Longtime Republicans and Democrats are further unsettling the presidential race by embracing opposition candidates
The 2016 White House race has already shattered more than its share of precedents. Luanne Mitchell plans to break another when the 53-year-old lifelong Republican votes for Hillary Clinton this fall because she can’t bring herself to support Donald Trump.
About 10 miles away, Jim Benson is eager to celebrate his own political watershed when the 74-year-old Democrat casts his first-ever ballot for a Republican presidential candidate. “As soon as I heard Trump was running, I said, ‘That’s the guy I want,’ ” he recalled, noting he voted for Mrs. Clinton in the 2008 primary.
Candidates aren’t the only ones doing the unexpected this election year. Voters are adding to the uncertainty by threatening to buck the parties they typically support. Republicans ill-disposed toward Mr. Trump are threatening to stay home or vote for Mrs. Clinton, while some Democrats who don’t like Mrs. Clinton or feel abandoned by their party are
The election is four months away, but early evidence suggests a larger-than-usual share of the electorate might switch sides this fall, with Republican women, in particular, more open to backing Mrs. Clinton, and white men who identify as Democrats rallying around Mr. Trump. The prospect of voters crossing party lines makes it more complicated for Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Trump and candidates down the ballot to turn out supporters on Election Day.
One big factor is that Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump are the two least-popular presumptive presidential nominees in modern polling history, alienating rank-and-file voters on both sides of the aisle.
The other is a combination of policy and demographics: Mr. Trump’s opposition to free trade and illegal immigration has drawn white Democrats and independents who feel culturally isolated or economically distressed, while many higher-educated Republicans who don’t like Mr. Trump view Mrs. Clinton as the steadier commander in chief, polls show.
“This year, just putting on the red jersey or the blue jersey doesn’t guarantee the usual support,” said Brent McGoldrick, chief executive of Deep Root Analytics, a Republican firm that surveyed 7,394 registered voters this spring to help candidates and outside groups target voters through television and digital ads. “The name on the back of the jersey could mean more than the team name on the front.”
To gauge the propensity of voters to jump party lines, Deep Root pollsters measured support for Mr. Trump against professed support for an unnamed Republican congressional candidate—a so-called generic GOP candidate. Mr. Trump runs 27 percentage points behind the generic candidate among white, college-educated Republican women, and 20 points behind among Republican women who didn’t graduate from college, according to the Deep Root data.
But he runs more than 10 percentage points ahead of that generic Republican among white men who identify either as Democrats or independents. He also runs stronger among white Democratic women and the least-partisan Democrats.
Those findings are in line with Wall Street Journal/NBC polling data that show Mr. Trump runs far behind where 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney was among white women with college degrees, but performs much better than Mr. Romney did among white men who didn’t attend college.
Democratic operatives say that trend is consistent with their own survey data, as well.
The Denver suburbs, a consistent battleground in presidential races, are filled with voters willing to jump party lines. Interviews with voters suggest more-affluent Republicans in the white-collar communities south of the city are anxious about Mr. Trump’s rhetoric, his grasp of foreign policy and his more-populist economic positions, while working-class Democrats and independents who live north and west of the city are drawn to his pugnacious, outsider message.
Kimberly Arnold, 44, a Republican from Highlands Ranch, questions Mr. Trump’s grasp of policy particulars and worries he has alienated too many of the people he would need to advise him as president. “He’s so demeaning, and he exaggerates everything,” she said.
While she acknowledges Mrs. Clinton’s experience and intelligence, Ms. Arnold opposes many of her economic policies. She said she doesn’t plan to support either presumptive nominee at this point, and is focused on electing Republicans further down the ballot.
Kimberly Arnold, 44, a Republican from Highlands Ranch, Colo., said she doesn’t plan to support either presumptive nominee at this point.
Isaac Sandoval, 32, a Democrat from Thornton, just north of Denver, preferred Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary. He plans to back Mr. Trump because he thinks the New York businessman represents a bigger change than Mrs. Clinton. “I would vote for Donald Trump because he’s funding his own campaign,” Mr. Sandoval said.
