Author: Simon Radford
So what’s The Donald’s plan? He’s donning his camouflage, dusted off his traps and nets, and setting off in search of that rarest of beasts: the white man.
But he can’t win, right? As Donald Trump rolls towards a Republican convention where he will be the overwhelming favourite to take the party’s nod as their general election candidate, the same question repeats in tasteful living rooms, oak-paneled boardrooms, and faculty common rooms. Donald Trump might have been defeating the political gravity of common sense, but it can’t last forever, right? The quiescence underpinned by the conviction that Trump would implode in a hailstorm of bluster and bad hair has turned to an urgency that something this mad can’t actually come to pass. But as the Economist Intelligence Unit now lists the threat of a Trump presidency as a quantifiable possibility to be hedged against, we should dust off a tome from 2002 for reassurance. The Emerging Democratic Majority argues that a combination of professionals, women, and minority voters give the Democrats a powerful in-built advantage towards winning presidential elections. With the Donald’s approval ratings rivalling Charles Manson’s amongst women and Hispanics, and urban professionals showing no signs of deserting their Democratic home, it’s a coalition that “white men can’t trump”.
In 2002 this emerging Democratic majority was less easy to see. John Judis, a veteran of the world of Washington political magazines, teamed up with Ray Teixeira, a demographer and political scientist, to make the case that America was in the midst of an historic shift in American Political Development (APD). APD is a sub-field of political science that aims to show how shifting constellations of political forces create durable governing coalitions. Judis and Teixeira argued that the era of New Right Reaganism was coming to an end. The 1980s may have seen the Democrats control Congress while Republicans won national elections, but the 1990s saw Newt Gingrich take back the House for the Republicans for the first time in 40 years. Conservatism might never have seemed so strong, but this too would pass and a nascent Democratic permanent revival was in the works.
For a liberal in the 90s this seemed hard to believe. Three traditional Democratic candidates, each with impressive credentials, were crushed at the polls. To win back the White House, Bill Clinton never had to win 50% of the popular vote, but still felt the necessity to assert his distance from traditional Democratic constituencies by visibly enforcing the death penalty and being “tough on crime”, using an invite from Jesse Jackson to critique hip-hop and violence against the police, and proclaiming that “the era of Big Government is over” while reforming welfare. Clinton’s victories convinced many that it was a Republican world and liberals just lived in it. To win, they needed the votes of the white men who deserted the party for Reagan. A Democratic consultant called “Mudcat” advised candidates on Nascar, grits, and whistling Dixie. A Democrat who compromised with a radical Republican party was still better than having a radical Republican elected.
Even the strong currents of a booming economy, a balanced budget, and a bumbling Republican candidate, hobbled by a last-minute drink driving scandal that may have cost him millions of votes, couldn’t get Al Gore to the White House and the Democrats a third term. Bush’s chief strategist boasted of having created “a permanent Republican majority”. So it was with that, Judis and Teixeira’s book resembled a friend’s reassurance after a particularly nasty break-up: things might be rough now but your time will come. Things would get better. Past isn’t destiny, it’s merely prologue.
And lo! It came to pass! And president Obama delivered us from permanent conservatism. But if you had told Al From and William Galston, who pioneered Clinton’s pivot between 80s liberalism and Reaganite orthodoxy, that the Democrats would nominate an African-American candidate, known for opposing a war in the Middle East, with a liberal policy agenda and a funny name – and win! – they would have pegged the odds somewhere around Jerry Springer becoming next Fed Chairman. But Obama was nominated. And he did win. And he won with a coalition that neatly resembled that detailed by Judis and Teixeira. Perhaps 2008 resembled what some political scientists called a “crucial election” and the Democrats could move from being the political brake pedal to the accelerator again.
So why wouldn’t the same coalition power Hillary to victory once more? Three answers get bandied around: firstly, that Hillary is a poor candidate; secondly, that holding the White House for a third time is not the same proposition as winning it for the first or second time; and, relatedly, that turnout for Hillary’s campaign is likely to be down from 2012. Finally, Republicans who refuse to believe that they must adjust their political project due to new demographic realities speak of ‘the missing white voters’. The case that Trump can win hinges on these claims, although Ted Cruz has made a similar claim about missing evangelical voters, and they rely more on hope than cold analysis.
Firstly, Hillary is indeed a poor candidate. Her voice is scratchy and the noise in the room often leads to her seeming to shout to those watching on TV; her pitch tends to be more about her than about those she claims she wants to fight for; and she lacks an overarching diagnosis of what ails America and how best to fix it. The fact that she has been in or close to power for so long and often hob-nobs with the rich and powerful, makes it seem that she has more invested in piecing back together the status quo than trying to fix the underlying problems that see so many fearful for their economic future. Especially to millennials who crave authenticity, tend to be suffering economically and reel under a barrage of student loans and poor job prospects, Hillary can often seem like the ‘let them eat cake’ candidate. Her attempt to use ‘the gender card’ against Bernie caused resentment among the young, female voters who she needed to win over, while her lack of an overarching message turns off those who tend to be left out of identity politics coalition stitching. Hillary’s main weakness – working class male voters – are exactly those who are most pissed off and most open to entertaining a pitch from Donald Trump.
