Thanks to partisan polarization and a decline in ticket-splitting, most analysis of contemporary politics has revolved around the precise size and shape of both major parties’ demographic profiles as displayed on the congressional, state, or Electoral College maps. Most recently, the main dynamic has been the rising “Obama coalition” of young and minority voters on which Democratic prospects rely versus the increasingly aggrieved old white folks of the GOP. The latter are significantly more likely to participate in midterm elections, which helps explain the Republican landslides of 2010 and 2014. And the former give Democrats a slight (but growing) advantage in presidential elections. The relative immobility of these two coalitions from cycle to cycle has produced an era in which the two parties seek either to boost “base” turnout or detach from the opposing coalition some small but crucial slice of the electorate. Yes, there remains an awareness that external events (a recession, a war, a scandal, or a terrorist attack) can affect all of these calculations and move what’s left of the “swing vote.” But to an extent previously unknown in the modern era, political strategy has become a game of “small ball” with very large percentages of the electorate taken for granted amid a high focus on the few moving parts.
Going into the 2016 cycle, the big strategic arguments in each party have been over how to get from the roughly 45 pecent deemed immovable to the 49 or 50 percent necessary to win a presidential election. Among Democrats a major source of anxiety has been African-American voters. Would they turn out at the high levels of 2008 and 2012 and give a white candidate the very high vote shares Obama won? And so individual campaigns have made in effect a compensation argument: Hillary Clinton could replace any falloff in minority voting with an unusually high share of women; Bernie Sanders might supersize the youth vote or win back some white working-class voters.
The argument within the GOP has really come down to two options: the expand-the-base strategy, famously articulated in the RNC’s post-2012 “autopsy report,” which focused on getting rid of obstacles to a marginally (but crucially) better performance among Obama-coalition voters, especially Latinos; and the energize-the-base strategy, generated by the belief in a sizable group of “missing white voters” that could yet make the White Might of the GOP a near-majority.
Then along came Donald Trump, and "small ball" suddenly seems inadequate to describe the potential voter dislocations that could occur if he is the Republican presidential nominee.
The most obvious change in the landscape involves Trump’s particular appeal to white working-class voters who are already in the GOP coalition but don’t always vote at high levels, and the strong negative feelings he arouses among Obama-coalition voters and some highly educated conservatives. You’d normally think the latter phenomenon would outweigh the former, particularly given the historically high levels of GOP support among non-college-educated white voters in 2012. But as the Washington Post’s Dan Balz pointed out this weekend, Trump’s target audience is more conveniently concentrated in battleground states than those he repels:
Among the 18 states that have been in Democratic hands since the 1992 election are Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Minnesota. Along with Ohio and Iowa, those heartland states are likely to be the most intensely contested battlegrounds in the country if a Trump-Clinton race materializes.
All those states have higher concentrations of white voters, including larger percentages of older, white working-class voters, than many of the states in faster-growing areas that Obama looked to in his two campaigns.
“If he drives big turnout increases with white voters, especially with white male voters, that has the potential to change the map,” said a veteran of Obama’s campaigns, who spoke anonymously in order to share current analysis of the fall campaign.
So, all other things being equal, Trump might prove to be even more competitive in Rust Belt battleground states than a more conventional Republican candidate. But, of course, all other things won’t be equal.
For one thing, Trump on the general-election ballot is perhaps the one thing that could produce Obama-like turnout levels and Democratic preference percentages within the Obama coalition. Does Hillary Clinton look dangerously weak among young voters, and is Bernie Sanders struggling to connect with African-Americans? Facing Trump might be just what the doctor ordered.
But beyond these dynamics, many Republican professionals fear Trump could significantly alienate "base" voters outside his white-working-class wheelhouse. The most shocking data point reinforcing that possibility is the new Deseret News poll of Utah taken in advance of Tuesday’s caucuses in that state showing both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton beating Trump in a general election there.
Perhaps you can write off the GOP’s 73 percent performance in 2012 in Utah to Mitt Romney’s LDS affiliation and local celebrity. But no Democratic presidential candidate has won more than 40 percent of the vote in Utah since Lyndon Johnson carried the state in his 1964 landslide. It is arguably the most solidly Republican state in America. Maybe the Deseret News poll is an outlier or a reflection of a fierce internal GOP nomination battle, or of a particular LDS antipathy to Trump’s whole act. But it’s clear Trump might not just change the electoral landscape but could instead move tectonic plates. And for a Republican Party reasonably optimistic about 2016 from the get-go, that’s an unsettling possibility. You can construct a scenario in which Trump wins a general election. It’s just as easy, though, to construct a scenario where he loses in a catastrophic manner of the sort partisan polarization supposedly made impossible.