There are ways Donald Trump could win the White House, writes Robert Philpot
The image of the words ‘Trump’ gaudily emblazoned above the Truman Balcony must be one of the most frightening sights in the western world. It is one that will make many yearn for the diplomatic skills of George W Bush, the intellectual rigour of Ronald Reagan and the respect for constitutional niceties displayed by Richard Nixon.
The notion of Donald J Trump as the Republican party’s presidential nominee once seemed outlandish – this time last year he polled just six per cent in the polls and trailed a pack led by Jeb Bush – but could America really be months away from electing a man who incites his supporters to violence, pledges to murder the families of terrorists and plans to slam the door on Muslims visiting the United States?
The historical precedents and models by which political scientists and economists predict presidential elections certainly suggest he is in with a shot. The highly regarded model designed by Yale economist Ray C Fair combines the rate of economic growth, the consecutive quarters of growth over 3.2 per cent, and the period of time the incumbent party has held the White House. It suggests that, without growth of four per cent or more (in the first quarter of 2016, it slowed to 0.5 per cent), Hillary Clinton will be electoral toast, winning only 45 per cent of the vote. Certainly, the odds are traditionally stacked against any party attempting to win the White House for a third term. John McCain in 2008, Al Gore in 2000, Gerald Ford in 1976, Hubert Humphrey in 1968 and Nixon in 1960 all fell victim to the so-called ‘third term curse’ – even if all of them, with the exception of McCain, were defeated in incredibly tight contests.
But few political rules are immutable and those predictive models can malfunction. George HW Bush proved in 1988 that it is not set in stone that voters will not stomach 12 years of one party holding the presidency, while Fair estimated that Barack Obama would lose with 49 per cent when he ran for re-election four years ago – as opposed to his final, winning percentage of 52 per cent. The reason why Fair’s model – one developed prior to the ‘slow-growth’ post-financial crash world – failed to call the outcome of 2012 correctly also gives Clinton some cause for hope. Obama secured his second term because Democrats, Republicans and independents had radically different perceptions of how well the economy was performing. Moreover, while independents were closer to Republicans in failing to notice the green shoots of the economic recovery, the Democrats’ advantage in terms of party identification, combined with the fact that Obama managed to hold down Mitt Romney’s advantage among independent voters, allowed the president to win another four years in the White House.
The good news for Clinton is that, since 2012, the Democrats’ party identification lead over the Republicans has grown. If the former secretary of state is able to prevent defections to Trump among those who consider themselves to be Democrats – or at least offset any losses by pulling disenchanted Republicans into her column – then her opponent will need to win the votes of more than six in 10 independents. On that front, Trump is coming up short and may actually be losing ground: a Fox News poll conducted last month showed the populist billionaire dropping 11 points among independents, with the former first lady only five per cent behind him.
The Democrats have a further potential advantage heading into the general election: the electoral map. As conservative commentator John Podhoretz recently suggested, Clinton has more potential paths to the White House than her opponent. He outlined four scenarios in which she passes the magic 270 votes needed in the electoral college to win in November, but could see only two paths to a Trump victory. In the first, Clinton simply replicates Obama’s 2012 score of 332 electoral votes. With the president’s approval rating – a measure closely tied to an incumbent’s chances of re-election or the success of his preferred successor – now touching 50 per cent for the first time since April 2013, such a prospect does not appear implausible. Clinton is ahead, albeit narrowly in some instances, in all of the battleground states which determined the 2012 election: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Iowa, Nevada and Florida. Clinton also has some room for manoeuvre. She could, for instance, lose Ohio and Florida and still win, and, while it would be a little too close for comfort, she could also add Virginia to that tally of losses and still pip Trump at the post.
