An election is the ultimate numbers game. No matter how much the punditocracy talks about intangibles such as “momentum” and various bits of anecdotal evidence, in the end, it comes down to one simple question: can the candidate can get the votes? More specifically: can the candidate get the votes in the right states to win a majority in the Electoral College?
With Donald Trump poised to capture the Republican nomination, we hear a lot about intangibles, but there has been very little analysis of the numbers. And the more we dig into the numbers, the less likely it seems that Mr. Trump can actually win the general election in November.
Yes, it is true that his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, has problems of her own. Ms. Clinton herself admits that she is not a natural politician. Her own shortcomings, coupled with a quarter-century of Republicans hammering her with endless accusations, innuendoes and insinuations, has taken an unmistakable toll on the public’s perception of her character. An average of 10 polls compiled by Real Clear Politics between March 19 and April 26 shows Ms. Clinton with an average favorable/unfavorable rating of 38.4/54.9, a negative spread of 16.5 percentage points.
While such numbers would typically spell doom for any political candidate, 11 polls taken over the same time period show Mr. Trump at 28.4 favorable, 65.4 unfavorable, a negative spread of 37 points. If it comes down to a question of whom the public views more favorably, Mr. Trump starts out in a huge hole.
But there are other numbers that should be even more troubling to supporters of Mr. Trump, and some of them have nothing to do with him, or with his merits or demerits as a candidate.
Let’s start with the Electoral College, which is how presidents are actually elected in the United States. Any Republican nominee would start out in a disadvantaged position in this all-important category.
To explain: there are 18 states, plus the District of Columbia, which have voted for Democratic presidential candidates in every single election since 1988. These states combine for 242 of the 270 electoral votes required to win the election. Republicans, conversely, have won only 13 states in each of the last six elections, and these states combine for just 101 electoral votes. Even if we add in 10 more states that may have voted Democratic once or twice during that span, but could now be considered solidly Republican, the GOP only gets to a starting position of 191 electors.
Even if Mr. Trump could make inroads into the vast swathes of white, working-class voters in those states, he faces other issues that could cancel out such gains.
These starting positions mean that a Republican nominee either has to win nearly all of the swing states, or pick off one or more states that haven’t gone to the GOP since 1988 or earlier. A Democrat merely has to hold the states that have gone into the blue column over the last six elections and add Florida, or some combination of two or more swing states, perhaps Ohio and Virginia. The red team simply has a harder path to victory than the blue team does.
Certainly, there are a number of “blue states” which have been closer than others. It is by no means guaranteed that Pennsylvania or Wisconsin, with their combined 30 electoral votes, will always end up in the Democratic column, despite the fact that Pennsylvania has done so for six elections in a row and Wisconsin for seven. Both states were very close in 2000 and 2004, and neither state went to Barack Obama by landslide margins in 2012, though he did win each by more than five percentage points.
Even if Mr. Trump could make inroads into the vast swathes of white, working-class voters in those states, he faces other issues that could cancel out such gains elsewhere. One large trouble spot for him is among Latinos, whose votes have been crucial to delivering Florida, Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico into the Democratic column in the last two elections. Mr. Trump has enraged large sections of the Latino community with his anti-immigrant rhetoric, and the numbers demonstrate the depth of his troubles with this growing demographic.
In 2012, Republican nominee Mitt Romney lost Latinos by a near-record margin of 71 to 27 percent, helping President Obama narrowly carry Florida and win by healthier margins in Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico. An NBC news poll taken April 21 showed Ms. Clinton defeating Mr. Trump among Latinos 76 to 11 percent. Even giving Mr. Trump the remaining 13 percent—probably an unlikely scenario—he would still be three percentage points behind Mr. Romney’s dismal showing in 2012. This would not bode well for his prospects in any of these crucial states.
Throw into the mix reports of spiking Latino voter registration and the increasing number of Florida Latinos registering as Democrats (even among a Cuban-American constituency that was once staunchly Republican), and there is a perfect storm developing for Mr. Trump with this key demographic group, which traditionally given at least a notable chunk of its votes to Republicans.
Mr. Trump’s historic weakness with Latinos could even jeopardize his prospects in a normally reliable Republican state, Arizona, where a local poll released April 25 showed Ms. Clinton defeating him by seven percentage points in a head-to-head matchup. (The poll showed Ms. Clinton would lose Arizona decisively to either of the other leading Republican candidates, Ted Cruz and John Kasich.) Should Mr. Trump lose Arizona, he would become only the second Republican candidate to do so since 1948. (Bob Dole lost the state to Ms. Clinton’s husband in 1996.)
Mr. Trump’s apparent weakness in Arizona could be the result of two factors, one of which is the state’s healthy number of Latinos. Also potentially in play, though rarely discussed, is the state’s notable Mormon population, roughly between four percent and five percent of Arizona’s total population.