However, while Hillary might be more Al Gore than Bill Clinton when it comes to inspiring or “the vision thing” (as George H.W. Bush called it), she does have a savvy campaign team and the potential to expropriate much of Bernie Sander’s message once he exits the race. Hillary will inherit a sophisticated voter-targeting machine from the Obama campaign – updated with fresh real-world election data thanks to the primaries – while the Koch Brothers and their extensive fundraising network and data provider to Republican candidates might just sit this one out with Trump as the nominee. Hillary also has the opportunity to supplement her campaign by choosing an effective vice-presidential running mate. Her weakness with white, working-class men (especially in key, swing states) might see her plump for someone like senator (and former SNL funnyman) Al Franken, Sherrod Brown, or Tom Kaine; if she felt the need to motivate Hispanic voters, labour secretary Tom Perez might prove a savvy outsider choice. As a candidate Hillary Clinton is not RFK, but there is plenty to argue that she will run a competent, if somewhat uninspiring, general election campaign.
Secondly, it is hard for any party to hold the White House for a third term. Grievances accumulate over time and it is only natural that people should blame the party in charge of the most visible part of the government. Indeed, in election prediction models, the length of time a party has held the White House is a powerful variable in predicting the election outcome. The most well known of these models, Alan Abramovitz’s “Time for a Change” model, has an elegant simplicity in how it comes to make its predictions: “The basic Time for Change Model uses three factors– the incumbent president’s net approval rating at the end of June, the change in real GDP in the second quarter of the election year, and a first term incumbency advantage, to predict the winner of the national popular vote.” Hillary will lack any incumbency advantage that Obama could lay claim to in 2012, but the latter’s job approval ratings have hovered around 50%, having climbed over the last year. Economics news has been bumpy but much of voters’ economic assessment is baked into the president’s job approval ratings. A strong Republican candidate would like these numbers when sizing up their chances of taking out Hillary but as headwinds go, the numbers seem like more of a gust than a hurricane.
Thirdly, turnout is indeed a worry. While many fret about turnout during primary season compared to the records of 8 years ago, there is a good argument that this is a data point not worth getting hung up over. However, there is still the question mark over how much the Obama coalition was due to Obama. The infamous Bannock Street project, larded with $60m of donor largesse, promised to activate these voters to keep the Senate in Democratic hands in 2014, with arguable results. Millennials have largely shunned Hillary’s candidacy and will have to be persuaded with difficulty to warm to her; African-Americans don’t have one of their own in the Oval Office to fight for; and Hispanic voters feel let down that Obama did not pursue comprehensive immigration reform with enough vigour. Unions failed to secure card-check legislation under Obama, have further declined in power, and have injected themselves into a Democratic civil war over TPP. Meanwhile Republicans have been pouring money into catching up the Democrats’ technical advantage and overtaking it. Hillary might well struggle to inspire the Obama coalition to the ballot box in the same numbers. A Republican candidate that would reach Hispanic voters or young people, as argued by the GOP’s own 2012 “Autopsy” report, could steal from a fragile Democratic base and win the White House. But so far the party has not tried to find a message that can win over these voters. Still, even with this lack of active competition for their affections, Hillary will have to reach her turnout figures regardless.
So we see a somewhat lukewarm prognosis for Hillary’s general election chances, but Hillary has one secret weapon: Donald Trump. Hispanic voters unsurprisingly loathe the Donald. Professionals who remained in the Republican camp are still trying to steal the Republican nomination from his clammy, short-fingered, grasp. And Trump’s ratings among women are about as healthy as his comments about dating his own daughter. Indeed, just as fellow-conservative Newt Gingrich previewed how the Democrats would define Mitt Romney before he had a chance to create his own image for the voters, Republican SuperPACs have already shown exactly what is coming Trump’s way over the airwaves from now until election day. The Democrats already had a ‘women gap’ in their favour, this is likely to make it grow to record levels. He’s just lucky that kids don’t vote.
With 2016’s electors set to be the most diverse in history, Trump is driving the Obama coalition into Hillary’s hands. While mass defections to Hillary from Republican stalwarts is overblown because of partisan polarisation and reverse-partisanship, Democrats who might have had trouble getting voters enthused enough to vote for Hillary will now have plenty of fuel to stoke their enthusiasm. So what’s Trump’s plan? He’s donning his camouflage, dusted off his traps and nets, and is topping up his liquid sustenance, and setting off in search of that rarest of beasts: the white man.
