Like it or not, the Republican Party woke up Wednesday morning to its reality: In the most likely scenario now after Super Tuesday, the party will have to depend on loose cannon, anti-establishment, David Duke-backed Donald Trump to defeat Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton in November.
It’s a scenario that seemed unimaginable months ago for a Republican Party that had cast its hopes on expanding its base in 2016. The Republican field was stocked with accomplished governors and young, energetic senators who gave face to the younger wing of the party. After Trump’s crushing wins from Georgia to Virginia Tuesday, however, it is hard to imagine anyone else can break through enough to beat him.
A CNN poll of registered voters nationally released Tuesday reveals what establishment Republicans have always been fearful of; Trump is a liability for the party. In a matchup, the poll showed Clinton bested Trump 52 percent to 44 percent, a sign that the Republican Party’s best chance to take back the White House could be wasted on a candidate who flimsily echoes sometimes-newly-adopted conservative principles with little insight into or regard for decades-worth of conservative orthodoxy.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell – the national GOP’s de facto leader who has begun prepping his delicately-built Republican majority in the Senate for a Trump-dominated general election– allegedly told members “we’ll drop him like a hot rock” if that is what it takes to protect vulnerable senators.
But demographers and pollsters say that a Democratic wave and a Clinton victory is hardly sealed even against Trump.There is still a path, albeit a narrow one, for him to win. Here is what to watch for in a Clinton-Trump showdown this year.
Trump has threatened to deport 11 million immigrants living in the country illegally, when he is elected president. If Mitt Romney’s comment that immigrants should “self-deport” mobilized a record 11.2 million Hispanic voters in 2012 and left him with an abysmal 27 percent share of the Latino vote, promises of a “beautiful” border wall and mass deportation could lead to a spike in Latino voter turnout that reflects as much a movement against Trump as one for Clinton.
While a record number of Latino voters came out to the polls in 2012, there were still 12 million more eligible Hispanic voters that chose not to come out and cast ballots that year.
Only 48 percent of eligible Latino voters came out to vote in 2012. And, the number of eligible Latino voters between 2012 and 2016 is estimated to have grown by about 4 million people. That is all to say there is a huge potential for Clinton to maximize Latino voter turnout in November.
And that does not even begin to account for Clinton’s advantage with eligible black voters who have grown by 6 percent since 2012, according to an analysis by Pew. Black voters show up at the polls at much higher rates than Latino voters and have shown they are enthusiastic about supporting Clinton.
The share of the minority vote is expected to be the largest in history, Pew predicts – a numbers advantage for Democrats regardless of if Trump was the nominee– but Trump’s bombastic message and crude delivery could also motivate minority voters to come out in even bigger numbers against him.
Trump is a jet-setting, real-estate-developing billionaire with his name plastered across buildings from the Vegas strip to Manhattan and yet the backbone of his coalition is the white, male, working class voter who has yet to bounce back from the recession.
“The white vote could be inflamed if voters are really mad. Anger will be what makes Trump president if he is,” says William Frey, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and a leading demographer on voter changes in the country.
A Democracy Corps survey conducted by Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg found this week that Trump had more than double the support among working class voters of his nearest Republican competitor, and enjoyed a similar margin among men as a whole.
Trump’s message of “making America great again” resonates with the kinds of voters who could give him the upper hand in key Rust Belt states like Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania and perhaps even as far east as Virginia. If enough white voters come out, some experts even believe Trump could make moves in Florida or Colorado.
“The theory would be that if he gets a white working class surge of support of around 6-8 points across certain parts of the country, that might be enough to overcome the Democratic advantage from changing demographics,” says Ruy Teixeira, a senior fellow at both the Center for American Progress and The Century Foundation.
Clinton has struggled with male voters in general so far in primaries, which could give Trump even more men to appeal to. The looming question will be, however, just how motivated those voters are to show up at the polls for Trump.
If early primary contests are any indication, they will be very willing. Republican primary turnout has been higher than usual in 2016 for the GOP. According to CBS News, in Iowa, turnout to the caucuses was up 50 percent. In New Hampshire it was up 14 percent and in South Carolina, turnout was up 20 percent. That is a positive sign that the excitement surrounding Trump is mobilizing the kinds of voters he will need in a general election to offset Clinton’s built-in advantage with minority voters.
In their most recent analysis, Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research estimates that roughly 30 percent of the Republican Party are moderates who “dislike pro-life groups” and want to support a Republican nominee who does not “fight gay marriage.” Those are just some of the voters in the Republican coalition who may be turned off by Trump and stay home or even cast ballots for Hillary Clinton.
In a general election, it is impossible to predict how Trump may retool his message, but so far, the Democracy Corps analysis predicts that “the Trump race in particular already pushes 20 percent of Republicans to say they are uncertain what they will do in the general election against Hillary Clinton, including one quarter of the Catholics and one third of the moderates.”
The other major question mark for Trump is if his bullying tone toward women and others may hurt him with suburban women, who have voted reliably Republican in recent election cycles, but could be turned off by Trump’s hard-charging and crass attacks against Clinton.
This election cycle, Trump has said at every turn he’d get Mexico to pay for a border wall they clearly are not footing the bill for. He has called into question Sen. Ted Cruz’s eligibility to run for president. He’s mocked a reporter’s physical disability, unleashed a plan to ban all Muslims from coming into the country and continues to talk about how much Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) sweats on the debate stage. And yet, Trump continues leading the polls and growing his support in the Republican primaries.
Trump defies political norms in an unpredictable way and his uncanny ability to bypass any doubts about his qualifications to be president should not be underestimated. There is no knowing what boundaries Trump breaks in a general election race against Clinton that may motivate voters to support him, or what question marks he introduces and then leaves floating in the air about Clinton’s own qualifications.
Beyond that, Trump has not been bound by the regular political expectations that one should not be a flip-flopper in American politics. There is still a chance that he reverses course on so many of his policy declarations in a general election. He has already said he supports a mandate for health care and believes Planned Parenthood provides valuable health care services to low income women. He’s left the door open to moderating during a general election, making it tough for Clinton to run a campaign painting him as an extremist symbol of the party.
Trump and Clinton are like two sides of a coin in American politics. Clinton seems forced when she tries to raise her voice and prefers to talk in detailed policy proposals. Trump, meanwhile, goes straight for the gut, speaking in catchy applause lines.
In a general election, it’s easy to imagine Clinton and Trump will run vastly different campaigns. Yet, it is still possible that Trump’s dog whistle politics and angry message may only carry him so far. In a general election, Trump will need more than just white, working class voters. He will also need to expand his base beyond tea party voters and evangelicals if he wants to stay competitive.
That is where it is entirely possible that a targeted and positive Clinton message about advancing America could become a refreshing infusion into what may devolve into a nasty, high-octane attack race orchestrated by Trump.