By Sean Trende, RealClearPolitics
In the second of a three-part series on the Donald Trump phenomenon, RealClearPolitics examines the likelihood and potential impact of a 2016 Republican candidate reversing the decline of white voter participation in presidential elections.
In the immediate wake of the 2012 elections, I wrote a piece entitled The Case of the Missing White Voters. The thesis was pretty simple: that a large portion of the demographic change we saw in the 2012 electorate was not due to increased turnout, but rather a drop in white participation.
These missing white voters could play a huge role in 2016.
I followed up my original story with a second piece in 2013 that, with the benefit of final numbers, suggested these voters were mostly lower-income, blue-collar voters who lived in areas that had also voted for Ross Perot. My theory was that Mitt Romney’s wealth and upper-class demeanor turned off these voters, and that if the GOP could find a candidate to motivate these voters sufficiently, it could narrow the gap between them and Democrats and offset some of the losses Republicans could suffer due to demographic shifts.
I will admit I was sort of surprised that this proved controversial. After all, the Obama campaign had run ads in blue-collar areas of Ohio with the not-so-subtle tag line, “Mitt Romney. Not one of us,” while Democratic commentators had spent the better part of 2012 gloating about how a car-elevator-owning businessman who made statements such as “I like being able to fire people” wouldn’t play well with the working class. I was saying that they were right!
Moreover, this is demonstrated across datasets; the Current Population Survey shows that not only were there fewer white voters in 2012 than in 2008, but also fewer than in 2004. Now, are there “missing nonwhites” that Democrats could appeal to? Certainly; that is obvious from the chart in the piece, and motivating such voters is Job One for Democrats in midterm elections. But none of this changes the potential for Republicans to make gains by turning out potentially friendly voters who sat out the last election.
The missing whites are obviously relevant to 2016, and campaigns and commentators are still talking about them. Unfortunately, as with a game of telephone, things seem to have gotten a bit garbled in the intervening years. The details of the argument have confused both top-flight conservative campaigns like that of Ted Cruz’s and liberal analysts like Ron Brownstein.
Take Brownstein. He writes: “[Trende] wrote that Romney lost not because he ran too poorly with people of color but because he failed to motivate enough right-leaning whites to vote.” This is just wrong. First, the theory doesn’t really suggest that Romney needed to motivate more right-leaning whites to vote (more on that later), but more importantly, I was pretty explicit that “[t]hese voters were not enough to cost Romney the election, standing alone.” I’m not sure how this was overlooked, as that sentence is a numbered point heading in bold font.
In the paragraphs that follow, I explained:
But while this [the drop-off among whites] was the most salient demographic change, it was probably not, standing alone, enough to swing the election to Obama. After all, he won the election by almost exactly 5 million votes. If we assume there were 6.5 million ‘missing’ white voters, that means that Romney would have had to win almost 90 percent of their votes to win the election.
Given that whites overall broke roughly 60-40 for Romney, this seems unlikely. In fact, if these voters had shown up and voted like whites overall voted, the president’s margin would have shrunk, but he still would have won by a healthy 2.7 percent margin.
Analysts on both sides who view this as a “whites-only” strategy are missing the boat. Motivating white voters who sat out 2012 to turn out for Republicans can play a part of the GOP’s strategy, but it can’t be the whole strategy. There must be further persuasion among whites or greater inroads among nonwhites.
At the other end of the ideological spectrum from Brownstein, we have the Cruz campaign. Cruz has repeatedly argued that Romney lost because “4 million conservative voters stayed home in 2012.” This began circulating in the immediate aftermath of 2012, and I’m pretty certain that it originates with the missing whites piece.
But this is also wrong. As I explained in my initial piece: “My first instinct was that [the missing voters] might be conservative evangelicals turned off by Romney’s Mormonism or moderate past. But the decline didn’t seem to be concentrated in Southern states with high evangelical populations.”
Indeed, subsequent numbers confirm that Romney performed as well as John McCain or George W. Bush among white evangelicals. As I wrote in the second article: “Romney’s problem was not with the Republican base or evangelicals (who constituted a larger share of the electorate than they did in 2004).”
What Cruz is really talking about doing is something akin to what Barack Obama did in 2008, when he turned a sizeable number of non-voting African-Americans into voters. Cruz is hoping that evangelicals and conservatives who have traditionally just not voted will opt to vote for him. It’s a tough haul, since the National Election Study suggests turnout among born-again Christians is around 80 percent to begin with. But stranger things have happened (I suppose).
