A number of observers have said Donald Trump’s march to the Republican presidential nomination is a case of chickens coming home to roost. And it’s true: The GOP has for years been playing to white resentment, and Trump has just exploited that potential more aggressively than anyone else. From this standpoint, the Republican Party’s leaders have no one to blame but themselves for the hijacking of their party.
But let’s play a little “alt” history and imagine that several years ago, Trump began calculated moves to run as a Democrat. Let’s imagine also that Beau Biden had never developed brain cancer, and that his father, Joe, had decided to run for president, so the “mainstream” Democratic vote was more divided.
Planning to run as a Democrat, Trump would have avoided backing the “birther” movement, but could have made other inflammatory charges (for example, against Hillary Clinton) to get media attention. To build Democratic support, he could have staked out positions in favor of single-payer health care, more progressive taxes, and a massive infrastructure program, while denouncing trade agreements, the war in Iraq, and illegal immigration. With only a slight shift from his current stances, he could have presented himself as an economic populist with business know-how who gets along famously with unions and working people, and is both a ferocious nationalist and a skeptic about foreign wars. In short, he could have wrapped his protectionism and nativism in a package more appealing to the left.
With Trump dominating media coverage of the Democrats and with Biden taking away votes from Clinton, the Democratic field this year might have looked like the fractured field the Republicans have had. In this scenario, the two mainstream Democrats—Biden and Clinton—would have been flanked by two populists: Trump and Bernie Sanders. Because of the overlap of their positions on trade, health care, taxes, and the War in Iraq, Trump and Sanders would have appealed to many of the same voters. The independents who have flooded into the Republican primaries to vote for Trump would have voted in the Democratic primaries instead.
Whether Trump would have won that four-way race is anybody’s guess. But it might have been sufficiently close that right now we’d be talking about the likelihood of a contested Democratic convention in Philadelphia in July.
But here’s where things would differ: The Republican Party’s delegate-selection rules make a Trump victory more likely than the Democratic rules would have. As an article in FiveThirtyEight points out, “Donald Trump Would Be Easy to Stop Under Democratic Rules.”
The primary reason is that the Republican rules give a bonus in delegates to the frontrunner, whereas the rules in the Democratic race award delegates proportionally. If Trump were running as a Democrat with the same vote-share he’s received as a Republican, he would be much less likely to reach the target for a first-ballot nomination.
In addition, the Democrats have more superdelegates, who would be more likely to back the party’s mainstream candidates. The Democratic superdelegates get a lot of bad press, but they provide some protection against the hijacking of the party by a demagogue.
It may be hard now to visualize Trump as a Democrat, but he could have easily chosen to use the Democratic Party as the vehicle for his ambitions. All he had to do was to recalibrate his positions and his rhetoric a few degrees. Democrats can count themselves lucky he opted to run as a Republican.