It’s been quite the week in presidential politics, dominated once again by the unusual political stylings of Donald J. Trump.
Assuming, as we must with a major-party presidential nominee, that a rational thought process is at work, the question remains: This late in the general-election campaign, what is Trump thinking? What sort of strategy down what path to victory is he pursuing?
McKay Coppins asked a few prominent GOP political strategists, some pro-Trump, others anti-Trump, this question and got variations on the same answer:
David Kochel, an Iowa-based Republican operative and former campaign strategist for Jeb Bush, interpreted Trump’s immigration speech as a “decision to play directly to [his] already secured base.”
“It has to be their calculation that they can drive up turnout in white working-class areas of battleground states to dizzying heights,” Kochel said. “Otherwise this move makes no sense 69 days from the election.”
Okay, let’s think about that for a moment. It’s been obvious for a while that there are some, but not many, battleground states with a combination of a lot of white working-class voters and not a whole lot of Latinos. These would include Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and maybe Wisconsin. According to the RealClearPolitics polling averages (in a four-way race), Trump’s nearly tied with Clinton in Iowa and is down by just 3 percent in Ohio, 4 percent in Wisconsin, and 7 percent in Pennsylvania. There are two other states that don’t quite fit the formula where the race is presently very close: Florida (with the nation’s largest concentration of Latino voters who — because they are mostly either Cuban American or Puerto Rican — don’t much care about immigration policy), where he’s down by 4 percent, and North Carolina, where he’s trailing Clinton by 2 percent.
So with the arguable exception of Pennsylvania, Trump is indeed within striking distance in a number of states where tripling down on themes important to the white working class might in theory get him over the hump. And if he won all of these states other than Pennsylvania, and won the states Romney took in 2012, he’d have 269 electorate votes. Add in either Pennsylvania, Nevada (where he’s down by just 2 percent), or maybe even one congressional district in Maine, and he’d have the White House.
It should be clear, however, that this involves a tightrope walk down an insanely narrow path to 270 electoral votes. A stumble anywhere would take him right down, and you can be sure that Clinton will throw her vastly superior resources (including an actual ground game) into any of these states Trump is threatening to win.
It’s also worth noting that Trump’s target demographic is not the most civically engaged group you can imagine. They are famously marginal voters. Perhaps that’s why he’s so over the top in pandering to them: From that podium in Phoenix at his big immigration speech, you could almost hear the unstated appeal — Hey, guys, this speech is for you!
If it somehow works and is not offset by its effect on groups negatively motivated to turn out big as well — say Latinos — it will be a perilous achievement that is probably, given demographic trends, never to be repeated. But at least America will be made great again before it is turned back over to the diverse coalition opposing Trump and Trump’s Republican Party.