The Trump campaign has had an excellent two weeks. Over the past 14 days, the Republican nominee has avoided picking fights with the parents of fallen soldiers or former beauty-pageant winners, while news organizations have failed to produce a single new video of him touting his love of sexual assault.
Thus, the American electorate was free to focus its undivided attention on the fact that a lot of people in the FBI hate Hillary Clinton. Republican voters started coming home. Democrats were rudely awoken from their dreams of a landslide.
Still, national polling averages and most forecasters’ models show Clinton retaining a comfortable advantage of 3 to 6 points. And there are fewer undecided voters now than there were a few short weeks ago.
To win on November 8, then, Donald Trump will very likely need to outperform his polls. And there are several reasons to doubt that he’s capable of doing so. To name just a few: Clinton has a superior get-out-the-vote operation, pollsters’ have habitually underestimated the Latino vote, and Democrats’ early-voting figures in several key states are strong.
But throughout the race, the Trump campaign has taken solace in two theories for how American voters could surprise the number-crunchers. The first holds that a significant number of Trump voters are unwilling to admit their preference to pollsters, because the GOP nominee has been so vilified in the mainstream press. The second contends that Trump’s right-wing populist message will activate the large number of “missing white voters” — whites who were registered in 2012 but failed to turn out for the more patrician Mitt Romney.
A pair of new studies suggest both of these theories are about as credible as a degree from Trump University.
The concept of the “shy” Trump voter has some empirical basis: In public polling, Trump consistently does better in online and automated polls than he does in phone surveys (where a respondent has to speak his or her preference to another human being).
And there is historical precedent for a “social desirability bias” skewing poll results, the most famous being the 1982 gubernatorial race in California, where many white voters seem to have told pollsters that they intended to vote for the African-American mayor’s reelection, only to pull the lever for his caucasian challenger on Election Day.
And during the GOP primary, a Morning Consult study seemed to show Trump inspiring an analogous effect, with GOP voters giving him 6 percent more support in online polls than in live-interview ones.
But on Thursday, a new analysis from Politico and Morning Consult failed to replicate that finding among general-election voters. Per Politico:
Overall, the POLITICO/Morning Consult study released Thursday showed Clinton with a 5-point lead among voters interviewed over the phone, 52 percent to 47 percent.
The race was modestly closer in online interviews: Clinton’s share of the vote ticked down a single point, to 51 percent. Trump’s support inched up a point, to 48 percent.
While there is a marginal “shy Trump voter” effect there, it’s within the margin of error and thus statistically insignificant.
The news on the “missing voter” front is even worse for Trump.
As most close observers of American politics are aware, the GOP has a demographic problem. The coalition that’s kept the party competitive in national elections for the past four decades was built on a foundation of white-identity politics. As the white share of the electorate has steadily declined, the GOP has found itself with an ever-shrinking slice of the pie. But efforts to adapt to this reality — by, for example, embracing immigration reform in a bid to win a larger share of the Latino vote — have proven impossible to execute without incurring the wrath of the party’s white base.
The “missing white voter” theory offered the party a way out of this bind. After all, African-Americans had turned out in higher numbers than whites in 2012. If a Republican nominee could bring those white voters in off the sidelines — by, for example, embracing a more populist form of white grievance politics — maybe the GOP could eke out a few more elections without forcing its members to take any hard votes. (Especially if they threw a few dashes of black-voter suppression into the mix.)
But on Thursday, the Upshot’s Nate Cohn doused this theory in buckets of cold water: Rather than providing Trump’s margin of victory, a surge of unlikely voters would assure a Hillary Clinton presidency.
That conclusion is based off of an analysis of voter-registration data nationwide, in combination with Upshot/Siena College polls of North Carolina, Florida, and Pennsylvania.
The Upshot separates the newly activated voters into two groups, the freshly registered and the “missing” — the latter being voters who were registered in 2012 but declined to turn out.
Trump’s right-wing populism failed to spur a surge in registration among white voters — and the white voters who did newly register are younger and likelier to back Clinton than the preexisting white electorate. Among new white voters, Trump leads Clinton 40 to 34 percent, far smaller than his overall lead with light-skinned Americans.
Among newly registered voters of all races and ethnicities, Trump trails Clinton in the critical swing states of Pennsylvania, Florida, and North Carolina by a combined 31 to 47 percent.
The extent of Clinton’s advantage among new voters has been obscured by her party’s more modest lead among the newly registered, with 34 percent of those entering the voting rolls since 2012 signing onto Team Blue compared to 28 percent casting their lot with red America.
As those figures suggest, a huge swath of new voters avoid affiliating with either party, and the Upshot’s polls show Clinton leading Trump with this group 42 to 21 percent.
What’s more, those “missing” white voters were never as ripe a target for Trump as they might have seemed in the abstract. The white voters who sat out the 2012 election were disproportionately young and Democratic. And the ones who weren’t don’t appear to be natural Trumpists. Per the Upshot:
Our polling data suggests that the missing whites aren’t exactly conservative populists who support Mr. Trump. They’re just dissatisfied: They don’t like their candidate, and they don’t like the other party’s candidate much either…Over all, Mr. Trump led among missing white voters, 43 to 31, a far smaller margin than his lead among the white voters who turned out in 2012.
That said, Trump has had more success in mobilizing missing white Republicans than Clinton has had in energizing missing Democrats: Among missing white voters who say they’ve already voted or are “almost certain” to have done so by November 9, Trump leads 52 to 32.
But that advantage is dwarfed by Clinton’s 61-to-20 lead among missing nonwhite voters who say they’re “almost certain” to turn out this year. That outsize margin gives the Democratic nominee a 43-to-38 percent lead among all voters who say they’re turning out in November, after taking a cycle off in 2012.
All of which is to say: If missing voters find themselves on November 8, Hillary Clinton will almost certainly find herself in the White House next year.