Can Trump win in November on the Rust Belt path?

posted at 4:01 pm on March 21, 2016 by Ed Morrissey

Whenever anyone points out Donald Trump’s poor numbers among key general-election demographics, two responses usually follow. First, Trump supporters rightly note that there are a few months to the general election, and that Trump can shift his campaign style for greater inclusiveness. Second, as Trump has argued for months, the demographic issues will recede for Republicans with Trump at the top of the ticket because his populist movement will put other states in play rather than the traditional swing states that the GOP lost in the last two presidential cycles. Trump himself often makes the same argument:

I can say this: I will win. I’ll bring in states that nobody ever thought of. I think I have a chance to win New York. I defended New York. Nobody else was going to defend New York — last debate and got good credit for it. But the people in New York love that I defended them, because nobody ever defends New Yorkers, right?

I’m going to win Pennsylvania. I’m going to win West Virginia. I’m going to win Virginia. I’m going to win Michigan. Because I protect the car industry. Nobody else protects the car industry.

It’s a compelling argument, in part because Trump is such a wild card that it’s difficult to resort to precedent to contradict it. His entire model of campaigning thus far should have produced nothing more than a stunt candidacy on the way to another gig in the entertainment industry. That’s certainly what most pundits predicted, especially in the spring and summer of 2015, and yet here Trump is, atop the GOP’s delegate chase to Cleveland.

In the time since it became clear that Trump’s movement was a force with which Republicans had not reckoned, many theories have been put forward for its sustainability. Roland Merullo offers a compelling explanation in the Boston Globe today, arguing that anger and racism aren’t at all the issue. Instead, it’s humiliation and marginalization of the white blue-collar working class voters in the states Trump cites that drives his candidacy forward:

I grew up in the working class. We were not poor, but we knew people who were poor and, even now, with my upper-class education and the middle-class status it has afforded me, I’m close to people who are working, and poor. There is a particular kind of humiliation involved in their lives, though many of them are too proud to use that word.

They’re not hungry. They have a decent place to live. But every hour of every day they’re shown images of people who have things they will never have. Virtually every TV show and Internet site offers ads featuring relaxed families sitting in nice-looking dining rooms eating a meal together and laughing. These TV families own a home, have new cars, take cruise-line vacations, and use the kind of electronic gadgetry that would bankrupt the working poor.

If they are white and straight, the people who watch these ads are also continually hearing news reports about the difficulties of minorities and gay people. Here’s the key point: Most of the working class and poor people I know — and many of Trump’s wealthier supporters — have no objection whatsoever to the idea of African-Americans and gays getting fair treatment. They do not want innocent black men to be shot. They do not care if two gay people get married. As is true of just about everyone else on earth, while they do care about others, they care about themselves and their own families first. The idea that these people have what is commonly referred to as “white privilege” may be generally true, relative to the horrible plight of many nonwhites in this society. But imagine what it’s like to come home from working a job (or two jobs) you hate, that exhausts you, that leaves you five dollars at the end of the week for a child’s birthday gift, and hear someone call you “privileged.” Imagine what that feels like. This is a territory into which the Mitt Romneys and talking heads of this world cannot stretch their thoughts.

And then along comes a tremendously successful guy who speaks your language, not candidate-ese, and who tells you he’s going to make America (i.e., you) great. Most of his voters don’t have time to go to a political rally. So when they see protesters disrupting the speech of the candidate they hope can change their lives, and when they hear him say, “I’d punch that guy in the face”— the kind of language they grew up with — and when they listen to him talk about the decent-paying jobs that were moved to China (something Trump says more often than any other candidate), is it really a surprise that these people go into the voting booth and cast a ballot for The Donald?

No, it’s not a surprise — not at all. But is it enough to win an election through the Rust Belt path rather than the swing-state path? There is no evidence that Trump’s doing any better among general-election voters in New York than Mitt Romney, but New York is thoroughly dominated by Democrats. That’s not the case in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin, and those states combined would have given Romney 270 electoral votes without flipping any other states where minority demographic issues are more critical — like Florida, Virginia, and Colorado. Throw in Iowa, and it would get Trump to 276.

But how well will Trump have to outperform Romney in these states to take them away by appealing to the white working-class demographic? Greg Sargent argues that it’s out of reach:

I asked Teixeira to factor in these expected shifts to calculate how much better Trump would have to fare among working class whites than Romney did in order to win each state. In each of these, Teixeira assumes that the Democratic candidate (likely Hillary Clinton) will win the same share of the nonwhite and college educated white vote that Obama did, which, if anything, is generous to Trump. Given the overall margins that Obama won these states by — which are in some cases quite large — Trump would have to improveenormously on Romney’s performance among blue collar whites:

— In Michigan, where Romney beat Obama by 53-45 among working class whites, Trump would have to win among them by 62-36, an improvement of 18 points.

— In Wisconsin, where Romney beat Obama by 50-48 among working class whites, Trump would have to win among them by 56-42, an improvement of 12 points.

— In Pennsylvania, where Romney beat Obama by 56-42 among working class whites, Trump would have to win among them by 63-36, an improvement of 13 points.

— In Ohio, where Romney beat Obama by 57-41 among working class whites, Trump would have to win among them by 60-38, an improvement of six points. (This is lower than the others because Ohio was much closer overall; but even six points is a pretty sizable improvement.)

Those numbers may not be out of reach, depending on the competition. It’s important to remember that this analysis is based on Barack Obama’s ability to turn out voters in 2012, and the GOP’s failure in 2012 to do the same. As I found in my research for Going Red, there is little sign of Hillary Clinton organizing even close to the same level of Obama, while the RNC has built what appears to be a formidable ground organization that is nominee-independent, but which will be available to Trump if he ends up on the ticket. Those efforts have been aimed at swing states like Florida, Virginia, and North Carolina, but also in the same states Trump cites as fertile ground for his movement in November.

However, there are a number of problems with this approach, or at least with this approach alone. It may drive up turnout in other demographics which would dilute any gains Trump makes on this Rust Belt track, which would tend to make Pennsylvania and Michigan impossible to win — especially against Hillary Clinton and Big Labor. That kind of a campaign would almost certainly cause the GOP to lose North Carolina again, which would put the GOP at only 261 Electoral College votes even with Iowa on board.

Finally, Trump thus far has run the kind of 30,000-foot campaign that Romney tried in 2012, on the assumption that the US electorate was by nature conservative and only had to be reminded of that through national messaging. As 2012 proved, that’s simply not true; Republicans failed to win that argument on the ground and allowed Obama to encroach on voter demographics in key swing states, a key point in Going Red. In order to win crucial states, the GOP has to start expanding the party’s reach rather than try yet another base-turnout model, especially in a wide-open election cycle where voters might be receptive to better engagement by Republicans and conservatives.

It’s too early to rule out the Rust Belt path entirely, and Trump might surprise by adapting his approach in the general election. But if this is the strategy, don’t be surprised when it fails — and if it does, there will be plenty more humiliation to go around.

Cited from GOING RED: THE TWO MILLION VOTERS WHO WILL ELECT THE NEXT PRESIDENT—AND HOW CONSERVATIVES CAN WIN THEM Copyright © 2016 by Ed Morrissey. To be published by Crown Forum, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, on April 12. Available for pre-order in hardcover, e-book, and audio.

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