While Mormon voters overwhelmingly identify as Republicans—which explains much about why neighboring Utah consistently gives the GOP more than 70 percent of its votes—Mr. Trump has struggled with Mormons during the Republican primaries, losing badly in Utah and the two states with the next-highest percentage of Mormons: Idaho and Wyoming. It says much about Mr. Trump’s apparent struggles with adherents of the Latter Day Saints (LDS) church that a shocking poll taken March 20 showed him losing Utah, one of the most Republican states in America, to either Ms. Clinton or Bernie Sanders.
A significant segment of the electorate is angry and frustrated, and Mr. Trump’s message has a certain appeal among white working-class Americans who feel they haven’t gotten a fair shake in a very long time.
If the combination of a Latino backlash against Mr. Trump and his apparent weakness among Mormons can flip Arizona into the blue column, while Florida, Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico stay Democratic, Mr. Trump could flip Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, Wisconsin, Iowa, New Hampshire and the second Congressional District of Maine from blue to red and still lose the election. Even if Ms. Clinton fails to pick up Arizona, but holds Florida, Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico, Mr. Trump would need to win at least four of the six blue or swing states mentioned above to win the election. That’s no easy task.
As mentioned in a previous column by The Party Crasher, the superb number-crunchers at FiveThirtyEight.com have developed a useful tool called the Swing-O-Matic. Taking into account the demographic changes that have occurred since the last presidential election, this tool determines the likely results in the Electoral College based on how any of five demographic groups (college-educated whites, non-college whites, African-Americans, Latinos and Asians) vote and turn out in the coming election. The user can adjust their turnout percentage and their percentage support for either party and arrive at an estimate of which states, and how many electoral votes, each party will win.
Assuming (based on the NBC News poll referenced earlier) Democratic performance of at least 76 percent among Latinos and a slight spike in Latino turnout (from 48 percent in 2012 to 50 percent today), then assuming the worst case for Democrats among black voters—88 percent Democratic performance and 50 percent turnout, both representing 20-year lows—Democrats would lose Ohio but retain all other states President Obama won in 2012, for a comfortable 314 to 224 edge in the Electoral College. (It must be noted there is no reason to assume a worst-case performance by Ms. Clinton among black voters, who frankly owes her all-but-certain nomination to their staunch support during the primaries. This assumption is tested simply to demonstrate how profound Mr. Trump’s problems with Latinos could be if he cannot recover ground with that demographic.)
Only through a massive increase in the turnout and Republican performance of white working-class voters could Mr. Trump overcome these numbers. In 2012, it is estimated that white working-class voters gave 62 percent of their votes to Mr. Romney, but only turned out at a 57 percent rate. Those numbers would have to rise to 66 percent and 61 percent to put Mr. Trump over the top in the electoral college—but remember, that assumes worst-case Democratic performance and turnout by black voters. Conversely, if black turnout and Democratic support remains closer to what it has been in recent years—say 90 percent for the Democrats at a 60 percent turnout rate, which would still represent a significant dropoff from the 66 percent black turnout of 2012—that white working class number from Trump would have to increase to 67 percent of the vote at 62 percent turnout. This is an extremely heavy lift.
Of course, all these assumptions put Ms. Clinton at the low end of Latino support indicated by the NBC news poll. If the 13 percent who did not indicate a preference split 50-50, she would be looking at 82 percent of the total Latino vote (again, assuming 50 percent turnout). In that case, Mr. Trump’s vote among white working-class voters would have to rise to 69 percent at 64 percent turnout; these would be astronomical numbers as compared to 2012.
None of these estimations take into account the possibility that college-educated white voters might defect from the Republicans if Mr. Trump is the nominee. This group went 56 percent for Mr. Romney in 2012, with 77 percent turnout, but a Washington Post analysis of March 31 indicates his favorability ratings among college-educated whites at nearly 3-to-1 unfavorable. And it is even dubious as to whether Mr. Trump can significantly increase Republican performance among the white working class.
In short, considering the available data, it is very difficult to see at this point where Mr. Trump is going to get the votes he needs to win the states necessary for victory in November. And for the severely deluded individuals who think he can flip the map by winning in New York or other deep blue states (even California): fuhgeddaboutit. The average Democratic victory in New York over the last six election cycles has exceeded 23 percentage points; the average spread for Team Blue in California during the same time has exceeded 15 percentage points.
It is rightly said that nobody should ever say “never” in politics. Many liberals believed it impossible that Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush could be elected president, and they were wrong. Clearly, a significant segment of the electorate is angry and frustrated, and Mr. Trump’s message of shaking up the system has a certain appeal, particularly among white working-class Americans who feel they haven’t gotten a fair shake in a very long time.
But here’s the bottom line: there just aren’t enough “angry white men” out there to put Donald Trump in the White House. Unless he can reverse his horrible numbers among Latinos and women of all colors, and perform better than Republicans typically do among numerous other key demographics, Mr. Trump’s chances of victory in November can be rated unlikely at best.
Disclosure: Donald Trump is the father-in-law of Jared Kushner, the publisher of Observer Media.
Cliston Brown is a communications executive and political analyst in the San Francisco Bay Area who previously served as director of communications to a longtime Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Facebook at facebook.com/ClistonBrownPolitics, or on Twitter (@ClistonBrown), and visit his website at ClistonBrown.com.