The battle lines of the 2016 campaign are set. Barring a miracle, it will be Donald Trump versus Hillary Clinton.
Trump’s rise has confounded the pundits who predicted it could never happen, that surely the Republican party would unite to deny him the nomination. His crass remarks and missteps, which hurt him not at all, cemented the sense of a candidate immune from normal political laws. As a result, many people are treating his primary victory as a paradigm-shattering event that overturns everything we thought we knew about American politics. And some of my liberal friends are in dread, afraid that anything can happen now.
I think these worries are overblown. As I’ve observed before, if conservatives’ characteristic flaw is self-delusive overconfidence, with liberals it’s premature despair. Trump’s success is unprecedented, but not inexplicable: he discovered and exploited a disconnect between the GOP rank and file and the party’s elites. The polls correctly predicted his victory for months. And those same polls are sending a different signal now, one that should give progressives confidence.
To be clear, I’m not laughing off the idea of a Trump presidency. The thought of this reckless, belligerent, wildly unqualified egomaniac in the White House is a terrifying prospect, for American minorities especially but for the entire world as well. Nor am I saying that Trump’s defeat is so certain that we can take victory for granted.
What I am saying is that he’s the worst candidate a major party has put forward in decades. If progressives work hard and play our cards right, it’s overwhelmingly likely that he’ll lose the presidency. It’s eminently possible that he’ll hobble candidates in downballot races, handing the Senate and perhaps even the House to Democrats. It’s even plausible that he’ll consign the GOP to permanent minority status.
Again, I don’t think this will be a smooth cruise to victory. The media, which is inherently motivated to play up conflict and tension, will seize every chance to depict this as a neck-and-neck race. Every outlier poll will be trumpeted; every talking head who predicts a Trump win will be treated as a serious prognosticator; every minor scandal, real or invented, will get wall-to-wall coverage. But elections are almost never decided by these incidentals. They turn on larger facts about the country and the composition of the electorate that don’t vary from day to day. And in this cycle, those deciding factors look good for us. Let’s start with:
1. The economic fundamentals and national polling numbers favor Democrats.
The biggest predictor of how races turn out is the state of the economy. A good economy favors the incumbent party; a bad one, the challenger. And while the American economy isn’t booming, it’s steady and has been slowly improving for years. The unemployment rate is at a 5% low; consumer confidence is normal; salaries are inching upward.
In tandem with this, President Obama’s approval rating has been rising this year. With a healing economy and a popular incumbent president who can hit the campaign trail on Hillary’s behalf, she enters the race with the wind at her back.
Last but not least, Trump is the most unpopular candidate of the modern era. Polls already show Clinton with a double-digit lead over him, and more than half of voters view him very unfavorably or even say they’re scared of his candidacy.
2. The state-by-state electoral map favors Democrats.
The national polls show Hillary with a commanding lead, but even if they didn’t, the presidential race isn’t a national popular vote. It’s decided state-by-state by the electoral college. And right now in the electoral college, Democrats hold a major advantage. The safe blue states have more electoral votes than the safe red states do.
A dramatic illustration of this fact is this article which points out that, if the Democrats merely hold the eighteen states that they’ve won in all of the last six presidential campaigns, plus Florida, they win the presidency. Trump could win all the red states and almost every swing state – Ohio, Virginia, Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, Iowa and New Hampshire – and would still lose. Here’s how that would look:
But what if Trump does win Florida, you say? That brings me to the next point, which is:
3. The national demographics favor Democrats, especially given Trump’s toxicity to minority voters.
Thanks to the rising Millennial generation, America is becoming less white with every election cycle. As Pew puts it, the 2016 electorate will be the most diverse in U.S. history. Since 2000, the white population has declined in 46 of 50 states.
This is a big, big problem for the Republicans, whose platform has historically been centered around white identity politics. As the country gets more diverse, they’re coming face-to-face with demographic extinction. Conservative strategists have said that 2012 was the last time a presidential election could even hypothetically have been won solely with white votes – and of course, they didn’t. Mitt Romney got 59% of the white vote, but it wasn’t enough. Hence, their famous 2012 autopsy report, which begged the party to diversify its appeal beyond its monochrome base by reaching out to black, Hispanic, and Asian-American voters, beginning with comprehensive immigration reform.