The counterweight to the demography-as-destiny argument of the “emerging democratic majority” is the “missing white voter” thesis. This argument makes the claim that almost 6 million fewer white voters went to the polls in 2012 than we should have expected based on projections. If this number reverted to the mean or a candidate enthused these voters, then the GOP could get back to the White House without changing its coalition of voters. This missing bloc is crucial because if one looks at the 2012 electorate, then Trump’s path looks extremely narrow, as Bill James points out:
“The math suggests Trump would need a whopping 70% of white male voters to cast their ballots for him. That’s a larger percentage than Republicans have ever won before — more than the GOP won in the landslide victories of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and far more than they won during the racially polarized elections of Barack Obama.“
Of course, all white voters are not the same. There is a striking class difference in the Trump base. Blue-collar voters tend to be much warmer than those who belong to the professional classes. This difference is crucial, as Teixeira himself explained in a recent sit-down with the New Yorker:
“In Ohio in 2012, Mitt Romney won the white working-class vote by a 16% margin: 57% to 41%. According to Teixeira’s projections, Trump, to carry Ohio in November, would need to increase this margin to 22 or 23 points. “That’s a big ask,” Teixeira said. And Trump would also need to retain, or even increase, Romney’s ten-point margin among college-educated white Republicans, even though at least some members of this group may be sufficiently put off by Trump’s extremism to stay at home, or even to switch to the Democrats.”
Teixeira’s baseline there, of course, uses 2012 and treats these missing white voters as permanently gone, even though these missing voters seem to resemble the blue-collar, anti-free trade voters that would most respond to Donald Trump’s economic populist appeal. However, even those analysts most closely associated with the ‘missing white voters’ hypothesis, contend that those missing white voters would not have been enough to have coronated a president Romney in 2012:
“But while this was the most salient demographic change, it was probably not, standing alone, enough to swing the election to Obama. After all, he won the election by almost exactly 5 million votes. If we assume there were 6.5 million “missing” white voters, than means that Romney would have had to win almost 90% of their votes to win the election. Given that whites overall broke roughly 60-40 for Romney, this seems unlikely. In fact, if these voters had shown up and voted like whites overall voted, the president’s margin would have shrunk, but he still would have won by a healthy 2.7% margin.”
There is an argument that a Republican strategy of targeting ‘missing white voters’ would have a chance at high-tide if the Democratic coalition turned out as if it were at low-tide. However, Trump’s ability to turn out these working class white voters founders on the irony that by doing so he activates the very Democratic coalition he seeks to overpower. Mitt Romney only won 27% of Latinos in 2012, but Donald Trump might struggle to win two-thirds of Romney’s total in a national voting population more Latino than ever and energised to turn out to vote against him. African-American turnout might struggle to reach the levels reached under president Obama, but the president will surely be relied upon again to turn out the vote in key states like North Carolina and Virginia. Trump’s use of a megaphone rather than a dog-whistle might activate these missing white voters, but at the very real risk of seeing defections from normally Republican women in the suburban battlegrounds of previous elections. While reverse-partisanship – the idea that many people vote against a candidate rather than for their own – might see Republicans rediscover their loathing for secretary Clinton and vote for Trump reluctantly, some professional-class Republicans will surely “do a France” and hold their nose to vote against Mr Trump or simply sit this race out.
The Republicans could have stopped a president Hillary Clinton if they had nominated a Republican candidate who would speak to voters in the veterans’ halls and union homes without turning off the country club and Rotary Club regulars. Adding the ‘missing white voters’ to the Romney coalition by discovering a more populist economic message on trade, taking on corporate welfare, and joining in the Democrat populists’ assault on dodgy practices on Wall Street, could have seen a Republican win even without gaining much ground in the short-term with Latinos and other minority groups. While John Kasich hangs around, hoping that Cruz and Trump’s antipathy sees delegates alight upon his inoffensiveness in the latter rounds of convention voting, he might hope to be able to perform this balancing act. But navigating what political scientists call a “two-level game” between the Republicans’ primary electorate and the narrow path to beating a large Democratic demographic bias in a changing American electorate might have been a quixotic hope from the get-go.
There was every prospect that Hillary’s weaknesses as a candidate could have allowed the Republicans to squeeze one more victory out of a dying voter profile that had previously served them so well. Perhaps Trumpism will test Republican optimism to destruction just as Democrats trotted out liberal candidates in the 80s and were confounded by the electorate before realising that they had to accommodate with electoral reality. But both parties have made clear where each party needs to make gains if they are to win the White House in the future: Hillary will need Bernie’s authenticity and appeal to working-class white voters on trade and economics; Republicans will need to learn Spanish.Hasta la Vista, Trumpy.