Over Labor Day weekend in 2015, four months before the first primary votes were cast in Iowa, a policy analyst and political strategist wrote a confidential memo to a presidential campaign he was informally advising. He outlined what he believed was the path to victory for the GOP in the 2016 presidential election, based on election simulations he had run using a couple of publicly available models. He attacked the GOP’s official Election 2012 post-mortem as being politically motivated and divorced from actual voting data. A portion of the memo, edited lightly for style and length, is reproduced below.
The most important voters to win in the entire country are white voters in the Midwest and upper Midwest.
According to the modeling done here, if [Candidate X] could win white voters at Reagan 1984 percentages (66 percent) and at Bush 2004 turnout levels (67 percent) and we assume African-American turnout was to return to historical levels and percentages for the Democrats, we could win the presidency without winning a single Hispanic, Asian, Native American, or Arab vote. Think about that, because that is a staggering statement, and it’s a true one.
The converse is equally staggering: We could win 53 percent of the non-black minority vote (Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans, etc.), and if white and black turnout and voting percentages stayed the same as they were in 2012, the Democrats would win the presidency. These stats indicate the foolishness of the approach of pandering to chase after minority votes if that means ignoring the interests of the GOP’s white voter base. Of course the Democrats and the media are always concern trolls about this subject — they want us to lose. What is dismaying is how many in the party have absorbed the media/Dem concern-trolling. Of course, that doesn’t mean for a second we shouldn’t pursue minority voters or pay attention to their interests. We can do far better with minority voters by going into communities, solving problems, having a positive economic agenda, a focus on families, and a hopeful message. But the numbers don’t lie — if we engage in any amount of ethnic pandering, and in doing so alienate or discourage even a small number of our base white voters, we will lose the election, period.
The voters who stayed home and didn’t vote for Romney, particularly in the upper Midwest, are just the sort we need to reach. The Reagan/Bush scenario outlined above flips Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Iowa, along with Virginia and New Hampshire, to give us a victory.
Nothing came of the memo, which was received politely but not acted on. That candidate did not become the GOP nominee, or even come close to doing so. But while Donald Trump may or may not have gotten a similar memo, his campaign certainly acted according to the principles expressed in this one. He took all the states listed above except New Hampshire, where he lost by a hairbreadth, and Virginia, and added Michigan, where he won by a similar margin, taking advantage of the same demographic forces. Had the author assigned even a trivially small (10 percent) Hispanic vote share for the GOP, which he refrained from doing only to support his broader point about the importance of white turnout, it would have forecast Trump’s Florida win as well.
Now for a confession: That somewhat obscure strategist was this author. And while what is written looks prescient, it really didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure it out — just someone who hadn’t already decided upon the answer (“Win Hispanics with amnesty,” as pushed by the GOP’s 2012 autopsy) before doing the analysis.
While Trump surprised the pundits with his overperformance among minorities (he did better among African Americans, Hispanics, and Asians than Mitt Romney did), there obviously remains plenty of room for the party to grow there. And though Trump had the best performance among white voters of any GOP candidate in recent history (his 21-point margin narrowly eclipsed Romney’s 20-point margin in 2012), he also left a lot of the white vote on the table in the Midwest and elsewhere, falling far short of Reagan’s 1984 total of 66 percent.
Overall, Trump was dominant (19 or more points ahead) in 18 states representing 119 electoral votes and 36 Senate seats.
While compared with Romney he racked up enormous margins among white voters without a college degree, winning that demographic by 39 percentage points (an improvement of 14 percentage points over 2012), he gave most of it back by losing 10 percentage points among white college graduates. To some degree, such a split is understandable — Trump’s over-the-top rhetoric that is so appealing to rural truck drivers is less appealing to suburban soccer moms — but there are certainly many ways that a candidate without Trump’s histrionic style but with a laser-like focus on issues that are relevant to middle-class GOP voters could hold most of his non-college white vote while adding white college graduates who have traditionally been in the GOP fold. A net improvement of 3 percentage points among white midwesterners, combined with even modestly improved performance among minorities, would make the GOP’s position in the Midwest dominant rather than tentative in future presidential elections.
But the geography of Trump’s win wasn’t confined to the Midwest. And neither are its implications, which extend beyond the presidency to the Senate. Despite Trump’s losing the popular vote to Clinton, things weren’t that close on a state-by-state level. Trump won 30 states and Hillary Clinton just 20 plus D.C. Clinton broke 60 percent in just four states plus D.C.; Trump did it in ten states, including seven in which he performed better than Clinton did in her best state, California. In two additional states, heavily Mormon Idaho and Utah, Trump would have easily cleared 60 percent but for the presence of conservative protest candidate Evan McMullin.
Overall, Trump was dominant (19 or more points ahead) in 18 states representing 119 electoral votes and 36 Senate seats — the potential basis for a new “red wall.” Compare this with the twelve states, representing just 69 electoral votes and 24 Senate seats, in which Romney won by equally large margins.
Meanwhile, Clinton won by 19 or more points in just six states, representing twelve Senate seats and 115 electoral votes. At a senatorial level, this is a tremendous structural advantage for the GOP. It will be seen in the 2018 Senate races. The Democrats will have ten senators up for reelection in states carried by Donald Trump, several overwhelmingly, whereas the Republicans have only one seat up in a state the Democrats carried, Dean Heller in Nevada — and they carried it only narrowly. A Trump-like political and policy strategy in 2018 would find the GOP almost certain to expand its Senate majority, probably substantially.
Looking ahead to future presidential elections, the Trump strategy points to a red wall that could be bigger and more beautiful than the Democrats’ blue one, which kept the previous two GOP candidates out of the White House. In the wake of the 2016 election, it should be obvious that the GOP needs to keep building that big, beautiful red wall.
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