Most of the punditry surrounding the 2016 election has focused on the possibility of Donald Trump’s inglorious defeat. But as the Republican presidential nominee edges closer to Democrat Hillary Clinton in national surveys, Mr. Trump’s path to victory deserves a closer look.
In 2012, incumbent president Barack Obama won reelection, defeating Republican Mitt Romney by about four points in the popular vote. The Electoral College vote, which determines the victor, was much more lopsided, with President Obama capturing 332 electoral votes to Mr. Romney’s 206.
This heavily slanted outcome—and the raw numbers behind it—illustrate just how challenging the electoral map will be for Republicans this year. White voters have long been the G.O.P.’s most reliable base of support, but their shrinking proportion of the national electorate has diminished their role in deciding presidential elections. In 1980, capturing 56 percent of white voters was enough to hand Ronald Reagan a massive landslide; in 2012, Mr. Romney took an even higher proportion of whites than Mr. Reagan did—nearly three-fifths of them—but lost by a substantial margin anyway.
As the race currently stands, Donald Trump looks to carry the same demographic groups as these past Republican presidential candidates, but his relative strength with each group will likely change. Among whites, he leads Mrs. Clinton substantially, and a recent survey from the L.A. Times—though giving the Republican candidate a one-point edge nationally—shows Mr. Trump struggling with non-white voters. However, Hillary Clinton has given back some of the gains which President Obama made among Black and Latino voters, leaving the door open to some progress for Republicans among these groups in November.
|Romney 2012||Obama 2012||Trump 2016*||Clinton 2016*|
|White % Support||59%||39%||42%||32%|
|Latino % Support||27%||71%||20%||52%|
|Black % Support||6%||93%||10%||76%|
|*Sourced from Aug. 14-16 Economist/YouGov survey.|
Unlike in 2012, educational attainment has become one of the defining contrasts between each candidate’s base of support. Mitt Romney carried college-educated whites by a wide margin, but some surveys have shown Mr. Trump trailing Mrs. Clinton with this group. This trend has helped push some 2012 swing states—such as Virginia and Colorado, where Mr. Trump is behind by double-digits—into the Democratic column. The Republican nominee should not waste his time with these states.
Instead, to balance the loss of college-educated whites, the Republican nominee should aggressively pursue whites without a college degree—voters which happen to be plentiful in the Rust Belt. Wisconsin and Ohio are ideal targets, and Pennsylvania, though relatively well-educated, has a large blue-collar population which could swing Mr. Trump’s way.
Below is the electoral map as it stands now. Both candidates are neck-and-neck in Florida, North Carolina, Nevada, Ohio, and Iowa. If Mr. Trump’s numbers hold until November, even picking up every swing state—shown in grey—will not be enough to give him the presidency.
But consider a scenario where Donald Trump draws strong support from blue-collar workers in the Rust Belt. Hailing from a smorgasbord of political persuasions, these voters could turn traditionally Democratic states into competitive races, forcing the Democrats on defense.
As you can see, turning out the white working class for Donald Trump on Election Day could transform the map in Republicans’ favor. Iowa and Ohio—states with low proportions of college graduates and many working-class voters—would edge into Mr. Trump’s column, while Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and New Hampshire would become toss-ups.
This map offers many paths to victory to Mr. Trump, but he will need to work hard to make it a reality. He is polling well behind Hillary Clinton across the Rust Belt, even facing a double-digit deficit in Pennsylvania, where Mitt Romney finished five points behind in 2012. In addition to campaigning hard there, he will need to shore up his support in Arizona and Georgia, reliably conservative states where Mrs. Clinton is posing a stronger-than-expected challenge.
These difficulties aside, the path through the Rust Belt is a realistic one given Mr. Trump’s base of support. Spending time and money in diverse, highly-educated states like Colorado and Virginia would be a fool’s errand this year. For Mr. Trump, targeting Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, while whipping supporters in the Republican strongholds where he is most vulnerable, will help deliver the votes he needs to turn the White House red for the first time in eight years.