Michigan Primary Results Show Why Hillary Clinton Should Take Donald Trump Very Seriously

AP

When Donald Trump launched his presidential bid last summer, Democrats made little effort to contain their glee.

"I am a person of faith — and the Donald's entry into this race can only be attributed to the fact that the good Lord is a Democrat with a sense of humor," longtime party strategist Paul Begala quipped to the Washington Post in July. 

As the "Summer of Trump" gave way to autumn, then winter — raising the once-unthinkable prospect that the Republican Party would actually nominate a brash billionaire with a penchant for inflammatory comments about Mexicans, Muslims and media adversaries like Megyn Kelly — Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton could hardly believe her good fortune.

Read more: Donald Trump Just Showed Us the Kind of General Election Campaign He'll Run

Appearing on ABC News' This Week in December, Clinton erupted into laughter at the mere mention of her GOP counterpart's name.

"I'm sorry," Clinton told host George Stephanopoulos. "I can't help it."

Source: YouTube

As Trump lurches toward the nomination, foes of the GOP remain giddy at the prospect of an electoral bloodbath in November. 

In a widely-noticed Facebook post last week, former Reagan administration official Bruce Bartlett — who turned on the GOP during the George W. Bush years — wrote that he'd voted for Trump in the Virginia primary, convinced that his nomination would "go a long way toward destroying" the GOP, an outcome Bartlett described as "essential for our nation's survival."

It's not difficult to see the logic behind Bartlett's thinking. Trump's sky-high unfavorable ratings with crucial demographic groups like Hispanics and women point to the considerable hurdles he'd confront in a general election campaign, and his long record of controversial public statements can't easily be walked back as he pivots to general election mode.

"There's no playbook": But a Trump victory in November is no more unthinkable than his nomination was on June 16, when he descended an escalator at Trump Tower and announced that, after years of abortive flirtations with the office, he was running for president.

As Democrats stare down the likelihood of a Trump-Clinton face off in the fall, some strategists in the party are increasingly uneasy about taking on a candidate who's already on the verge of upending the ostensibly immutable laws of political gravity.

"Give me [Marco] Rubio, give me [Ted] Cruz, give me Mitt Romney. I know how to beat all of them," veteran Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh told Mic. "Rubio looked good on paper, but like many draft prospects, when you put him on the field, he didn't perform. Cruz is so far right that even if he moved to the middle, his middle is to the right of everybody else's right."

For Trump's rivals, Marsh said, "You know their playbook. You know how they would run." 

With Trump, she said, "there's no playbook."

That may leave Clinton — disciplined to a fault, and steeped in conventional campaign tactics — scrambling to respond to Trump's no-holds-barred style.

"Hillary has built a large tanker ship, and she's about to confront Somali pirates," former George W. Bush campaign strategist Matthew Dowd told the New York Times in February.

Source: Tony Dejak/AP
Source: Tony Dejak/AP

A glaring vulnerability: Even if Trump improves his image with Hispanic voters during the general election, the depth of his deficit with those voters could put swing states like Florida, Colorado and Nevada out of reach in the fall. 

But Trump's enduring popularity with working-class whites, unrivaled by any of his GOP foes, could also put states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin — all won by every Democratic nominee since 1992 — into play. And with his unsparing condemnations of free trade agreements, China's currency manipulation and the outsourcing of American jobs, Trump may well notch a victory in pivotal Ohio.

Say Clinton wins every state carried by President Barack Obama in 2012, except for those four. That would be enough for Trump to secure precisely the 270 electoral votes he'd need to win the presidency. Sure, handing Trump all four states may be generous, but this scenario also assumes Clinton hangs on in states like Florida, where Trump currently ties her; Iowa, where polls show a tight race; and New Hampshire, where Clinton narrowly leads but Trump scored a substantial primary victory last month, as Clinton went down to a landslide defeat.

It's not just theory: Consider the results of Tuesday's Michigan primaries. As Trump bested the GOP field by 12 points, taking 37% of the vote, Clinton sustained a shock defeat to Bernie Sanders — despite polling that gave her a 21-point lead over the Vermont senator.

Sanders — the scourge of the "billionaire class" — drew on a demographic support base not dissimilar to the billionaire GOP frontrunner's. 

Source: Alan Diaz/AP
Source: Alan Diaz/AP

According to exit polling, Sanders walloped Clinton 63% to 36% among white men, edged her 52% to 47% among white women and defeated her 58% to 41% among whites without college degrees.

In the Republican contest, where the electorate was nearly entirely white, Trump won 45% of men, over John Kasich's 22%. He tied Ted Cruz 29% to 29% among women. Among voters without college degrees, Trump won 46% support, compared to 25% for second-place Cruz.

The results point to Trump's persistent strength — and Clinton's clear weaknesses — among so-called "Reagan Democrats": the working-class whites who abandoned their ancestral party to support President Ronald Reagan and his populist-flavored conservatism in the 1980s.

Moreover, the results pointed to the effectiveness of Sanders' fierce condemnation of Clinton's past support for free-trade agreements, an attack sure to be reprised by Trump in the fall.

How does Clinton respond? It's not inconceivable that Trump's nomination could inspire Democratic-leaning voters to turn out in droves to oppose him — but Marsh cautioned fellow Democrats not to "rest on their laurels."

"While African-Americans in particular turned out in percentages that rival or eclipse percentages in 2008, Latinos and women of all demographics would all have to turn out in record numbers to compete with the anger and motivation on the side of Trump supporters," Marsh told Mic.

Another vital task for Clinton: Wooing Sanders backers, many of whom see her as the embodiment of a calcified political establishment — and may be inclined to stay home, or even pull the lever for Trump.

"Hillary is making the appeal to Sanders supporters on, 'I agree with your concerns, but I can actually do something about them,'" Marsh said, arguing that Clinton can point to a long record of accomplishment.

But reminding voters of her decades in public life also risks reinforcing the anti-establishment sentiment driving Sanders and Trump's support. While Clinton may not be able to voice the concerns of these voters as viscerally as those two, she's likely to have one crucial advantage over Trump, Marsh said.

"Every campaign runs on emotion, and you want voters to feel an emotional commitment to you to turn out, but you also need an organization," she told Mic. "Trump has suffered a bit from not having an organization in place."

While we don't know the precise conditions we'll be facing in the fall, that could make all the difference.

"If she has the superior organization on Election Day, that's worth three to five points," Marsh said. "No one's winning this election by any more than that — I think it's actually less than three."