The Corner

Politics & Policy

Rebuttals to Trump’s Path in the Rust Belt

Predictably, there was plenty of disagreement with Wednesday’s story, “Michigan Shows Trump Could Redraw Electoral Map vs. Clinton,” which outlined Trump’s not-totally-implausible path to the White House by winning four Rust Belt states (Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin) against Hillary Clinton in the fall.

Studying the data from Trump’s comfortable win in Michigan, and Clinton’s unexpected loss there, it became apparent that Trump’s promise of taking back these states in November warranted legitimate appraisal. There was plenty of hedging along the way — “Could” was in the headline, for starters – and no shortage of disclaimers:

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. 

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. 

The story also emphasized that Trump, if nominated by the GOP, will face obstacles in the general that were absent in the primary:

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.

Still, readers took to social media to voice their disagreement with the premise that Trump — who has defied convention and expectations at every turn — has any chance whatsoever of winning these purple and blue states in the industrial Midwest. While it’s probably shortsighted to dismiss out of hand the capacities of someone who this past year has rewritten the political rule book, many of these rebuttals were perfectly justifiable and worth fleshing out. 

They all ultimately arrive at one argument: Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. That is, any gain Trump makes with working-class whites would be coupled with and offset by losses among minorities and women, two critical segments of the electorate with whom Republicans were struggling long before Trump’s ascent. Let’s take them one at a time.

Minorities

It’s not unrealistic to envision a scenario in which Trump, due to his strength (and Clinton’s weakness) with working-class whites, takes an even bigger share of the white vote nationally than Romney’s 59 percent in 2012. The four Rust Belt states in question have overwhelmingly white populations; if Trump tops 59 percent nationally, he’ll almost certainly improve on Romney’s performance with whites in Wisconsin (51 percent), Michigan (55 percent), Ohio (57 percent), and Pennsylvania (57 percent.) And if Trump significantly increases the GOP’s share of the white vote in November – nearing or matching Ronald Reagan’s record-setting 64 percent in 1984 — then he could plausibly win back all four of these predominantly white, blue-collar, Rust Belt states.

But that’s assuming two things: 1) Trump at least equals Romney’s performance among non-white voters; and 2) The white share of the electorate is unchanged. 

Romney won a paltry 17 percent of non-white voters in 2012, and just 27 percent of Hispanics. GOP officials once believed these numbers had nowhere to go but up in the post-Obama era. Now, however, they have reason to believe that Trump, in an attempt to drive up the white vote, could actually do worse than Romney with minorities. In a January NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 42 percent of all voters said the GOP primary had given them a less favorable view of the party, compared to 19 percent who developed a more favorable view. And when it came to minority voters, the splits were more damning: 57-5 among African-Americans, and 45-13 among Hispanics.

Republicans are hoping for a dip in minority turnout in 2016 due to Obama’s absence from the ballot. But history says that’s unlikely; the white share of the electorate has declined in each of the last five general elections. This is true both nationally and in the four Rust Belt states, with the lone exception of Michigan, whose white voteshare was unchanged from 2004 to 2008. The white voteshare nationwide was 72 percent in 2012, down from 74 percent in 2008 and 77 percent in 2004. The same trend manifested itself in Wisconsin (86, 89, 90), Michigan (77, 82, 82), Ohio (79, 83, 86), and Pennsylvania (78, 81, 82.)

If primary season turnout is any indication, Trump is indeed growing the GOP, mostly by bringing in more blue-collar whites who either defected from the Democrats or sat out recent elections. But even if Trump drives up the overall white vote in November, it almost certainly won’t be enough to stem the decades-long decline of the white voteshare nationally or in key battleground states. America’s demographic headwinds are just too stiff.

