NOVEMBER 5 2016 – 12:15AM
US Election: So, can Donald Trump win?
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Florida: During the primaries, which now seem to be many years ago, Donald Trump was written off time and again. Now he appears to be on the cusp of becoming the 45th president of the United States.
Melania Trump says Donald ‘knows how to shake things up’
Melania Trump, in her first campaign speech since the Republican National Convention in August.
A stunned world is watching. A German poll found that if they had their say Clinton would win 90 per cent to 3 per cent.
The Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail has just published an editorial entitled “Dear America: Please Don’t Vote For Donald Trump”.
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“We can’t believe that given a choice between one mildly flawed candidate and another peddling an explosive combo of bad ideas, no ideas and zero self-control, you’re having trouble choosing,” it reads in part.
In America, Clinton supporters are, as the CNN contributor Jeffrey Toobin put it on Thursday afternoon, hiding under their desks in the foetal position.
In Australia, people with only a passing interest in our own elections are daily checking the RealClearPolitics average of national polls, and what they are seeing there is, bluntly, scaring them witless.
According to that chart, since last week’s revelation that the FBI was reviewing its investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails, Clinton’s lead has evaporated. She is up a paltry 1.3 per cent. A statistical tie.
Supporters of Donald Trump yell at reporters during a campaign rally in Miami.
Supporters of Donald Trump yell at reporters during a campaign rally in Miami. Photo: AP
An inspection of the chart over a year brings only more misery for Clinton supporters. On it Clinton’s blue line runs above Trump’s red line and the two appear to breathe in and out like great bellows. Four times over the year the two lines converge and crossover when the bellows are closed. On those occasions alone Trump’s support is measured above Clinton’s. On the current trend it looks as though the fifth such occasion could fall on Tuesday, polling day.
But while these tracking polls are good at measuring public sentiment, they are less effective at predicting the election outcome. This is because the presidential election is actually 50 state elections. Once you understand this, you understand why the betting markets and most analysts still believe Clinton is more likely to win.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gestures as he speaks during a campaign rally in North Carolina.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gestures as he speaks during a campaign rally in North Carolina. Photo: AP
Trump’s path to victory
Each state in the US is assigned a number of votes depending on its Congressional representation in what is called the electoral college. California has 55 votes, New Hampshire 4. The candidate that wins a state secures its votes. In all there are 538 electors in the college. The candidate that wins 270 votes becomes the president.
Election workers flatten ballots so they can be fed through the counting machines in Minneapolis.
Election workers flatten ballots so they can be fed through the counting machines in Minneapolis. Photo: Star Tribune/AP
Given that many states are overwhelmingly Republican or Democratic, the outcome in those are a foregone conclusion. We know, for example, that Clinton will win California and Trump will take Texas.
In 2012 Barack Obama won 332 college votes and Mitt Romney 206.
Members of the Ku Klux Klan on the march in Georgia in April.
Members of the Ku Klux Klan on the march in Georgia in April. Photo: AP
Using that election as a baseline then, Trump needs to win another 64 votes over Romney’s total. To do this his campaign targets battleground states, those where polling is close enough for either party to win.
The most obvious is Florida, which has 29 votes and where the two candidates are in a dead heat in the polls at 46.9 per cent. If Trump wins Florida he is still in the hunt. If he loses it, his race is over. You can tell both candidates know this. On Wednesday I went to a rally in Miami and a few hours later watched President Barack Obama’s motorcade roll past the very same spot.
Preaching to the faithful: Trump speaks during a campaign rally.
Preaching to the faithful: Trump speaks during a campaign rally. Photo: AP
In any event, Trump could win Florida. He could also win Ohio, which has 18 votes. Now he has 47 of the 64 extra votes he needs to win. He will probably win Iowa, with six votes. He now needs another 11.
He might win Nevada, but he has made Clinton’s life easier in Nevada by offending the state’s rapidly growing Latino population. Even if he wins it he needs another five votes. The next obvious place to look would be New Hampshire, which has four votes. Clinton appears to have a slight lead in New Hampshire, but even if Trump wins it he he will have 269 votes, a tie. He might break the tie by winning one of Maine’s votes. (To complicate matters, Maine awards its college votes to each of its congressional districts with a further two granted to the overall state winner.)
Illustration: Richard Giliberto
Illustration: Richard Giliberto
This is a pretty tough path. It demands Trump winning on every battleground. This is why he has been recently campaigning in more traditionally Democratic states such as Michigan and Pennsylvania. These are places hit hard by the manufacturing downturn, and which have high proportions of the rural and blue-collar white voters who have been drawn to his message.
Victory in one of these states seems unlikely, but if Trump can pull it off he doesn’t have to win all those other tight races.
And this is why so many in the Trump camp like to talk about Brexit.
