LOST TRIBES OF THE AMAZON
The Republican Myth of the Untapped White Voter
Trump talks about reaching Hispanics and blacks, but he’d be the most unpopular candidate with either group ever to lead a national ticket.
With every cycle, American politics is covered more like sports.
There are channels and programs that have elevated once obscure insider moments like the NFL combine or the living rooms of the Iowa caucus into national obsessions. Everyone is an expert because every one watches the game played on television. Everyone blogs, everyone calls into Mad Dog or Rush, everyone knows everything. No one knows anything.
But everyone is an expert. Information is consumed to confirm rather than inform opinions and in the Internet’s endless feedback loop of misinformation, every hunch quickly escalates into an opinion hardened into a truth. If only Seattle had run against New England, they would have won the Super Bowl. And in politics, for many Republicans the most unassailable truth is that winning the presidency is easy if only… and here everyone finishes the sentence with their pet theory of electoral politics.
That there is so much conviction that it might be easy for Republicans to win a national election is an odd one given history. Over the last six presidential elections, Democrats have won 16 states every time for a total of 242 electoral votes out of the 270 needed to win. In those same six elections, Republican presidential candidates carried 13 states for 103 electoral votes. Here’s another way to look at it: The last time a Republican presidential candidate won with enough votes to be declared the winner on Election Night was 1988.
In 1980, Ronald Reagan won 56 percent of white voters and won a landslide victory of 44 states. In 2012, Mitt Romney won 59 percent of whites and lost with 24 states. But it’s a frequent talking point that white voter enthusiasm was higher for Reagan and turnout down for Romney. Not so. In 1980, 59 percent of whites voted and in 2012, 64 percent of whites voted.
But still the myth survives that there are these masses of untapped white voters just waiting for the right candidate. Call it the Lost Tribes of the Amazon theory: If only you paddle far enough up the river and bang the drum loud enough, these previously hidden voters will gather to the river’s edge. The simple truth is that there simply aren’t enough white voters in the America of 2016 to win a national election without also getting a substantial share of the non-white vote. Romney won 17 percent of the non-white vote. Depending on white voter turnout, a Republican needs between 25 percent and 35 percent of the non-white vote to win. RealClearPolitics has a handy tool so you can play with the percentages.
The Trump campaign talks about being able to reach out to Hispanics and African Americans but it’s not an overstatement to say he would be the most unpopular candidate with either group to ever lead a national ticket. Only 12 percent of Hispanics have a favorable view of Trump with 77 percent unfavorable. Even among Hispanic Republicans, he has a 60 percent unfavorable ranking. Among African Americans, 86 percent have an unfavorable view of Trump.
To have even a chance at winning a national election, a nominee must get 90-plus percent of their own party. But one out of every three Republicans view Trump unfavorably.
A function of a contested primary? Not really. Hillary Clinton has an 83 percent favorability with Democrats in the middle of her very hot battle with Bernie Sanders.
One of Hillary Clinton’s greatest weaknesses is her perceived lack of honesty and trust. Only 37 percent of Americans believe she is honest and trustworthy. That could be a devastating opportunity for an opponent to exploit. But only 27 percent of the public believes Donald Trump is honest.
We can go on. But of course none of this will dissuade the Trump believers who will point to his dismantling of the Republican field as proof that he is a new force in politics and to use that popular phrase I loathe, “There are no rules.” It’s a legitimate point and one impossible to argue as there is no alternative universe in which there was an alternative election in which the Republican candidates ran better campaigns against Trump.
It’s true that voter registration and turnout is up in the Republican primaries and I don’t see any reason not to credit Trump with those increases. We’ve seen this before with little impact on the general election but more voters and more voter enthusiasm are positive.
Trump has accumulated about half of the 1,237 delegates he needs to secure the nomination and there are credible scenarios where he does not become the nominee. (That’s another piece.) In my view, Donald Trump, if he does claim the party’s mantle, would be a historically weak and vulnerable nominee.
But let’s not kid ourselves. Even if John Kasich or Ted Cruz, the remaining two candidates, were to emerge, the advantage is still very much with the Democrats. And until the party grows its appeal with non-white voters, it’s going to take an inside straight to win the White House.