by A.B. Stoddard
Today, President Trump doesn’t have enough voters to win a second term. His average job approval number remains the lowest of any modern president. Polling shows he’s supported by a loyal minority of the electorate, ranging between 39%-45%, sometimes lower, depending on the survey. But — assuming he’s not removed from office — he can win if he finds new people to vote for him.
Trump’s loyal army of supporters contains a large group of people so disaffected by politics they had either not voted at all before 2016, or had not voted in many years. But they are not enough this time around. Some of his supporters have died, or lost their fervor, and he needs more. And Team Trump, flush with plenty of cash, intends to find them.
Tuesday was National Voter Registration Day, and Eric Trump and other big name Trumpsters tweeted out reminders, as did celebrities very much not supporting the president, along with Barack Obama, who remembers all too well what happened in 2010 and 2014. That’s when his coalition of voters failed to turn out in midterm elections that gave the GOP sweeping victories not only in Congress but in statehouses all across the country.
Twitter, eBay, MTV, Univision and scores of other corporations joined 900 libraries, 1,600 nonprofits and 600 universities in a total of 4,000 organizations in getting behind the national effort, which started in 2012 to encourage Americans to register or update their registration. Though this year’s tally has not been reported, last year’s “holiday” yielded more than 800,000 voter registrations before the midterms.
Turnout in the 2018 elections was the highest in a midterm since 1914 and polls continue to register record enthusiasm and interest in voting next year. Forecasters are estimating turnout at 65%-70% in November 2020, which would likely become the highest voter participation rate in a century. After Democrats won back a majority in the House of Representatives, Trump was undaunted, saying he wasn’t on the ballot, a sign, he believes, that he can defy polls — and the political winds — next year to turn out a majority and win a second term.
That dynamic, of course, didn’t factor into Trump’s first presidential victory, which was wide in the Electoral College tally but actually hinged on frighteningly narrow margins in three states. Essentially, Trump caught lightning in a bottle in 2016, winning by fewer than 78,000 votes in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, with Green Party spoiler candidate Jill Stein delivering two of them to him.
So, seeing bad polls for himself in many swing states, Trump started his rally schedule early in order to activate support on the ground. And the money advantage he has, not only over Democratic National Committee coffers but compared to his first campaign, means Trump can — at least before the general election campaign — invest resources everywhere, even making efforts to flip such blue states as Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico and Minnesota. Thousands of Facebook ads have been circulating to targeted audiences for months now, but the rallies he holds enable the campaign to harvest critical data for the targeting of resources toward turning out existing voters, as well as the registration of new ones.
The rally Trump held recently in New Mexico, a state he lost by eight percentage points, was — in the words of Trump Campaign Manager Brad Parscale — “a data gold mine.” He noted that 45,000 people had registered for rally tickets, 94% of whom were New Mexico residents; 78 percent of them were matched to their voter files, which showed that 40% were Latino and 31% were Democrats.
Campaign officials have said data gathered from rallies shows many Trump supporters/voters are infrequent voters. Fewer than 56% of voting age Americans showed up in 2016, but 87% of registered voters cast a ballot. What that indicates is that registering usually leads to voting.
Many more voters than ever are registering as unaffiliated or independent these days, and each cycle Republicans worry about deaths reducing voter rolls in critical bellwethers because older Americans tend to vote more with the GOP. L2, a non-partisan data firm, has found that red states lost more voters since 2016 than blue states, approximately 3.9 million to a little more than 2 million, but that those red states also have added 11.4 million new voters while blue states have added 8.8 million new voters. According to L2’s findings, reported in the Washington Post, those three critical states Trump narrowly won have seen more Democrats register than Republicans since 2016. Of 1.4 million new voters, L2 found, 247,000 are Republicans and 752,000 are Democrats.
The task for Trump’s campaign is to locate pockets of unregistered or low-propensity voters in places Trump is positioned to win. His strength in the Florida panhandle, for example, could be bolstered by turning out some of the 75,000 eligible voters who didn’t cast ballots in 2016 in Escambia County, which Trump won by a wide margin. Florida will be a key battleground, one Trump desperately needs to keep in his column after the GOP narrowly won statewide elections for senator and governor there in 2018, and he took the Sunshine State’s 29 electoral votes in 2016 by only 112,911 votes. While Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 200,000 there, GOP voters turn out more regularly. In one rally this year in Orlando, a Trump super PAC connected 3,000 people with the state voter registration website.
And though registration numbers are currently looking rosier in Michigan for Democrats, and the Trump campaign is worried Trump can’t win there next year, his team is still putting plenty of staff and dollars into the state he carried last time by 10,704 votes. According to a study by the Associated Press, some 50,000 eligible voters who didn’t show up in 2016 could be there for the taking for Trump in Ottawa County, near Grand Rapids, where he doubled Clinton’s total in 2016. Unregistered voters in the Midwest tend to be non-college whites who would likely support Trump.
Many prognosticators assume the voters who turned out for him in 2016 but not in 2018, when he wasn’t on the ballot, are more likely to vote next year than Democrats who may have skipped voting in 2016 and 2018. But a Pew finding showed that the makeup of registered voters who stayed home in 2016 — Democrats contend they were not motivated to support Clinton and thereby cost her the election — were in fact mostly Democrats by a margin of 55%-41%.
At this point, increasing the number of registered voters in all the right places won’t give Trump another term. Only turning them out on Nov. 3, 2020 will. We don’t know who will cast ballots; polls aren’t votes and registered voters aren’t either. But a massive investment of resources to create new Trump voters is the only way he can win.
A.B. Stoddard is associate editor of RealClearPolitics and a columnist.