2016

It's 2016 All Over Again

AWalter Head
November 7, 2019

If you feel whipsawed from the last round of polling and election results, well, you are not alone. The week started with the release of an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll that showed President Donald Trump losing to both former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren by 8-9 points. On Monday, however, New York Times/Siena polling from six battleground states showed a much tighter race for the Electoral College.

On Tuesday morning, the story was of a president in electoral peril as a national Washington Post/ABC News poll showed Trump trailing all of the leading Democratic contenders by double digits. And, of course, Tuesday night ushered in more good news for Democrats as they flipped the state legislature in Virginia and defeated a GOP Governor in Kentucky.

So, is Trump flailing badly and going to lose big(ly), or does he have a real path to winning the Electoral College?

Yes.

These latest polls and election results are telling the same story we've been seeing and hearing for the last two-plus years. Trump is unpopular and polarizing, which makes it all but impossible for him to win the popular vote. But, he does have a chance to win thanks to the demographic make-up of key Midwestern battleground states.

Before we dig into things, it's important not to get too caught up trying to defend or deny one poll over the other. Trump's vote share in the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, as well as in the ABC/Washington Post survey, basically mirrors his job approval rating. At this stage of the race, that makes sense since it is a referendum on Trump.

The other reality, which we saw pretty clearly in 2017-2018, is the degree to which red and blue America are becoming more entrenched in their identities. Suburban and urban America are becoming darker blue, while exurban and rural America is a deep hue of red. Trump isn't 'collapsing' nor is he gaining. He's (narrowly) holding onto that coalition that got him his win in 2016.

We saw this same dynamic at play on Tuesday night. In Virginia, Democrats were able to flip former GOP strongholds in suburban Richmond and Washington, DC. While in Kentucky, a weak GOP governor didn't drag down the other Republicans on the ticket in this ruby-red state.

As much as the Trump presidency has been marked by incredible tumult and controversy, it's also unique in its stability. As Nate Cohn wrote in his analysis for the New York Times, "the president's lead among white, working-class voters nearly matches his decisive advantage from 2016. The poll offers little evidence that any Democrat, including Mr. Biden, has made substantial progress toward winning back the white working-class voters who defected to the president in 2016, at least so far. All the leading Democratic candidates trail in the precincts or counties that voted for Barack Obama and then flipped to Mr. Trump."

An exhaustive look at the demographic realities of the Electoral College by Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin of the Center for American Progress shows similar promise and peril for Democrats in key midwestern battleground states.

Overall, they write, "these states are slow growing and remain heavily white, with particularly large white noncollege-educated populations." And, "the slow rate of racial and ethnic change in these states presents a more favorable dynamic for the GOP than in the two other swing regions."

Their analysis of the 2016 vote found that white voters made up 82 percent of the Pennsylvania electorate, 92 percent of the Michigan electorate, and 90 percent of the Wisconsin electorate. Compare that with a state like Arizona (77 percent white), Texas (61 percent white) or North Carolina (72 percent white). Moreover, white, non-college voters made up 51 percent of the vote in Pennsylvania, 54 percent in Michigan and 58 percent in Wisconsin. In Virginia, the white non-college vote was just 37 percent. It was 43 percent in North Carolina and just 41 percent in Colorado.

The good news for Democrats, write Teixeira and Halpin, is that the midwestern battleground states "should generally see a 2-point increase in the percent of white college graduates and minorities among eligible voters as well as a 2-point decline in the percent of white non-college eligible voters." In other words, if all things stayed equal — Trump got the same share of white, non-college voters and the Democratic nominee got a similar vote as Clinton among white college-educated voters and voters of color, that would be enough to tip Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, to Democrats.

Of course, that's also a very risky bet to make. In fact, many argue that this 'bet' on demographics is what lost Clinton the election in 2016.

It also assumes that Trump maxed out his base in 2016, leaving few, if any, non-college white voters for the campaign to turn out. That's a dangerous assumption to make, too. Unlike 2016 the Trump campaign has the money and the infrastructure to find, target and turn out each and every Trump-friendly voter. Hence the Trump campaigns huge digital ground game spending this early in the cycle.

McClatchy's Alex Roarty found one of those voters in a reporting trip to rural Wisconsin. Corey Bauch is a 44-year-old libertarian who didn't vote for Trump in 2016, because he "reminded him of an arrogant boss." Now, however, Bauch sees "the president's outspoken style as an antidote to Washington's pervasive corruption." The Trump campaign is counting on finding more like Bauch. "[T]he most likely way the president can win next November — and the way Republicans are already preparing in earnest for him to pursue," wrote Roarty, "is with voters like Bauch, in rural regions of key battleground states, who didn't back Trump in 2016 but are inclined to do so now."

Moreover, my colleague David Wasserman has crunched the numbers and finds a lot of slack left in the white, non-college lane. In 2016, 81 percent of white men and women with college degrees turned out to vote compared with just 56 percent of non-college white men and 60 percent of non-college white women.

Or, as Texiera and Halpin write, the biggest impact for the Democrats in the midwest "would come from a move of the very large white non-college group—probably led by white non-college women—back toward their Democratic support levels of 2012. That would result in easy Democratic victories in the Rust Belt three of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin and would even make Iowa and Ohio competitive."

This means that the key voting block to focus on in 2020 is white, non-college women. More specifically, as I wrote back in 2018 — and other analysts including the intrepid Ron Brownstein wrote about this week — non-Evangelical, white, non-college women. Democrats don't need to win these voters. But, losing them by a smaller percentage than Clinton did in 2016 could mean the difference between winning and losing the Electoral College.

While Cohn's analysis finds little to no slippage of support for Trump from non-college white voters, Brownstein argues that "warning signs" emerged for Trump about his standing with non-evangelical whites without college degrees in recent polling in Wisconsin by Marquette University Law School. Those voters aren't just a core constituency for Trump, but Brownstein notes, they "make up just over 44% of Wisconsin's electorate, with the women slightly outnumbering the men." With Trump unwilling and unlikely to try and win support in suburban areas, he can't afford to lose much if any ground from these voters.

If there's any lesson to take from the torrent of data that's been released this week, it's that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Despite losing big in the suburbs in 2017, 2018 and 2019, the Trump campaign has zero interest in doing what it takes to win them back. Though they have more money and a better, more sophisticated campaign infrastructure, the Trump campaign is using the same playbook from 2016. Maximize turnout from the base at all costs and hope that Democrats nominate a candidate who will be even more unappealing to the suburban voters who have abandoned the party.