In this edition of Capital Download, Susan Page speaks with Joel Benenson,.pollster and chief strategist for Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
Michael Struening, USA TODAY

NEW YORK — Donald Trump is an out-of-the-mainstream candidate vying to lead a fractured party whose nomination would make some traditionally Republican states competitive for Democrats, Hillary Clinton’s chief strategist argues. But Joel Benenson also acknowledges none of that guarantees the billionaire businessman would lose in November.

“The challenge with a candidate like Donald Trump is he’s not a conventional candidate and he doesn’t run a conventional campaign and he doesn’t answer questions in a conventional way,” Benenson, Clinton’s pollster and a top adviser, told Capital Download. Trump “seems to play by his own set of rules,” an approach that has made him an unpredictable force and the unexpected front-runner for the GOP nomination.

That said, “I think we would be in a very formidable position, a very strong position” if the general election pits Clinton against Trump, Benenson said. That includes an expanded electoral map in which Arizona, Georgia and North Carolina — all states that went Republican in 2012 — might well be in play. He rejected the idea that Trump’s appeal to working-class white voters also might make some traditionally Democratic states such as Michigan and Pennsylvania more competitive for the GOP.

And the Democratic contest?

It’s all but over, Benenson contends — a point fiercely contested by Bernie Sanders’ strategists, who argue there is still a path for the Vermont senator to win the nomination. They note that Sanders has won five of the past six Democratic contests, and a Marquette Law School poll released Wednesday gave him a 49%-45% lead among likely Democratic primary voters in Wisconsin, which votes next Tuesday.

“It’s nip-and-tuck right now” in Wisconsin, Benenson said. But he added, “The biggest question coming out of Wisconsin is: Does Sen. Sanders make a dent in what is really an almost insurmountable delegate lead we have? And I think we will come out of Wisconsin without him being able to dent that lead in any kind of material way, for sure.”

The Associated Press gives Clinton a lead of 263 pledged delegates over Sanders, 1,243 to 980. If unpledged “superdelegates” are included, her lead widens, 1,712 to 1,011. Needed for nomination: 2,383. While Sanders has “dominated” among voters under 30 by 3-1, Benenson notes that Clinton has won voters over 30 by nearly 2 to 1, women voters by 2-1 and African Americans and Latinos by nearly 3 to 1. In all, she’s carried 60% of the popular vote.

There are some benefits from the continued primary campaign, Benenson said. “You’re organizing; you’re getting voters engaged; you’ve got your ground troops doing the work they’re doing earlier in the game.” Assuming Clinton is nominated, he said of Sanders, “Hopefully, he’d be a full-throated advocate” for her and other Democrats.

At the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Benenson said “presumably” President Obama will make a major address, and “I suspect if she’s the nominee, there’ll be a speaking role for President Clinton.”

Benenson, 63, served as Barack Obama’s pollster in 2008 (when the Illinois senator defeated Hillary Clinton for the nomination) and again in 2012.

In an interview with Marketing Week late last year, Benenson compared working with corporate clients and political ones. “One thing in common between politics and marketing is that your greatest strength can often be your greatest weakness,” he said then. In Wednesday’s interview, he was asked to apply that concept to his current top client, Hillary Clinton.

“I think her greatest strength is her passion for policy, her passion to make a difference in people’s lives,” he replied. “I think she sometimes puts that ahead of the values she’s fighting for.” Early in the campaign, “those things might not have been knitted together as strongly as they are now.”

“Hillary Clinton has made it clear over and over again that we are at our best when we lift people up; we should be leaving no one behind,” he said. “That is not always her home base, but it’s always part of what she says. But (when) she puts the whole package together in the way of linking the policies and those values, that’s a forceful argument.”