Over at the Washington Post, James Hohmann writes about Trump’s “high floor.” The news cycle can be brutal, and he can make mistake after mistake, but Hillary Clinton is almost certainly not winning in a Johnson versus Goldwater landslide. Trump isn’t well-liked. Indeed, he’s perhaps the most-disliked politician in modern American history, but he’s not going to get buried — at least not in the popular vote.
Why? Well yes, Hillary is unpopular. But there’s another explanation — polarization:
The long-term trend of rising negative partisanship makes it nearly impossible for Clinton to win in a landslide. Partisans view the opposite party more negatively than they used to. These feelings have become dramatically more intense since 1980 and an increasingly large driver of the vote. (For the data backing this up, read this June 2015 article from Emory University’s Alan Abramowitz.)
This helps explain why popular vote blowouts have become less common during the post-World War II era. Barry Goldwater got 38.5 percent in 1964; George McGovern got 37.5 percent in 1972; Walter Mondale got 40.6 percent in 1984; and George H.W. Bush got 37.4 percent in his three-way 1992 race with Bill Clinton and Ross Perot.
In other words, the red shirts really don’t like the blue shirts. Indeed, the two tribes don’t even mix — socially or culturally — as much as they used to.
But while polarization may help keep Trump from landing beside Mondale in the history books, it also means that Republicans have ever-lower ceilings of support. Simply put, Democratic constituencies keep growing and Republican constituencies keep shrinking (as a share of the population), and since the two sides hate each other more and more, blue shirts are less likely to change teams. There are good reasons why Democrats trumpeted their so-called “coalition of the ascendant” after the 2012 election. Romney won a share of the white vote that would have guaranteed a decisive victory in cycles past. Instead, it just brought him a respectable loss.
The two constituencies are close enough in size that Republicans still have a path to victory, but the path is getting increasingly narrow. Indeed, given the different demographics, Hillary Clinton is far more of a beneficiary of polarization than Trump. In spite of her well-known dishonesty (even millions of Democrats don’t trust her), the Democrats could nominate a deeply flawed nominee yet still have reasonable hopes of victory no matter who the Republicans nominated. The Republicans, by contrast, simply don’t have the same margin for error.
That’s one reason why the Trump nomination is so grating. Republicans increasingly have to thread the presidential needle, not Democrats. Clinton’s likely nomination was born of Democratic arrogance. They trust their coalition so much that they can put forward a transparently dishonest and cynical population — the antithesis of “hope and change” — and dare the Republicans to beat them. So the GOP responds by doing its best to beat itself.
Polarization gives the GOP a solid base — so solid that not even Donald Trump can squander their support. That’s cold comfort when the same cultural forces give Democrats the larger tribe.