In case you haven’t felt it, the political axis that defines the two-party American system lurched with the likely nomination of Donald Trump. There has been considerable discussion about why those who have closely watched American politics for years were blind-sided by Trump’s primary election successes. The short answer is, the polls did not match historical trends or the recent political alignment, specifically of the Reagan-era conservative coalition. We ignored the polls showing a wave for Trump for the same reasons we ignored them for Herman Cain, and we failed to believe what a plurality of Republican voters were saying, both in surveys and in primary voting booths.
When both parties are stable, with nearly identical platforms as the cycle before, the election results are extremely predicable. Mitt Romney was trying to retain the 60 million McCain voters and steal a mere 4 or 5 million voters from Obama. He didn’t, and so he’s not our president. Trump, alternatively, is reshuffling the entire political deck by rejecting several central tenets of the Romney campaign, conservative foundations like free trade, interventionist foreign policy, and flatter taxes. Trump and Clinton are in the unusual position of defining not just their candidacies, but also the very identity of their parties.
Lets face it, a shake up has been needed for awhile. Union members in the Rust Belt have never been the natural allies of environmentalists, and the white south was only going to let Wall Street control the GOP for so long. However, Trump’s candidacy has divided his own house, and while Trump’s familiarity with Republican history or the Bible is questionable, most of us know what happens to a house divided. So, how does Trump plan to compete in the fall election when there are so many life-long Republicans staunchly against him? In short, he has to break Democratic Party, as well.
Trump’s electoral strategy is simple. Why do white voters without college degrees only vote 66% Republican? And why do they have such low turnout (55%)? Why don’t they turnout at 67% (equivalent to black voter turnout) and vote 75% Republican? If they did, Trump would win in a blowout. More importantly, it would turn the electoral map from one that favors Democrats to one that favors Trump.
Even if Clinton split the white college vote, which typically favors Republicans, maintained black voter turnout and support at Obama levels, and boosted the Hispanic vote from 71% to 85% Democratic, Trump still wins the election. And he does it in a very strange way, by winning Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and even flipping Minnesota and Oregon. That’s right, Trump might be competitive in Oregon under this northern strategy that forfeits Virginia, Florida, New Mexico, and even endangers Texas. Yeah, Trump’s messing with Texas. All of this without winning more votes than Hillary Clinton, and while losing millions of college educated Romney voters.
Of course, Trump’s gambit comes with major issues. What if the entirety of rural Pennsylvania overdoes on fentanyl before the election? Or more likely, what if his central assumption is wrong? What if there isn’t much elasticity in the non-college white vote and Trump only marginally increases their Republican support, but manages to drive away the college vote in droves and rally Hispanic voters against him in record numbers? Clinton immediately becomes competitive across the Deep South, through Texas, and all the way to Utah, where Mitt Romney will all but beg his fellow Mormons to vote against Trump. In essence, if Trump’s northern strategy fails, his southern underbelly is totally exposed.
In both scenarios the total number of contested electoral votes is about half of the Electoral College, meaning a Clinton versus Trump election has the potential of expanding the map from the 11 battleground states in 2012 to twice that number. This puts Clinton in an awkward position. Anyone who has seen college debates will be familiar with the practice of spreading, or firing so many arguments in succession that it’s difficult to even understand your opponent, let alone respond to them. Trump spreads on policy issues, and when you hit him on one topic he accuses you of ignoring his real argument, which he, in that very moment, decided was the thing you didn’t mention. All while picking on you like a schoolyard bully. (As an aside, Trump dominates the schoolyard bully demographic. 100% of the vote.) The only non-moving target is Trump himself and his businesses. The whole campaign is going to be a personally offensive policy-free infomercial against democracy.
This is what we know: Trump will have to retain his positions of deporting millions of Hispanics, banning Muslims until “we figure out what the hell is going on,” and undoing America’s free trade agreements. He will add to that the very un-Republican perception of taxing the wealthy to balance the budget and a promise to increase the minimum wage. His gut will be xenophobic and nationalist (Tea Party), his words will be pro-labor (almost Sanders-like), and his persona will be a Viagra commercial on a TV station that only broadcasts golf tournaments and NASCAR races. Really, Trump’s gambit has a sublime majesty to its simplicity, in a Catilinarian kind of way.
If the election were held today, Clinton would probably win convincingly. National polls suggest the former Secretary holds a 6 percent lead, with some old and new battleground states on the map. Virginia might be the strangest state (excuse me, commonwealth) over the past 20 years. Steadily transitioning from reliably Republican to a swing state. Going back to the days of TJ and Madison, Virginia politics has been known for its polite idealists, and the Virginia gentry probably can’t stomach the Donald and will be correspondingly blue. Nevada and New Mexico with their large Hispanic populations may also be out of reach for Trump to even be competitive. But familiar battlegrounds from the Obama years like Iowa, Ohio, New Hampshire, and North Carolina will likely still be in play. Joining them might be some new faces, such as Texas, Pennsylvania, Maine, Arizona, Wisconsin (for real this time), and Georgia. The first thing you may notice is that Trump will need to expand his map, and it will be interesting to see if he looks toward the familiar Florida or less conventional paths like Michigan and Minnesota. As some Republicans fall in line after the convention, Trump may start to consolidate traditionally Republican states. Doubtless, it will be a fascinating election.
Political realignments are turbulent affairs (just cycle through the electoral maps between 1960 and 1980), and they tend to yield broad but short-lived landslides. The Democratic platform is almost out of gas and the GOP is committing malpractice as an opposition party. No matter who wins in 2016 or by how much, one gets the feeling that the next president will fail legislatively in such a toxic era, be met with resounding disapproval, and have a hard time holding his or her coalition together for even a few months, let alone reelection.