Sixty-four electoral votes. That’s how many Mitt Romney fell short of the 270 required to win the White House in 2012.
Sixty-four electoral votes. That’s the sum of four Rust Belt states Romney lost: Pennsylvania (20), Ohio (18), Michigan (16), and Wisconsin (10).
Donald Trump says he can win back these states as the GOP nominee, a claim that’s audacious to say the least: Ohio has voted Democratic the past two presidential cycles; Michigan and Pennsylvania last went Republican in 1988; and Wisconsin hasn’t been carried by the GOP since 1984.
But if Tuesday’s primary results in Michigan are any indication, Trump, who has been underestimated at every turn of this campaign, should be taken seriously. Between his comfortable victory fueled by blue-collar white voters, and Hillary Clinton’s defeat thanks to her vulnerabilities with that same group, it’s possible that a November matchup between the two front-runners could drastically redraw the electoral map.
Trump won the state easily, taking 37 percent to Ted Cruz’s 25 percent and John Kasich’s 24 percent. According to exit polls, half of Republican voters there were whites without a college degree. Trump dominated among that group, winning 46 percent compared to Cruz’s 25 percent and Kasich’s 19 percent. On a key question for that demographic, a majority of all Michigan GOP voters, 55 percent, said trade with other nations “takes away U.S. jobs.” Trump won 45 percent of those respondents, compared to Cruz’s 22 percent and Kasich’s 20 percent.
Those numbers stand in stark contrast to Clinton’s performance Tuesday night.
Bernie Sanders, who trailed in many recent Michigan polls by more than 20 points, stunned the political universe by winning the state Tuesday, taking 50 percent to Clinton’s 48 percent and beating her by some 20,000 votes. A plurality of Michigan’s Democratic electorate, 36 percent, were whites without a college degree. Clinton lost those voters badly to Sanders, 58 percent to 41 percent. An even bigger majority than in the GOP primary — 58 percent — said trading with other countries “takes away U.S. jobs,” and Sanders won those voters by double digits, once again taking 58 percent to Clinton’s 41 percent.
All told, Trump, running in a four-person race, won roughly 483,000 votes in Michigan. Clinton, facing a single opponent, won approximately 576,000.
And in a state with a traditionally sizable bloc of swing voters, another statistic stood out. Whereas Trump won a plurality of the 31 percent of self-described independents in Michigan’s GOP primary, Clinton was trounced, 71 percent to 28 percent, among the 28 percent of self-described independents who participated in the Democratic primary.
Turnout in the Republican primary was roughly 1.32 million, up more than 30 percent from 2012.
There were other troubling signs for the Democrats. Turnout in the Republican primary was roughly 1.32 million, up more than 30 percent from 2012. Turnout in the Democratic primary was nearly 1.19 million. There can be no apples-to-apples comparison to the last contested Democratic race in 2008, when Clinton’s main rivals took their names off the Michigan ballot after a dispute between the state party and the DNC. But the fact remains that in a state Democrats carried easily in each of the past two presidential elections, Republicans on Tuesday turned out roughly 130,000 more voters.
None of this guarantees that Michigan, which has been part of the “blue wall” for decades, is suddenly up for grabs in November. But it does mean Trump, who promised this week that he can win Michigan because he’s not a “normal Republican,” should be taken seriously.
Perhaps the most notable statistic of the night came from Macomb County, ground zero for the “Reagan Democrats” of yore. In the 1980s, these white, working-class voters defected from a Democratic party they felt had abandoned their economic interests with progressive stances on issues such as affirmative action and immigration. Macomb County’s politics have fluctuated in years since, but it remains a bellwether for Michigan and a symbol of the state’s blue-collar electorate.
Trump blew away the competition there, taking 48 percent in a four-way contest. On the Democratic side, Clinton took 49 percent and topped Sanders by fewer than 1,400 votes. Trump won 60,492 votes in Macomb County; Clinton won 47,597. Even more telling, GOP turnout in Macomb, which Obama carried twice, was 118,220 on Tuesday night; Democratic turnout was 93,839. This disparity, proportionally speaking, was bigger than the one statewide — and should have Democrats concerned.
The uptick in Republican participation is hardly an isolated occurrence. Trump has driven up turnout in virtually every nominating contest this year, and has consistently over-performed with non–college-educated whites relative to his margins with other groups.
