, but keep in mind Trumpist GOP’ers don’t care about that issue, and hate Ryan (and conservatives in his general mold) for their own separate reasons.

Of the candidates who lasted past the early primaries and might have won enough delegates eventually to either win or be credible choices of a deadlocked convention, Cruz would have faced the least problem uniting the GOP, but perhaps been weaker than Trump reaching out beyond the party. Rubio and Kasich would have had a mixture of Cruz’s and Ryan’s strengths/weaknesses with GOP unity v outreach but IMO would been more likely to do better than Trump has, because more wishy/washy on traditional left/right issues than Cruz or Ryan (Kasich in particular) and Rubio’s likely comparative advantage, v other GOP’ers, with non-whites.

This analysis is way, way too early, for one thing. Hillary (or Trump, for that matter, though probably not) might still have a very big win. It’s not terribly likely, but it wouldn’t be an enormous surprise if she won by 8 points including NC, GA, and AZ.

For another, there have been very, very few prominent national politicians in office or running for office without negative approval and favorability ratings in the last several years. Obama at the moment is one of these very few, but for most of his presidency he’s been at even or slightly negative. The country is so polarized today that politicians are just viewed much more negatively – there are virtually no Republicans in office that most Democrats don’t strongly dislike, and vice versa. When you add in the disgruntled “middle” (apathetic and “pox on both parties” voters) who don’t like anyone in office, and the far-right and far-left wings who pretty much hate most of the office-holders in their own party, then you get more negative than positive for nearly everyone.

I think this is the new normal, at least for a little while. I don’t think any politician in major office, nationally, can get much over 50%, especially in the midst of campaign season, which will be more and more negative each cycle, and most will be well under 50%.

If that’s true, how come Clinton has terrible favorability and Obama didn’t?

The “this would happen to anyone” argument has always been nonsense. The Republicans can try, but against Hillary they have ammunition. Less so against other candidates.

This election is like sports matches such as the 2014 NFC Championship, Super Bowl V, or Germany vs. Italy in Euro 2016, where both sides committed a comically high number of blunders, and the loser could only lament any of many that could arguably qualify as ‘the’ one that cost it all.