Out is the narrative that dominated between Wisconsin and the recent state GOP conventions that Ted Cruz was going to outhustle Trump on the way to 1,237 delegates. In is the narrative that Trump is once again the likeliest Republican nominee, although maybe not with same uniformity as after the billionaire won New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada in convincing fashion.
That brings us back to the next question facing Republicans: Can Trump actually win the general election? Republican National Committee members heard differing perspectives on this at their spring meeting. And if Trump is just shy of the majority of delegates when the primaries end, how Republicans answer that question may have a major impact on their willingness to help put him over the top.
As it happens, I recently argued that Trump really does have a path to the presidency, albeit a very narrow one. Not everyone was convinced. One of my colleagues suggested he wasn’t a fan of Electoral College scenarios that require the Democratic candidates to be taken out by a meteor strike.
No question Tim Carney’s case against Trump’s electability is more likely and therefore the way to bet. But even now, it wouldn’t take meteors for Trump to win.
Instead Trump would need a significant but not unrealistic increase in non-college white turnout and vote share relative to Mitt Romney in 2012 accompanied by a small drop in college-educated white voter turnout. Especially if concentrated in a few states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, this could even compensate for higher Hispanic voter turnout and a lower percentage of the Latino vote than Romney’s dreadful share.
Second, he’d need to compete well in the unpopularity contest with Hillary Clinton. Trump’s favorability numbers among core demographic groups are pretty terrible but Clinton’s are not much better. A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll tells the tale.
Clinton is at minus 39 percent favorable among whites. She is at minus 40 among men. The potential first female president of the United States is at minus 9 among women. Seventy-two percent of white men view her unfavorably. Her net positive among Latinos is just two percentage points.
We simply have no idea what would happen in an election between two major party candidates who are this unpopular. And once Republicans no longer have Cruz or John Kasich as realistic Trump alternatives but only Hillary, his numbers could once again rise.
Remember: when Trump jumped into the Republican presidential race, the conventional wisdom was that GOP voters took too negative a view of him for him to win. He is now the only candidate with a mathematical chance of clinching the nomination through the primary process and he will definitely go to the convention with plurality support.
Clinton will attempt to substitute enthusiasm for Barack Obama with fear and loathing of Trump as a way to boost turnout among millennials and minorities, painting the Republican as an extremist.
But consider the results of an Esquire-NBC News survey of the “new American center.” Voters in this large group aren’t particularly socially conservative and aren’t principled champions of limited government either. They do lean right on some issues, however:
“The people of the center are patriotic and proud, with a strong majority (66 percent) saying that America is still the greatest country in the world, and most (54 percent) calling it a model that other countries should emulate,” writes Tony Dokoupil. “But the center is also very nervous about the future, overwhelmingly saying that America can no longer afford to spend money on foreign aid (81 percent) when we need to build up our own country.”
These voters are afraid of another terrorist attack and feel the country’s political system is broken. Fifty-seven percent oppose affirmative action in hiring, 63 percent think protection of minority rights comes at the expense of the majority and they are less likely to support a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants than Republicans have been in the exit polls after most recent primaries.
Whose political platform does that sound like?
None of this will be enough to save Trump if too few voters decide they like him. Trump’s low favorability among married women in particular threatens his ability to even consolidate the white working-class vote.
I’m not entirely sure I buy delegate hunter Paul Manafort’s contention that Trump’s unfavorable points are fixable and personality-based while Clinton’s are “baked in” and character-based. Even insofar as that’s true, a higher percentage of those with a negative view of Trump may feel personally threatened by him while they merely find Clinton’s character flaws distasteful.
But even anti-Trump Republicans had better hope this scenario isn’t totally far-fetched. Why? Because Cruz is also going to need to win with a coalition that is very white and will have little margin for error in the Electoral College. He’ll be running a much more disciplined campaign with a proven coalition of voters. He’ll also have fewer things like celebrity appeal and an unpredictable set of issue positions to fall back on.
So far in 2016, things have seldom been as good for Trump as his boosters believe or as a bad for him as his detractors claim. The general election is, for now, no different.