I’ve made this point a couple times in the context of media coverage, but it does indeed have broader applicability:
Donald Trump won 46 percent of the popular vote on the way to victory — a victory driven by capturing the electoral votes of seven states in which he failed to capture a majority of the vote: Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Florida, Arizona, and Utah.
He was elected anyway because many people who didn’t want him to be president couldn’t bring themselves to vote for his opponent. Some of that was her own fault. But some of it was because Trump, in an odd way, was the beneficiary of the perception that he couldn’t possibly win.
People who felt he’d be a bad president felt secure in dissenting from the Democratic Party to either the right (Gary Johnson) or the left (Jill Stein) because everyone knew Clinton would win anyway. Almost everyone who had any kind of serious policy doubts about Clinton invested vast time and energy in exploring them, regardless of whether or not they had much more profound doubts about Trump, because everyone knew Clinton would win anyway. Mainstream journalists spent more time poring over potential access-seeking at Clinton’s undoubtedly life-saving charitable foundation than they did detailing the fact that Trump’s foundation was a potentially criminal fraud that appears to have had no legitimate public benefit.
Everyone knew Clinton would win anyway.
That was, obviously, a miscalculation. But it’s important to be clear about what the miscalculation was. Trump’s opponents failed to unify around a single compelling alternative. He wasn’t popular on Election Day and he wasn’t popular on Inauguration Day. And he’s not doing anything to try to turn that around.
The assumption that Clinton would win was absolutely crucial to Trump winning. But the converse is that Trump actually being president will concentrate the mind. This is still a horrible outcome — much of the bad stuff that Ryan/McConnell/Trump accomplish will be difficult or impossible to repair — but there are political opportunities. And above all Democrats have to treat him as being as unpopular as he is and making him more so.