Non-white participation overall may have been poised to slide in the first election of the post-Obama era. If Trump’s the nominee, Democrats say, we’ll never know. His rhetoric will galvanize minorities to vote at levels comparable to 2012, they convincingly argue, and the margins will be even more lopsided. Minority turnout, unsurprisingly, is paramount for Democrats in these four Rust Belt states. Wisconsin (Milwaukee), Michigan (Detroit), Ohio (Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus) and Pennsylvania (Philadelphia) each have at least one major urban center where the African-American population exceeds 40 percent. 

Ohio was the closest of the four contests in 2012; Romney lost the state by roughly 166,000 votes, or 3 percentage points. Exit polls showed 79 percent of the state’s roughly 5.6 million voters were white, and that Romney won them 57 percent of them. This means that even if minority turnout holds steady at 21 percent in Ohio, and Trump performs comparably to Romney with non-whites, he would need to win at least 60 percent of white voters to carry the state. For any uptick in the non-white voteshare of Ohio’s electorate — or for every point Trump loses among minorities with an unchanged non-white voteshare — his percentage of the white vote would need to creep higher and higher into the 60s.  

It’s hardly implausible. But the demographic stars need to align in a very specific way. And again, Ohio is the most competitive of the four states to begin with; aligning those stars in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin will be far more difficult.

Women

For all the obvious skepticism about how Trump would fare with minorities, non-whites accounted for 28 percent of the electorate in 2012. Women, on the other hand, comprised 53 percent of the national vote. In other words: Trump will be in deep trouble if he bombs with one group; he’ll be toast if he bombs with the other.

Exit polls showed an 11-point gender gap in 2012, with Obama taking 55 percent of the female vote to Romney’s 44 percent. If Trump loses women by a more lopsided margin — and there’s evidence to suggest he could — running up the white vote will likely prove impossible. And in turn, his chances of winning the White House will vanish.

Trump has in recent victories pulled noticeably more support from men than from women, especially in potential battleground states. He took 45 percent of the male vote in Michigan, exit polls showed, compared to 29 percent of the female vote. In Georgia the split was 45-35, and in Virginia it was 38-31.

And that’s among women voting in Republican primaries. There are signs that Trump will do significantly worse with women in a November electorate. A CNN/ORC poll late last month showed Trump severely underwater among registered female voters, with 68 percent viewing him unfavorably and just 29 perfect favorably. The same survey showed Clinton’s favorability among women at 52-44. While the spread is hardly inspiring, it should be considered in the context of Trump’s numbers, and of their head-to-head polling: 64 percent of women said they would vote for Clinton, and just 32 for Trump, in a general election matchup.

Perhaps more striking are findings in the crosstabs of two NBC News/Wall Street Journal polls, which were provided to NRO, that show Trump severely underwater — not among all women, but among white women specifically. The crosstabs of February’s NBC/WSJ poll showed just 25 percent of white women view Trump positively, compared to 66 percent who view him negatively. The March crosstabs were nearly identical: 26 percent percent positive, 64 percent negative.

To state the obvious: Trump can’t replicate Reagan’s 64 percent of white voters if 66 percent of white women view him negatively come November. And he can’t win the general election if 64 percent of all women vote for Clinton.

Again stating the obvious: Trump would in this scenario be facing a historic opponent in Hillary Clinton. And these extremely ominous poll numbers are being recorded before Clinton, the Democratic party, and their allied outside groups spend untold of millions of dollars discovering and highlighting every misogynistic remark Trump has ever made.

The Bottom Line

Trump can’t win Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania without increasing the GOP’s share of the white vote to Reagan-like levels.

He can’t run up the white vote if Clinton crushes him among women. And if he can’t run up the white vote, he can’t offset what the data suggest would be lopsided losses among non-whites. That would make it virtually impossible for Trump to carry any of the four states — Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania — much less all of them and their 64 total electoral votes that, added to Romney’s 206, would provide him the requisite 270 to win the White House.

There is path for Trump running through these four Rust Belt states, where overwhelmingly white, working-class electorates provide the optimal conditions for upsetting Clinton. But it’s an incredibly narrow one, pocked with demographic challenges that leave him zero margin for error.

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