#share#What makes Michigan’s result especially noteworthy is it lends credence to Trump’s promise of putting the industrial Midwest back in play for Republicans. He has performed well from coast-to-coast with working-class whites. But on Tuesday, both Trump and Sanders, proved that a populist, anti-trade message has a unique resonance in the Rust Belt. Trump’s unapologetic advocacy of a new economic nationalism — rejecting free-trade agreements, supporting protectionist tariffs on America’s foreign competitors, and promising to halt the flow of illegal immigrants into the American job market — positions him to win over large, bipartisan swaths of blue-collar workers in the region. (It’s not difficult to envision Trump speaking to the United Auto Workers in Detroit as the nominee.)
If there’s reason to believe Trump can compete in Michigan — a state Obama carried by nearly ten points in 2012 — then there’s reason to believe he can compete across the industrial Midwest. After all, Obama’s margins that year were even slimmer in Ohio (three points), Pennsylvania (five points), and Wisconsin (seven points), and those three states are demographically similar to Michigan. Their electorates are all overwhelmingly white (Michigan’s 2012 electorate was the most diverse of the four at 77 percent white), and they are all predominantly blue-collar (a majority of voters in all four states lacked college degrees in 2012).
What makes Michigan’s result especially noteworthy is it lends credence to Trump’s promise of putting the industrial Midwest back in play for Republicans.
It’s true that Democrats, unlike Trump’s Republican rivals, will be prepared to mount a months-long assault on the real-estate mogul should he become the nominee. They will raise and spend massive sums to highlight his allegedly shady business dealings and portray him as a greedy corporate tycoon who preys on the middle class, using the same playbook that worked to such devastating effect against Romney in 2012. And that onslaught will almost certainly drive up Trump’s negatives with key parts of Obama’s coalition, especially women and minorities, that Clinton needs to turn out.
But it’s also true that Trump, who defies Republican orthodoxy with his opposition to existing trade agreements, won’t be as vulnerable to the attacks that hurt Romney in the Rust Belt — and in fact has already demonstrated significantly more crossover appeal than the 2012 nominee. Moreover, Republicans are counting on lower minority turnout this fall without Obama atop the Democratic ticket. Any meaningful drop-off would radically alter the electoral complexion of those four Midwestern states, each of which has major urban centers where minorities turned out en masse for Obama in 2012.
On Super Tuesday, when Trump triumphantly declared, “I am expanding the Republican party,” he was correct. But he’s doing so in a manner contradictory to the GOP’s prescriptions for 2016 and beyond. Many of the voters Trump is attracting or converting are whites without college degrees. It’s a group Republicans already own; Obama won just 36 percent of those voters in 2012, and their share of the electorate is expected to decline this fall.
After Romney’s defeat in 2012, Republican leaders aimed to broaden the party’s appeal, in large part by improving upon his performance with minorities. Exit polls showed just 27 percent of Hispanics, the country’s fastest-growing voting bloc, supported him. That negated Romney’s lopsided victory among whites, 59 percent to Obama’s 39 percent. “We held Democrats to 39 percent of the white vote” and still lost, Glen Bolger, a top GOP pollster, said at the time. “I don’t know that you can push them much lower than that.”
#related#Marco Rubio’s pollster, the highly-respected Whit Ayres, said prior to the start of the 2016 race that it would be impossible for the GOP to win solely on the party’s strength with white voters. “Unless you count on the Republican getting Ronald Reagan-like numbers among whites,” Ayres said, referencing Reagan’s winning 66 percent of the white vote in 1984, “you’re going to have to be somewhere in the mid-40s with Hispanics.”
The GOP establishment envisioned a path to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue this fall that ran through diverse states and newly engaged urban centers. They hoped that rather than trying to further run up the vote with whites, their eventual nominee would woo minorities, particularly Hispanics, in hopes of taking back states such as Florida (29 electoral votes), Virginia (13), Colorado (9), and Nevada (6). Some combination of those, on top of perennial must-win Ohio, would be sufficient to win back the White House.
Trump is taking precisely the opposite path. And after Tuesday’s Republican and Democratic primary elections in Michigan, there’s cause to believe he could actually be successful.
— Tim Alberta is the chief political correspondent for National Review.