When it comes to the question of whether Donald Trump can win a general election this November, both parties need to accept it: Yes, he can.
Trump’s path — made up of new and mostly white voters without college degrees — is a narrow one, but President Obama’s two White House campaigns showed the candidate with the most new voters likely wins.
Of course Trump will lose many establishment Republicans, movement conservatives, independents, women and minorities.
But in 2012, with only 58 percent voter turnout, Mitt Romney lost to Obama by 333,908 votes in four states. Surely Trump, who inspires new and exceptionally enthusiastic voters, could invest the resources to target whiter states like New Hampshire, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio.
The GOP primary race has proven Trump’s strength with voters in economically distressed areas where opposition to trade runs high, and he could even attract supporters of Bernie Sanders in certain pockets of the Rust Belt.
Trump currently loses to Hillary Clinton in almost all general election polling, and his approval ratings with Latino and African-American votes are abysmal. His many liabilities in the general election form much, but certainly not all, of the basis for the high-risk proposition of a contested GOP convention in Cleveland this July. But those who see a Trump nomination delivering a landslide to Clinton are discounting the candidates they both are and the year we are in.
Polls show both Clinton and Trump are broadly disliked and polarizing candidates who could depress turnout on either side. But history shows voters are likely, after two terms of a Democrat in office, to vote Republican. Moreover, Clinton represents the past, the withering establishment voters are soundly rejecting in an insurgent year. Toxic he may be, but Trump is the agent of change.
In the 32 primaries and caucuses thus far, Trump has boosted turnout significantly. While most analyses (see Nate Silver) show an increase in primary voting as merely a reflection of a competitive primary and not predictive of numbers in a general election, a Bloomberg study of primary turnout shows such surges could help Trump in battleground states this fall.
For example, Mahoning County in Ohio saw turnout spike by 125 percent last week compared with 2012, with Trump crushing John Kasich 50.6 percent to 37.4 percent. In 2012, Obama’s campaign registered more than 200,000 new African-American voters in Ohio, without whom he would have lost the state to Romney. It’s not just a numbers game but knowing where to run the numbers up.
Certainly there is a multitude of data to suggest that this steep climb is impossible: As the white share of the vote continues to decline each cycle, -RealClearPolitics estimates the next GOP nominee will have to win 64 percent of the white vote and 30 percent of the nonwhite vote to prevail. Romney won 59 percent and lost. And whites with college degrees turned out more than whites without them, 80 percent compared with 57 percent, in 2012.
Democrats hope Trump will inspire record turnout on their side. Fantasies abound of the party winning back not only a Senate majority but the more than 30 seats needed to retake the House of Representatives, and even Clinton winning Arizona and Georgia. But getting people to turn out against someone is harder than getting them to turn out in support of someone, as Obama did. If #NeverTrump Republicans vote for Clinton, they will help her win, but if they stay home, they still help Trump.
Republicans underestimated Trump, but if Clinton wants to win, she had better not make the same mistake.