The Deep Root team combined their survey results with data about voters’ previous consumer and political behavior to identify roughly 16 million voters, or 9% of the electorate, they dubbed “reluctant Republicans” and another 14 million “disaffected Democrats,” or 8% of voters.
Some 68% of those Republicans are women, half favor free trade and a third are social conservatives or minority voters. Four-in-five of the “disaffected” Democrats are white, two-thirds favor protectionist trade policies and roughly half are fiscal conservatives.
The share of voters who split their votes for president and down-ballot contenders hit a 52-year low in 2012, at just 12% in Senate races, according to data compiled by American National Election Studies. The possibility that this year will be different presents both an opportunity and dilemma for candidates at every level of the ballot.
Mrs. Clinton held a small event at a coffee shop in suburban Loudoun County, Va., in May to discuss education, health-care costs and equal pay, a ploy to court Republican women. Suburban women also were a key audience for her speech condemning Mr. Trump on foreign policy. And she twice appealed to Republicans in her speech accepting the Democratic nomination.
“Whether you supported me, or Sen. Sanders, or one of the Republicans, we all need to keep working toward a better, fairer, stronger America,” she said. “This election is not…about the same old fights between Democrats and Republicans. This election is different.”
Mr. Trump makes regular appeals to the Democrats who backed Mr. Sanders in the primary.
“To all those Bernie Sanders voters who have been left out in the cold by a rigged system of superdelegates, we welcome you with open arms,” Mr. Trump said on the final day of the Republican primary.
Here in Colorado’s sixth congressional district, in the Denver suburbs, Republican Rep. Mike Coffman and his Democratic challenger, Morgan Carroll, both face a strategic decision about whether to go after GOP voters turned off by Mr. Trump or Democrats not sold on Mrs. Clinton. The choice isn’t mutually exclusive, advisers to both say.
Mr. Coffman has distanced himself from Mr. Trump, saying the presumptive nominee “has a long way to go” to earn his support. Ms. Carroll avoided taking sides in the Democratic primary, skipping a state party convention that turned ugly for some incumbent elected officials. The key for both may be persuading voters who cast ballots for the other party’s presidential nominee to back them in the House race.
Since locking up the nomination in early May, Mr. Trump has gained ground with Republicans and independents. He led Mrs. Clinton by 10 percentage points among white independent voters, 40% to 30%, according to the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll in May. Many of those voters expressed frustration with both parties and are drawn to Mr. Trump because he represents the biggest change.
Some are balancing misgivings about both candidates.
Jan Pawlowski, 72, a county commissioner in Adams County and former mayor of Brighton, Colo., struggles with the choice but says she will probably cast a ballot for Mr. Trump because she is worried about a Democratic president replacing conservative stalwart Antonin Scalia, who died earlier this year, on the Supreme Court.
“Trump was not my pick in the beginning. Even now that he’s the nominee, he wins my vote one day and then the next does something that makes me say, ‘Now, wait a second,’ ” said Mrs. Pawlowski, president of a local Republican women’s group. “I may have to hold my nose to vote.”
Mrs. Mitchell, the lifelong Republican who backs Mrs. Clinton, has never voted for a Democrat. She and her husband, a 32-year Air Force veteran, attended their local caucus meeting back in March to support Mr. Rubio. She has many concerns about Mr. Trump’s character and worries that he lacks the temperament or expertise to be commander in chief. She remains bewildered that he is the party nominee.
“He has no idea what it takes to run a country,” she said.
Mr. Benson, the Democrat supporting Mr. Trump, backed Mrs. Clinton in her primary against Barack Obama in 2008 before twice casting general-election ballots for Mr. Obama. He says he has since lost faith in Mrs. Clinton, given her use of a private email server and her role in the Obama administration’s response to the terrorist attacks on a U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya. The Federal Bureau of Investigation last week recommended that criminal charges not be filed against Mrs. Clinton in the email case, but Director James Comey sharply criticized her for being “extremely careless” with the nation’s secrets.
“It will be the first time in my life I have ever voted for a Republican,” said Mr. Benson, a former member of the county council in Commerce City who plans to vote for Democratic candidates in other races. “Since I made that position known, some people won’t speak to me anymore…But there just comes a time when you’re fed up.”