Now that Donald Trump is all but certain to win the Republican nomination, expect to read the occasional counterintuitive argument that the least-liked presidential candidate in decades can somehow still prevail over Hillary Clinton in November.
Don’t believe a word of it. The conventional wisdom wouldn’t be wisdom if it wasn’t true most of the time. Trump really is unlikely to win.
NBC News reports that if Clinton wins those states that have voted for Democrats in the last several presidential elections, all it would take for her to surpass the 270 electoral votes needed to defeat Trump is Florida, Ohio or a combination of Colorado and Virginia.
The Republican’s supporters argue that he could make industrial states in the Northeastern United States and the Midwest, like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, competitive; places where his anti-immigrant and protectionist rhetoric resonates with working-class voters.
But what’s good for Trump in the “Rust Belt” is exactly what hurts him in the ethnically more diverse “Sun Belt”.
Trump’s Southern sorrows
Colorado, Florida, North Carolina and Virginia, four of the biggest states in the region with 66 electoral votes between them, are all in NBC’s “tossup” category — although most surveys suggest Clinton is likely to win most if not all of them.
The network also puts deeply-conservative Arizona, Georgia and Mississippi (33 electoral votes) in the “lean Republican” column owing to their sizable black and Hispanic populations.
Two out of three recent polls in Arizona show Clinton beating Trump there. The only poll conducted in Mississippi this year has Trump ahead by just 3 points.
Erica Grieder, an authority on Texan politics, writes for Texas Monthly that even her home state could turn blue this year. Clinton’s husband, Bill, came within striking distance of winning Texas in both 1992 and 1996. It was one of few states in the South to vote against Trump in the primaries.
The fact that we’re even considering the possibility of a Republican candidate losing states like Arizona, Mississippi and Texas (Texas!) in a general election reflects just how historically weak a candidate Trump is.
Start trusting the polls
Pundits can come up with all sorts of reasons why the polls should not be trusted and normally we would be wary too of surveys taken half a year before the election.
Except in this case, as TalkingPointsMemo‘s Josh Marshall points out, we are talking about two of the best-known people in America. There can’t be many voters left who haven’t developed at least an impression of both Clinton and Trump by now.
Marshall recognizes Trump’s appeal to mostly male, mostly older and mostly white Republican voters. The problem is that everything he’s done to gain their support has made him extremely unpopular with everybody else.
“His negatives are extraordinarily high among numerous segments of the electorate,” Marshall writes: “most notably, Hispanics, African Americans, Millennials and women.” Hence his struggles in even Republican strongholds.
Other Trump fans argue that record-high turnout in the primaries may foreshadow an unexpected wave of support in the general election.
FiveThirtyEight has found no such correlation.
Even if there were one, though, a similar logic applies. As Barry C. Burden and Jordan Hsu, two political scientists, have argued in The Washington Post, turnout can be driven by anxiety as well as enthusiasm.
“Some primary voters surely turned out because they want Trump, just as he contends,” the two wrote earlier this year. “But many others seem to be voting to stop Trump.”
Amy Walter has written for The Cook Political Report that politics and physics follow similar rules: “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.”
That is why the religious right is wrong to believe it could win a national election by motivating more evangelical voters to turn out. A candidate who convinces otherwise politically-disengaged conservatives to vote would likely also motivate politically-disengaged seculars to show up.
Similarly, while Trump’s antics enthuse hitherto nonvoting whites, they also give anxious ethnic and religious minorities a reason to vote — against him.
“A campaign is a balancing act,” Walter knows. “Lean too far one way and you fall off.”
The winning campaign is the one that motivates its base without alienating the vast middle of America or encouraging the other side to turn out in greater numbers.
Trump has already done the first; he is almost certain to accomplish the latter.