By Alex Knepper
My colleague Cinzia Croce argues that pundits downplaying Trump’s surprisingly strong recent polling numbers are falling into the same trap they did when they underestimated him in the primary season. This is a common argument, and in fact many pundits have been making it. Most of them are those who did not analyze Trump correctly before and now have falsely convinced themselves that Trump is an unpredictable and uniquely skilled nominee. But the bad predictions say more about the pundits than about Trump. Speaking as someone who did not underestimate Trump, I am still convinced he has no more than a 20% chance in the general election. Hillary remains the odds-on favorite not just to win, but to win comfortably. The general election dynamics are very different than the dynamics of the Republican primary, as Trump is about to learn the hard way.
Let’s look at the evidence:
1. Partisan ID Means More Than You Want It To – Even Among Independents
Although Cinzia is right to point out that both Hillary and Trump have started to max out their support among their respective partisans, Trump’s lead among independents is both not particularly meaningful — and precarious.
The RealClearPolitics average in 2008 shows John McCain leading a few national polls around this time by almost exactly the same margins as Trump. Not coincidentally, McCain had recently wrapped up his party’s nomination, while President Obama was still locked in a contentious primary battle with Hillary Clinton, whose resolve to fight on until the bitter end kept Obama from fully coalescing Democrats around his candidacy until the summer. Remember the ‘PUMA’ voters, who vowed to support the experienced and moderate John McCain against the naive and unprepared Barack Obama? Remember how half of Hillary’s voters said they’d never back Obama? Neither do I.
The truth should not be so surprising: few ‘independents’ are actually independents; the vast majority of them have a pronounced party tilt, and right now a disproportionate number of them are Republicans. Democrats outnumber Republicans partially because a disproportionate number of independents nowadays are Republicans embarrassed to call themselves Republicans. Mitt Romney won the independent vote in 2012, yet still lost by a decisive margin in both the popular vote and the electoral college.
More importantly, the RCP polling average shows 13% of voters are undecided. The real electorate will add up to 100%. Given that a disproportionate share of these undecided voters are independents, we can reasonably infer that they are Bernie holdouts, most of whom will recognize the stakes once the general election begins in earnest, Bernie endorses Hillary, President Obama campaigns for her, and the prospect of a Trump presidency becomes nauseatingly real to his voters. There will be a few crossover Trump/Sanders voters, yes — mostly white men under 40 — but those voters will not be decisive.
2. You Cannot Win the Presidency With Just the White Vote
As was frequently noted in the aftermath of the 2012 election, Mitt Romney won the white vote by the same margin as Ronald Reagan in 1980 — yet he still got crushed. The demographics of the nation have changed since then — and so has the composition of the electorate. Many Republicans in 2012 deluded themselves into believing the general election polls were ‘skewed’; they couldn’t bear to think that black voters would come out to support President Obama in the same numbers they did in 2008.
They did, and they will again — to defend his legacy against a man who accused him of not being a real American, who hesitated to condemn David Duke and the KKK; to stop a man who was formally accused of racial discrimination in the 1970s, who has disgustingly said that after Obama’s tenure, voters will be hesitant to elect another black man.
Trump might be able to count on the same Latino voters Mitt Romney did, but it is also possible that a new surge of Hispanic voters could propel Hillary in states like Colorado and Nevada. But even if that doesn’t happen, matching Romney’s share is insufficient. He could run up the white vote even higher than Romney — if he reached Reagan ’84 levels, he could win (!) — but eventually you run out of potential Republicans. The GOP has increasingly become the party of whites in recent election cycles as it stands. There aren’t many more white voters to tap. There are only so many Joe-the-Plumbers in America.
3. The Electoral Math Still Favors Democrats
Mitt Romney came closest to defeating President Obama in Florida, where the president won by under 1%; Ohio, where he won by 3, and Virginia, where he won by 4. But even if Trump won all of these states, it wouldn’t be enough to get him to 270; he’d have to peel off one out of Colorado, Nevada, or Iowa, each of which Obama won by 5-6 point margins. That’s a tall order, and the demographics just don’t add up. And let’s not forget: if Hillary Clinton picks frontrunner Tim Kaine as her vice-presidential choice, Virginia could be decisively removed from Trump’s reach — leaving Trump needing to win all three of those states to make up for it, or else win a state like Michigan, where Obama won by nearly 10 points.
I have not seen anyone who can make this math add up.
4. The Fundamentals Still Favor Democrats
At the end of the day, the media sensationalism about populism and radical change and mass discontent simply doesn’t reflect the mood of the median voter. Voters are nervous and think the country is headed in the wrong direction, but only a minority is craving sweeping, revolutionary change — especially when they compare the potential change-agents to Obama. The president’s approval rating hovers around 50%; some polls show him with his largest advantage since his re-election. The economic fundamentals are mixed, but there’s been steady, if uneven, improvement. If there is a recession or major terrorist attack before the election, this might change, but this election is not like 2008. President Obama is not unpopular. This is not going to be a ‘change’ election. Democrats are quite happy with their president, and most moderates approve of the job he’s doing, too. Like Romney, Trump is likely to win independents but be crushed by moderates — the group with which he really needs to improve.
Can Trump win? Yes, but it would require a perfect storm: Bernie remaining intransigent, Hillary’s e-mail fiasco spiraling even more out of control, Trump genuinely moderating and holding his own in the debates, many black and Latino voters deciding to stay home rather than turn out in the same numbers as they did to re-elect President Obama, Republicans coming out in unprecedented numbers, including a wave of new white Republican voters. It could happen. But it probably won’t. Despite the snapshot-in-time polls, Hillary remains the odds-on favorite to be the 45th president..