Trump Has a Voter-Registration Problem

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Are you registered?Photo: Dominick Reuter/AFP/Getty Images

Beneath all the derisive mainstream-media commentary about Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy is an irrational fear that he is quite literally defying all logic and precedent and is destined by some angry God to rule over us. It was captured nicely by The Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Henniger in a piece titled “The Trump Mosh Pit”:

It’s past time that we all come to grips with the reality that the Trump candidacy has been carried forward to this unlikely moment by forces in the American population that transcend normal presidential politics.

In other words, the mogul is so in touch with what Henniger calls “the country’s restless mood” that you can throw out the rule book and ignore things like money and experience and organization — you know, all the assets Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz threw at Trump to absolutely no avail in the primaries.

But because a “restless mood” is not a state that gets to cast electoral votes, there has to be some more mechanical explanation for how these dark fears of a Trump presidency could actually materialize. And Trump’s path to power is generally described as being paved by white working-class voters, especially men, who are going to emerge from their rust-belt churches and VFW halls and bowling alleys in astonishing numbers and smite the arrogant liberal elites and their underclass clients in a mighty show of yearning for the Great America of an idealized past.

This idea feeds on what Real Clear Politics’ Sean Trende identified some time ago as the “missing white voters” phenomenon — a decided under-participation of white working-class voters in recent presidential elections. There are enough of these folks, in theory at least, to overwhelm temporarily any accretion to the Democratic ranks of African-Americans, Latinos, and millennial whites. And if they march to the polls for a candidate who embodies their fears and hopes, no quantity of campaign ads or other resources can stop them, as the GOP primaries showed. At least that’s how the argument for an inevitable Trump victory goes.

But now comes David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report with an analysis that rains heavily on this parade. Even if white working-class voters were disposed to carry Trump on their shoulders to the White House, there’s a problem: not enough of them are registered to vote.

According to the Census, 40.2 million eligible whites weren’t registered to vote at all in 2012. That’s much larger than the 14.7 million whites who were registered who but didn’t turn out. Therefore, if Trump were truly inspiring an uprising of “missing” whites, we should expect a surge (or at least an uptick) in new registrations in blue-collar white and GOP-leaning places — think a mirror image of the Obama registration boom of 2008.
But nothing like that has materialized. In the 15 months since Trump announced his run, net registration gains in heavily white, rural and GOP-leaning counties have been unremarkable.

Is Wasserman maybe looking at the wrong places? How about Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, where Salena Zito found “a bar full of undecideds and Democrats” who watched Monday’s debate and were “won over” by Trump?

It’s a nice anecdote, but according to Wasserman, the numbers don’t show some emerging Trump majority in the Keystone State:

Since May 2015, registrations have increased 4.9 percent in the 63 counties where a majority of potential voters are non-college-educated white people. But in the other four counties (Philadelphia, Delaware, Montgomery and Chester), registrations have risen 6.3 percent. Those four more-cosmopolitan counties combined for an Obama margin of 611,724 votes in 2012, nearly twice his statewide margin of victory.

And here’s the rub: If Trump’s “missing white voters” aren’t registering themselves to vote based on the allure of his promise to “Make America Great Again,” they need some pushing and pulling. Yeah, that’s right: Trump needs a field operation and voter-targeting analysis, all with the aim of getting his potential supporters registered right now. There’s no sign of that happening; such frills have been disdained by Team Garbage Fire, and the RNC has too much on its hands to make up for that lost opportunity.

So in all probability, after this election we will hear again about “missing white voters.” But the idea that all they need to participate in an election is to find a candidate as raw and nostalgic as they are could take a beating.