The good people of Politico Magazine asked me to sketch out how Donald Trump could beat Hillary Clinton (and asked a conservative to show how Clinton could beat Trump.) I gave it my level best but the thought experiment shows the steep climb Trump faces.
Here’s the lay of the land, as I explained to The Donald:
…you are behind in nine of the 11 polls taken this year gauging a Clinton-Trump matchup. In the most recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, you lose by 13.
You also start from behind in terms of the 2012 electoral map. Assuming you don’t lose any of the Mitt Romney states, you need to pick up, at the absolute least, three additional states from Barack Obama’s column.
You could go for a sweep of the “big three”: Florida (one of your “home” states), Ohio and Pennsylvania. If you can get only Florida and Ohio—the two tightest states of 2012—you’d need to add two or three of these Northern states: Michigan, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa. If you can get only one of the big three, you need four or five of the smaller Northern states. If you can’t get any of the big three, you’ll need all five of the smaller set plus some of the less white swing states: Virginia, Colorado and Nevada.
Contrary to much speculation, the magical unicorn of new voters will not be your savior. Voter turnout has already been relatively high the past few elections. The 61.6 percent registered voter turnout of the 2008 election was the highest since 1968. In 2012, turnout slipped slightly to 58.2 percent, a loss of 2.2 million voters. Romney lost by 4 percentage points and 5 million voters. You need to make up far more ground than that.
The hard reality is that you need to win over some swing-state voters who went with Obama in both of the past two elections: the blue-collar workers saved by the auto bailout, the unmarried women who want equal pay and reproductive freedom, the Catholic moderates and other irregular churchgoers who swung from George W. Bush to Obama and, yes, the Latinos who made the same jump.
Why can’t he write off Latinos? Because as David Bernstein explained in a separate Politico Magazine analysis, if Trump does as poorly with Latinos as current polls suggests, he would need to win an unprecedented percentage of white men to win:
Even assuming Trump can draw 15 percent of Latinos … The Donald would need to win at least 66 percent of the white vote, male and female, to reach 50 percent of the popular vote.
Which brings us to the gender gap: Typically, women vote 7 percentage points to 8 percentage points more for Democrats than men do; if men were to give 46 percent of their votes to the Democrat in a race, women would give that Democrat 53 percent or 54 percent. Plus, women consistently outnumber men at the ballot box. So, if Trump needs 66 percent of all white voters, that means he needs to win 62 percent of women and at least 70 percent of men…
…That’s higher even than the 68 percent of white guys won by Richard Nixon in 1972 and by Reagan in 1984, in their respective 49-state landslide reelections.
There’s no way for to Trump win in the general election the way he’s running in the Republican primary. As The Atlantic’s Ron Brownstein shows, Trump is not bringing new voters into the Republican coalition, he’s merely animating existing Republicans and Republican-friendly independents:
…although turnout has soared from 2012, the share of the total primary votes cast by self-identified Republicans this year is virtually unchanged. And Trump has beaten his rivals among self-identified Republicans in every exit poll conducted in states that he has won. Together these patterns suggest that Trump has built his coalition primarily from voters within the heart of the Republican electorate…
Which is why my strategy memo tells Trump to make a 180-degree turn, stylistically and substantively, to win over two-time Obama swing state voters. He has already shown a greater capacity to flip-flop than Mitt Romney, so this will not be psychologically difficult for him to do.
The big risk, as I noted in this recent appearance on MSNBC’s The Last Word, is that Trump will lose some voters off of his right flank. Already, pro-lifers, free traders and security hawks are pledging to never vote for Trump. Presumably he’d lose some more as he tacked farther left.
But his only hope is to move left to get those Obama voters and hope his cult of personality limits losses of Romney voters. It’s a hell of a tightrope walk. There are many reasons why I would not want to be Donald Trump, and this is one of them.