It was a smart plan, tactically sound, well-calculated to guarantee the GOP’s long-term political viability as a party. And then Trump came along, kicked that plan over, smashed it to pieces, and set the pieces on fire. The Republicans have nominated a man who decries Mexicans as rapists; wants to build a huge wall along the southern border and make Mexico pay for it; wants to ban Muslims from the country; claims not to know enough about the KKK to disavow their support; encourages his followers to assault black protesters; and, oh yeah, is infamous for spreading birther conspiracy theories about America’s first black president.
The upshot is that Trump not only won’t improve on Republicans’ dismal past performance with non-white voters, he’ll do worse. No one else they could have nominated would be more hated than he is. There are stories of how he’s spurring Hispanic residents to become citizens just to vote against him. Donald Trump piñatas are flying off the shelves.
On a state-by-state level, the picture is even more abysmal. As I mentioned, there’s no plausible path to victory for the GOP that doesn’t include Florida. But in Florida, Trump’s disapproval among Hispanic voters is a staggering 87% – a number so bad that the Republican pollster summarizing the result emphasized that it wasn’t a typo. He plumbs similar depths in other Latino-heavy swing states like Nevada and Colorado as well.
What this means is that to have any hope of winning, Trump would have to command an enormous majority of white voters – more than any Republican candidate has ever managed, even with their landslide victories in the 1980s. Can he do that? Almost certainly not, because:
4. Trump is toxic to women and the well-educated.
To win the presidency, Trump would either have to repair his image with minority voters (beyond implausible), or pull off a truly colossal landslide among white voters. But half of white voters are women. How does he fare among them?
The answer, thanks to his long history of misogynist comments and crudely sexist behavior, is that seven of ten women hold an unfavorable view of him. The gender gap he faces with female voters is a whopping 21 points, three times the norm of past elections. Some polls even show him trailing Hillary Clinton among non-college–educated white women, a traditionally Republican demographic.
There’s no doubt that remarks like these will haunt him in attack ads from now until the election. He’ll be the latest candidate to find out that, as I’ve written before, attacking half the electorate isn’t a winning strategy.
Also, despite Trump’s boast that he’s loved by “the poorly educated”, about 30% of non-Hispanic whites have college degrees, and his image is similarly awful among them: 74% disapproval. While 30% isn’t a majority, it’s yet another demographic that he can’t afford to lose when his path to victory is already so narrow. The days are long over when a presidential candidate could cobble together a majority consisting solely of blue-collar white men.
5. Trump can’t unify the Republican party; even conservatives dislike him.
When they’re hated by virtually everyone else, a candidate’s last chance is to inspire heavy turnout from their loyally partisan base voters, who are usually willing to overlook the flaws of an individual candidate in the name of supporting their party. But here, too, Donald Trump has major problems.
His takeover of the Republican party came about despite unprecedented opposition from the party establishment, and that opposition hasn’t died out now that he’s the presumptive nominee. While some conservatives are grudgingly falling in line, others are holding fast and pledging not to vote for him, or even saying they’ll vote for Hillary.
The list is lengthy: top strategists and speechwriters for John McCain and Mitt Romney; George W. Bush’s deputy press secretary; a former director of the Nevada Republican Party; the politics editor of Townhall.com; Glenn Beck; the founder and three editors of the conservative site RedState; past and present elected officials like Jeb Bush, Lindsey Graham, Ben Sasse, and others; and on and on.
Some conservatives are so upset and disillusioned that they’ve quit the Republican party altogether: the strategist Mary Matalin, columnist Matt Walsh, and conservative author Philip Klein (who wrote a book called Overcoming Obamacare), to name three. Many top Republicans are also planning to skip the party convention so as not to be tarred by association with him.
While all this is anecdotal, a CNN poll shows that 37 percent of conservatives view Trump unfavorably. A Harvard poll finds that he gets only 57% support even from young Republicans (Romney and McCain got about 90%). Likely as a result of this, polls have shown him struggling in some states that Romney carried, including North Carolina, Arizona, Missouri, and Utah (!!).
We can expect that as the election approaches, some of these voters will resign themselves to supporting Trump. But if even a small percentage of them vote for Hillary, back a third-party candidate, or just stay home, that will be the final factor sealing what could be not just a defeat, but a landslide loss.