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Donald Trump’s Great White Hope

Republicans’ great strength is their appeal to white voters, and they just need a few more to win

To win, Donald Trump likely needs to run the table with white voters, and low turnout could also help him. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call).
To win, Donald Trump likely needs to run the table with white voters, and low turnout could also help him. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call).

If logic governed Republican politics, Congress long ago would have passed immigration legislation providing a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants in order to broaden the party’s appeal among Hispanics.  

Party leaders wouldn’t be talking about same-sex marriage or the right of religious groups to discriminate against gays and lesbians. That turns off younger voters.  

To appeal to women and minorities, Republican Govs. Nikki R. Haley of South Carolina and Susana Martinez of New Mexico — an Indian American and a Hispanic — would be national figures, regularly representing the party on television and at high profile events.  

That’s the prevailing theory anyway, since those were recommendations that a panel of GOP eminences made in a report commissioned by the Republican National Committee that aimed to turn the party around after Mitt Romney lost the 2012 presidential election.  

The cognoscenti of the right continue to wrack their brains about why the party, including most prominently its presumptive presidential nominee, Donald Trump, has moved not at all toward these goals.  

In fact, Trump has gone in the opposite direction, proposing to deport the 11 million unauthorized immigrants now in the country. He’s promised to put conservative judges on the Supreme Court who would allow the states to decide whether to keep same-sex marriage legal. And he attacked both Haley and Martinez after they failed to endorse him in the primary campaign.  

There could be a reason, and it’s actually quite logical. Republicans’ great strength is their appeal to white voters, who are still far and away the nation’s largest demographic group. It’s served them quite well in congressional elections, where they now have their largest House majority since 1929 and control of the Senate, and at the state level, where they now control 31 governorships and 30 legislatures. And they’d be winning at the presidential level, too, if they could just increase their level of support among whites by a tantalizingly small amount.

A slim margin

Indeed, if Trump is able to increase the GOP share of the white vote by 5 percentage points more than Romney won in 2012, even while holding the strong minority vote for Obama that year steady, the mogul would win handily.  

“It wouldn’t take much of a bump,” says William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution, a centrist think tank. “If older baby boomers got really excited, it could counter the minority vote.”  

Offending Latinos might even be a good electoral strategy, Frey says: “The older white population has a hard time dealing with changing demography, and wedge issues like immigration play well.”  

Earlier this year, Frey and Ruy Teixeira, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, ran the numbers and found that a 5-point swing in the white vote, while holding the minority vote from 2012 steady, would result in a 325-213 Electoral College win for Trump.  

Key to the victory: Wisconsin and Pennsylvania would go Republican for the first time since the 1980s, while Minnesota would turn red for the first time since 1972. Trump would also hold onto swing states that were crucial to both of George W. Bush’s victories — Colorado, Florida, Ohio and Virginia. And he’d win New Hampshire, which last went Republican in Bush’s 2000 win, and Iowa, which went for Bush in 2004.

Do the math

That’s because Obama’s solid Electoral College win in 2012 was predicated on some narrow state wins. His margins were extremely tight in Virginia (115,910 votes), Colorado (113,099), Ohio (103,481) and New Hampshire (40,659) and the crucial state of Florida went his way by only 73,189 votes out of more than 8 million cast.  

Turning that around with a flurry of white votes is not far-fetched. It would mean improving upon the 56 percent of white voters that Romney won in 2012 and it’s been done before, most recently in Ronald Reagan’s 1984 victory over Walter Mondale, when Reagan won the white vote 66-34 percent.  

It’s not a shot in the dark. There is reason to believe that the white population is getting more conservative. Whites are aging and as people get older, a greater percentage of them vote for Republicans. They also typically vote at higher rates.  

Voters over age 65 made up 20 percent of voters in 2012 and that percentage is growing. Nearly three in four eligible voters in that age group consistently cast ballots in presidential election years, compared to about six in 10 in the population as a whole.  

Senior citizens were Romney’s strongest age demographic in 2012. He won 56 percent of their votes. And he won white voters over the age of 65 by a margin of 61-39 percent. Romney actually matched that tally among whites aged 45-65. By contrast, he won younger whites by smaller margins. Only 52 percent of those aged 18-29 voted for him, and 59 percent of those aged 39-44.

Aging demographic

There’s no guarantee that those younger white voters will shift toward the Republican Party as they age, but it’s a fair bet they will. And whites are aging. The median white American was 40 in 2005, 42 in 2012 and is heading toward 44 in the 2030s, according to the Census Bureau.  

