vision 2020

How Trump Could Thread the Needle Again and Win While Losing the Popular Vote

Are these Wisconsin MAGA fans the keys to 2020? Photo: Darren Hauck/Getty Images

It’s been a pretty depressing week in American politics. Donald Trump finally dashed my last childhood illusions about minimal standards of decency for occupants of the White House. And now, as a capper, two very good empirical analysts of election data have simultaneously informed us that this same president could well replicate what I have always called the “inside straight” he drew in 2016 by winning the Electoral College while losing the national popular vote by more than 2 percent.

The New York Times’ Nate Cohn looks closely at 2018 trends, and Trump’s current state-by-state approval ratings, and comes up with a troubling conclusion for Democrats:

[T]he mostly white working-class Rust Belt states, decisive in the 2016 election, remain at the center of the electoral map, based on our estimates. The Democrats have few obviously promising alternative

paths to win without these battleground states. The president’s approval ratings remain higher in the Sun Belt battlegrounds than in the Rust Belt, despite Democratic hopes of a breakthrough.

The president’s views on immigration and trade play relatively well in the Northern battlegrounds, including among the pivotal Obama-Trump voters.

And while Democrats made midterm gains in some of these same states, they weren’t, relatively speaking, that large:

The most important measure of the president’s strength in the Electoral College, relative to the national vote, is the difference between the national vote and the “tipping-point state” — the state most likely to push a candidate over the Electoral College threshold.

Wisconsin was the tipping-point state in 2016, and it seems to hold that distinction now, at least based on the president’s approval rating among 2018 midterm voters.

Over all, the president’s approval rating was 47.1 percent in Wisconsin, above his 45.5 percent nationwide. This implies that the president’s advantage in the Electoral College, at least by his approval rating, is fairly similar to what it was in 2016.

If Democrats lose Wisconsin, things could get dicey in a close election:

Democrats do not have an obviously promising alternative if Wisconsin drifts to the right.

In 2016, Florida was that obviously promising alternative: It voted for Mr. Trump by 1.2 percentage points, compared with his 0.8-point victory in Wisconsin.

But all of the measures indicate that Florida has shifted to the right of the nation since 2016, at least among 2018 midterm voters. The president’s approval rating in Florida was essentially even — and by our measure, slightly positive. Republicans narrowly won the Florida fights for Senate and governor, and also the statewide U.S. House vote.

The next tier of Democratic opportunities doesn’t provide an easy backstop to Democratic weakness in Wisconsin either. There’s Arizona, where Democrats had a good midterm cycle, but where the president’s approval rating is plainly stronger than it is nationwide or in Wisconsin. The same is true of Iowa or North Carolina, though the president’s standing in those states is somewhat more uncertain in the absence of an exit poll or a high-profile statewide result.

At NBC News, the Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman explains why Democrats could again “waste” a lot of popular votes and still wind up with a minority in the Electoral College:

The nation’s two most populous states, California and Texas, are at the heart of Democrats’ geography problem.

Both behemoths are growing more diverse at a much faster rate than the nation — owing to booming Asian and Latino populations — and are trending toward Democrats. Yet neither blue California nor red Texas would play a pivotal role in a close 2020 election, potentially rendering millions of additional Democratic votes useless.

California’s in the bag for whoever Democrats nominate, while Texas would be tough for Democrats to win in any kind of close election (that could change by 2024 or 2028). But the demographic change slowly transforming the most diverse states just isn’t happening in the Rust Belt:

In 2016, Trump’s victory hinged on three Great Lakes states he won by less than a point: Michigan (0.2 percent), Pennsylvania (0.7 percent) and Wisconsin (0.8 percent). All three of these aging, relatively white states have some of the nation’s highest shares of white voters without college degrees — a group trending away from Democrats over the long term …

Democrats eagerly point out that they swept Senate and governors’ races in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin in 2018. And they flipped two seats in Michigan and four in Pennsylvania on their way to taking back the House.

But Trump could lose Michigan and Pennsylvania and still win the Electoral College, so long as he carries every other place he won in 2016. And Wisconsin didn’t provide as clear a verdict in 2018. Even with favorable turnout in a “blue wave,” Democrats won Wisconsin’s governor’s race only by a point and failed to gain a House seat. If enough Trump voters who sat out 2018 — particularly white working-class men — return to the polls in 2020, the Badger State could easily stay red.

So like Cohn, Wasserman thinks it could all come down to Wisconsin, where Trump’s got a good chance now and an even better chance if the economy improves or he gets a break in terms of his Democratic opponent. And like Cohn, he thinks Florida’s drifting the other way, and some of the other states where Republicans are losing strength aren’t quite ready to flip just yet.

The ultimate nightmare scenario for Democrats might look something like this: Trump loses the popular vote by more than 5 million ballots, and the Democratic nominee converts Michigan and Pennsylvania back to blue. But Trump wins re-election by two Electoral votes by barely hanging onto Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, Wisconsin and Maine’s 2nd Congressional District — one of the whitest and least college-educated districts in the country.

This would again involve Trump threading the needle, but it’s not that big of a reach. I continue to think Democrats’ X factor is the pool of 2016 likely voters (some of whom turned out in 2018, and some of whom didn’t) who ultimately sat out the Trump-Clinton race or wasted a vote on third-party candidates or even a protest vote for the Republican, on grounds that Clinton had it won. The president clearly thinks (if he’s thinking at all) turning up the flames of white racial resentment can offset this advantage. If that’s based on credible evidence from Wisconsin, it’s time for Democrats to get seriously concerned.

How Trump Could Thread the Electoral College Needle Again