This is both the most obvious and least appreciated factor in this contest. Compared to the general voting population, the GOP electorate is overwhelmingly white (90 percent) and disproportionately male. The Democratic electorate is more racially diverse and disproportionately female than the November electorate. In other words, the coalitions that a candidate puts together to win a primary don’t always translate in a general election. Let’s take a look at Trump’s coalition in the primaries. Exit poll data analyzed by Atlantic’s Ron Brownstein found Trump’s strongest constituency was with voters who did not have a college degree – he won those voters with 47 percent. He also ran better with men than women – taking about 44 percent of the male vote and 36 percent of the female vote according to an April exit poll analysis by the GOP polling firm Public Opinion Strategies. So, let’s take Trump’s success at the primary level and play it out at the general election level. Specifically, how does Trump’s strength among white men without a college degree look in a general election. While we don’t have the breakdown by gender of the non-college voters in the GOP primary, Brownstein estimates that white males without a college education made up 22-25 percent of the GOP electorate. That is 5 to 8 points higher than their representation in the overall electorate in 2012, where white men without a college degree made up just 17 percent of the voting population. We also know that primary battles have a dampening effect on party unity. But, it is usually a short lived phenomenon. Whether it was Clinton voters lining up behind Obama in 2008, or, as we see now with GOP voters getting behind Trump very quickly post primary. The NBC/Wall Street journal poll found that the percent of Republicans who said they’d support Trump went from 72 percent in early April, when the battle for the nomination was still hot and heavy, to 85 percent in mid-May when it was over. Clinton’s ongoing battle with Sanders has prevented her from consolidating hers in the same way. But, it is likely that once the primary is over, Democrats will “come home” and support their nominee. If both candidates are able to get their partisans on board – 90 percent or so – this will be a close contest. If Trump’s support among Republicans suddenly plunges or Clinton ultimately fails to get Sanders supporters on board, the race becomes more unpredictable. Unless or until that happens, we can assume that both sides are going to keep their “teams” in line. 2. Trends are tough to upend. The bigger test for the Trump campaign is to prove that the 2013 RNC autopsy – the document that said Republicans needed to broaden their base to include more women, non-whites and younger people – was wrong. They seem determined to win not by broadening the base, but by doubling down on it – specifically by appealing to white voters, especially white, downscale men in Rust Belt states. Can this work? First, let’s take a look at the national numbers. In 1980, 65 percent of the electorate were whites without a college degree. By 2012, whites without a college degree made up just 36 percent of the vote. In fact, notes Brownstein, in 2012, white women with a college degree made up a larger share of the electorate than white men without a degree (19 percent to 17 percent). The most recent polling shows Trump running up the score among white men without a degree, but losing white women with a degree by large margins too. More important, writes Brownstein in his latest opus on all things demographics, “non white and college educated women could cast 49 to 50 percent of the ballots this year.”
In an academic paper, Dr. James E. Campbell, Chairman of the Political Science Department at the State University of New York-Buffalo has analyzed The Cook Political Report’s pre-Labor Day House ratings going back to the Report’s founding in 1984.
Now, let’s look at how this plays out at the state level. For Trump to win the Electoral College, without carrying the more diverse states like Florida, Virginia, Colorado, or Nevada, he’d need to win Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin AND Michigan. All but Ohio have been carried by Democrats in every election since 1992. But these states have a population that’s whiter than the national average. They also have a large percentage of white voters who don’t hold a college degree. So, how does Trump flip them in 2016? The Democratic targeting and polling group Lincoln Park Strategies crunched the numbers and found that in order for Trump to win a state like Pennsylvania, he’d need to improve on Romney’s performance with white men by 6 points – from 60 to 67 percent, and then run six points better among white women – from 54 to 60 percent. In Michigan, the state with the lowest percent of white votes of the four at 75 percent, Trump would need to improve his standing with white women by 10 points – from 53-63 percent. Given his standing with female voters in those states, hitting those high marks is going to be a stretch.
The other possibility is that Trump expands the electorate, by identifying and turning out voters who haven’t traditionally participated. Nationally, non-college white voters turn out at a lower rate than college white voters – 57 percent for non-college whites voted in 2012 compared to 77 percent of college whites. If Trump and the RNC can identify and mobilize these voters, they can change the composition of the electorate and overcome the Democratic advantage. That, of course, requires money and infrastructure and organization – something the we haven’t seen from the Trump campaign. The most recent stories, in fact, suggest a campaign in turmoil with The RNC boasts of a new and improved data and targeting operation. But, it remains to be seen if they’ll have the money to implement it.
Trump’s unexpected primary victory has led many to reassess his prospects for the general election. After all, Trump won a major party nomination without doing all the things that campaigns are SUPPOSED to do – polling, data analytics, fundraising and traditional campaign operations. Why can’t we assume he upends the fundamentals in November as well? Before we talk of disrupting the fundamentals or the assumptions of 2016, it’s best to take a serious look at what they are and what they mean. 1. A primary is different from a general election.