While Trumpistas place their hopes in the narrowness of Clinton’s leads in states such as Ohio and Florida, there is, of course, a flipside to this in those states which Romney carried in 2012 but where the Republican presumptive nominee is only narrowly ahead. Since 1968, only two Democrats – Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Obama in 2008 – have won North Carolina’s 15 electoral votes. Trump is ahead there by just one point. Georgia has only backed two Democrats – Carter, its former governor, in 1976 and 1980 and Bill Clinton in 1992 – since it first deserted the party in the wake of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Here, too, Trump’s current four-point lead is hardly rock-solid. Arizona, with its growing Hispanic population, has fallen to the Democrats once since 1948: it backed Bill Clinton for re-election in 1996; the former president’s wife appears neck-and-neck there, too.
If Clinton is a habitually cautious candidate, Trump is her very opposite: in April he boasted that he would win New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Delaware in November. Such an outcome points to an electoral blowout – New York, for instance, has only voted Republican when the party has secured the kind of landslides which Nixon secured in 1972 and Reagan in 1980 and 1984 – which no current polls are pointing to.
But Trumpian bombast aside, how might the Republicans recapture the White House? There are several potential pitfalls for Clinton. Trump’s presence in the race is assumed to ensure a high turnout among Hispanics. As some analysts have noted, however, Clinton’s advantage over Trump in some polls – one showed it at 39 per cent – is actually less than the 44-point lead which Obama had over Romney in 2012. A less enthusiastic Hispanic electorate could deprive Clinton of Florida and even put states such as Colorado and Nevada into play.
Similarly, polls indicate that Clinton might struggle to match the high turnout among Millennial voters which helped Obama in closely fought states with high student populations such as Iowa, North Carolina, Virginia and New Hampshire. Bernie Sanders’ willingness to rally these voters behind Clinton could prove critical here: the danger is not so much that they defect en masse to Trump, but that they grumpily stay at home or peel off to Green party candidate Jill Stein. As Ralph Nader showed in 2000, the Greens have form when it comes to tipping tight races to rightwing Republicans. There is also a high crossover between these two groups: 44 per cent of eligible Hispanic voters are Millennials. As he hits the campaign trail on her behalf, expect to see a lot of Obama in college towns and Hispanic districts.
Trump has also served notice that he intends to take the fight to the Democrats in Rust Belt states such as Ohio, Wisconsin and Michigan. He will echo the attacks Sanders has been relentlessly making on Clinton’s support – now somewhat downplayed – for free trade, tying the Democrat candidate to her husband’s Nafta deal and her former boss’ Trans-Pacific Partnership (an agreement she enthusiastically pushed as secretary of state but has since disavowed). White working-class voters strongly supported Clinton in her primary campaign against Obama in 2008 but shifted heavily to Sanders this year.
Most pundits have painted Trump’s capture of the Republican nomination as a revolt among the kind of non-college-educated white voters who now supposedly form the bedrock of the party’s support but who have little time for the agenda of tax cuts for the rich and free trade beloved by its leaders. However, there is some evidence from the primaries and polls to suggest this is not the full picture. As Andrew Levison, author of The White Working Class Today, has suggested, in the primaries Trump performed best not with Midwestern ‘Reagan Democrats’ but with white working-class southerners. It was not his ‘right-wing version of economic populism’ but ‘the racial and xenophobic elements of his platform’ which lay at the heart of his appeal, Levison concluded. Moreover, focus groups by Democracy Corps have indicated that Trump’s gains among white working-class men are cancelled out by his losses among white working-class women.
Models, maps and demographics, however, only take you so far. The famed, last-minute ‘October surprise’ can also help to shift elections in unpredictable ways. In 1980, the realisation that the Iranian hostage crisis would not be solved by polling day sealed Carter’s fate. Twelve years later, a grand jury indictment of former defence secretary Caspar Weinberger helped reignite the Iran-Contra scandal and stalled George HW Bush’s apparent momentum in the campaign’s closing days. Such events do not always play to the challenger’s advantage. An Osama Bin Laden videotape appearance four days before election day boosted George W Bush’s lead in the polls by several points in 2004. Clinton may be the current favourite in the betting markets, but could an October surprise provide a November shocker?
Robert Philpot is a contributing editor to Progress