The candidate who actually fits the profile of a “missing white voter” candidate is Donald Trump. As I noted Wednesday, he fits in the mold of the Nixon-Perot-Huckabee-Santorum populist strain of Republicanism. As I wrote about Perot voters in the second piece:
That coalition was strongest with secular, blue-collar, often rural voters who were turned off by Bill Clinton’s perceived liberalism and George H.W. Bush’s elitism … they tended to be downscale, blue-collar whites. They weren’t evangelicals; Ross Perot was pro-choice, in favor of gay rights, and in favor of some gun control. You probably didn’t know that, though, and neither did most voters, because that’s not what his campaign was about.
His campaign was focused on his fiercely populist stance on economics. He was a deficit hawk, favoring tax hikes on the rich to help balance the budget. He was staunchly opposed to illegal immigration as well as to free trade (and especially the North American Free Trade Agreement). He advocated more spending on education, and even Medicare for all. Given the overall demographic and political orientation of these voters, one can see why they would stay home rather than vote for an urban liberal like President Obama or a severely pro-business venture capitalist like Mitt Romney.
While Perot voters weren’t Republicans, as Everett Carll Ladd demonstrated in 1993, they were disproportionately Reagan/Bush voters; Republicans have struggled to bring many of them back into their presidential coalition since. Could Trump do it? My description of Perot is certainly consistent with Trump’s campaign strategy (remember, he ran for the Reform Party nomination in 2000). Moreover, it’s consistent with Nate Cohn’s finding that Trump’s supporters tended to be Democrats who disproportionately live in the South, Appalachia, and the industrial north. The geographic correlation between Trump’s current support levels and the 2012 turnout drop-off isn’t perfect, but it is there.
The challenge for Trump is that, as I noted, the missing whites alone aren’t enough to give him a win. This gives him two options: Either increase support among non-whites or boost his support among whites.
To be honest, I don’t know if either is possible. It is worth noting that, as of now, Hillary Clinton only leads Trump by three points in the RealClearPolitics Average, suggesting he’s doing better than a lot of people expect somewhere.
I could lay out a plausible case for either scenario. To start, immigration plays differently among Hispanics than a lot of analysts believe; the notion that immigration reform is the reason Romney ran so poorly among Hispanics is overly simplistic. Remember that almost a third of California Hispanics voted for Propositions 187 and 209, while a majority told exit pollsters in 2008 that immigration didn’t matter much to them, or mattered a lot, yet they voted Republican anyway.
Trump’s blue-collar populism could theoretically appeal to more Hispanic and especially African-American voters than Romney’s message did by cutting through identity politics and appealing on an economic level. Remember, crucially, we’re not talking about Trump winning non-white voters outright, or even winning a third of the non-white vote. Winning even a quarter overall would represent a substantial improvement from 2012. I’m skeptical about this, but given how this cycle has gone, I’m not ready to call it impossible.
As for whites, there is clearly a ceiling for the GOP, but I’m not altogether certain where it is. We were told in 2010 that it was probably somewhere around the 59 percent Republicans won in 1994, yet the GOP has exceeded that level in three straight congressional elections. Trump could probably convince a fair number of blue-collar whites to cast a ballot for Republicans. Again, I am skeptical here; the trick will be convincing enough blue-collar voters to vote Republican to offset likely losses among white-collar voters, and it remains to be seen whether Trump can withstand the inevitable attempt by Democrats to turn him into Romney (Trump isn’t exactly poor, his accent notwithstanding).
My analysis ultimately concluded (and a lot of analysts miss this as well) that the best approach for Republicans involved outreach. But, I concluded, a Republican candidate who softened the party’s libertarian economic platform could probably motivate enough missing whites and bring enough blue-collar voters on board to win. There is, as I wrote, more than one way to skin the electoral cat.
Trump accomplishes part of this, but I suspect he has been too strident and divisive to overcome the losses he would generate. Finding the right candidate for reform is always difficult. There were probably only a handful of African-American officeholders capable of putting together the coalition to win in 2008, yet Obama accomplished it. Bernie Sanders is unlikely to win either the Democratic nomination or the general election, but a candidate like Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, who supports a similar platform? That’s a different story. Likewise, finding a candidate with Trump’s positives who is without his many negatives is difficult, but I don’t think it is impossible.
It’s a very tough road for Trump, but not an impossible one. But regardless, it can’t be all about the missing whites.
Friday: Why Trump? Why Now?
Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.