Democratic pollsters worry about the electorate’s mood. “No one should be complacent about any election at this stage,” says Margie Omero, who heads the research practice at Penn Schoen Berland. “People feel divided. They feel divided as a country. They feel conflicted and frustrated at Washington.”  

But Democrats also believe there’s a problem with Trump’s strategy, in that his hardline rhetoric might appeal to whites, particularly white men, but will prompt women and minorities to vote for the Democrats’ presumptive nominee, Hillary Clinton.  

“Take Ohio,” says Brad Bannon, the Boston-based pollster. “Trump may be able to pick up working-class white men living in middle-class Cleveland suburbs, but he will lose as many women, upscale women, who live in ritzy Cleveland suburbs like Shaker Heights.” Bannon also expects Latino turnout to jump because of Trump’s proposal to round up immigrants in the country illegally and deport them.  

But Bannon admits he’s a bit worried too, given the unpopularity of both Trump and Clinton. Opinion polls have shown consistently that most voters view both of them unfavorably. “I just think that when voters don’t like either candidate, nothing good comes of that.” When voters aren’t inspired, they don’t turn out and low turnout elections tend to go Republicans’ way. Look no further than the GOP’s resounding midterm wins in 2010 and 2014.

Another route

There’s another way that Trump could get to 270 electoral votes that wouldn’t take a groundswell of white voters. The minority vote could drop.  

There’s good reason to think it will. It would be hard for Clinton to get two-thirds of black voters to come out for her like they did for Obama, the first African-American major party candidate for president, surpassing the white turnout rate for the first time in American history. If the black turnout rate returns to its historic norm of about six in 10, it could cancel out any increase in the Latino vote.  

There’s some anecdotal evidence that Latinos will come out in stronger numbers this year — more immigrants are seeking to become citizens and more of the recently naturalized are registering to vote — but there are also years of evidence that Latinos don’t vote like other demographic groups do. Only 48 percent of Latinos cast ballots in 2012, down from 49.8 percent in 2008.  

The electorate in 2016 figures to be the most diverse in the country’s history. The Pew Research Center projects that whites will, for the first time, make up less than 70 percent of voters, while Hispanics will make up 12 percent, up from 7 percent in 2000. Blacks are expected to hold steady at 12 percent.  

But even factoring in the increased size of the Latino community, and a diminished proportion of the population that is white, Trump could win if turnout rates return to their 2004 levels, according to the study by Frey and Teixeira.  

The Electoral College win would be even narrower than George W. Bush’s was that year — and Trump would narrowly lose the popular vote — but a win’s a win.  

Of course, Bush that year did unusually well — for a Republican presidential candidate — with Latino voters, when 40 percent of them voted for him. And Bush won 11 percent of the black voters who turned out, compared to 6 percent for Romney in 2012.  

Fewer minorities voted in 2004 overall. The black turnout rate was 60 percent and only 47 percent of Hispanics went to the polls, while the white turnout rate of 67 percent was a bit higher than it was in 2008 or 2012.  

It’s hard to imagine Trump doing anywhere near as well as Bush did with minorities, of course. Most likely he will do much worse, making the white vote all the more crucial to him.  

But for a Republican candidate, what’s more doable? Winning a higher percentage of white voters, or convincing Hispanics to vote for you, knowing that overtures to them will turn off many whites? Of course, any Republican candidate for president knows that trying to win over blacks is a lost cause.  

Republican politicians have revealed the answer with their actions. Trump isn’t the first to run on a nativist platform. Romney famously said his tough policies would lead unauthorized immigrants to “self-deport” while the 2008 GOP nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain — who had teamed with Democrat Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts on 2005 legislation to make it easier for immigrants to win citizenship — disavowed his own efforts while facing off with Obama.

Others tried, failed

Still, neither McCain nor Romney managed to follow through with a win. And GOP insiders are skeptical that Trump can either. Nearly 70 percent of Republicans who responded to CQ Roll Call’s June poll of congressional staffers said they expected Clinton would beat Trump. More than 43 percent said Clinton would win in a landslide.  

Rory Cooper, a former spokesman for Eric Cantor of Virginia when Cantor was the Republican House majority leader, says Trump’s argument that he can expand the Republican presidential playing field into Democratic strongholds is hard to believe.  

“He is underwater with women, young people, Hispanics and with African-Americans. To make inroads in blue states, you have to make inroads into those communities,” says Cooper, who is now a managing director at Purple Strategies, a political consulting firm.  

Or he could just win even more whites.


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