The Brexit theory
After analysts failed to predict the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the EU, exit pollsters discovered that there was a substantial minority of voters who turned out at the referendum who had been so disengaged from politics for so long that nobody knew they existed. Once they were motivated to vote, they changed history.
IMAGE DISTRIBUTED FOR AVAAZ – Demonstrators hold placards calling on Americans to vote and avoid getting ‘Brexited’ in the U.S. presidential election at a demonstration organized by global civic movement AVAAZ, at Parliament Square on Thursday, Nov. 3, 2016, in London. (Joel Ryan/AP Images for AVAAZ)
Demonstrators, organised by the civic movement AVAAZ in London, hold placards calling on Americans to vote and avoid getting ‘Brexited’.
This finding became a source of fascination to Republicans, who knew that if a similar phenomenon existed here – an unrecognised mass of largely white working-class voters – Trump might have already won. The narrow path described above could be an autobahn. The rustbelt states could be in play. Trump started calling himself “Mr Brexit” at rallies and the driving force behind Brexit, Nigel Farage, became something of a folk hero, popping up at the Republican National Convention and on conservative media in the US.
Pollsters in America have been busy looking for “shy Trump voters” ever since the theory started bouncing around this year. None have been able to find any, though one pollster, John Zogby, told Fairfax Media last month that this did not necessarily mean they were not out there.
A more recent study by Politico concluded this week that the hidden Trump army should have shown up in primary voting, but did not. It was, the analysts said, a mirage.
The Comey effect
Polls normally tighten at the end of a race, and this has been the case in the current election. Trump supporters believe that the decision by the director of the FBI to go public about re-opening the investigation into Clinton’s emails might give him the momentum to win.
Leading US political scientist Larry Sabato, of the University of Virginia, told Fairfax Media this week that the Comey effect was real and was damaging Clinton.
But even when he takes its effect into account he still predicts, at present, Clinton winning 293 college votes and Trump 214, with 31 too close to call.
There is another thing that the RCP chart tells you too. If you look more closely at those bellows, you see that despite this wild election, despite allegations of Russian interference, sexual assault and systematic dishonesty, the polling has been remarkably consistent. Hillary has had a small but significant lead over Trump since the race the began. Her ceiling has been in the late 40s, his in the mid-40s.
And this is remarkable given how different the candidates are, and how vehemently each is disliked by supporters of the other.
What this tells us that this election was never truly about Trump’s staggering, boastful lack of qualification to serve in high office, about pussy-gate or tax returns. It was never about Clinton’s emails, the FBI, her likeability or her self-destructive penchant for secrecy.
It was about demographics and change.
One man who understands this better than most is Robert Jones, the author of The End of White Christian America.
In his book Jones demonstrates that sometime in 2013 – about the time Trump was championing the racist birther movement (that Obama was foreign-born) – the United States ceased to be a majority white, Christian nation.
A mannequin for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump outside an outhouse used as an unofficial voting booth at Chris Owens’s farm on November 1, in Ashland, New Hampshire. A week before election day, the farm stand owner has decided to tally customers’ votes for president from an outhouse-turned-fake-voting booth. The winner: Hillary Clinton. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)
A mannequin for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is on display outside an outhouse used as an unofficial voting booth on a farm in New Hampshire. Photo: AP
In 2008 if you bundled up all the Catholics, Protestants and Baptists, you had about 54 per cent of the nation. This year, the same group constitutes about 45 per cent. According to Jones, that figure is declining by a percentage point each year.
This figure is central to this election because the Republican Party has come to depend almost exclusively on white Christian voters while the Democratic Party has built a coalition of the other groups.
You can trace this back to the Democratic President Lyndon Johnson’s signing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. Blacks left the Republican Party and joined the Democrats. Later, Republican Richard Nixon decided to use this resorting of loyalties to his party’s advantage, developing what became known as the “Southern strategy”. The GOP would draw increasing numbers of white voters to the polls by using dog-whistled messages to excite racial anxieties.
Ronald Reagan embraced the strategy with the war on drugs, and built on it by uniting Protestant and Catholic voters into a “moral majority”. (This is how abortion came to be a crucial part of conservative politics.)
No one back then could imagine a time when appealing to the white base would not be a winning strategy.
In 2012 Mitt Romney spoke to the same voters of hard-line immigration policies that would make the lives of “illegals” so difficult they would “self-deport”. He convinced Christian evangelicals that his Mormon faith was not alien to their own.
On election day he was confident of victory. His data analysis team was convinced they had got the right message to the right (white) voters in the right states. That night they were clobbered. As Jones explained to Fairfax Media, Romney’s team had hit its targets, but its targets were wrong. Its demographic models were based on data from 2004.
Determined to break the cycle, the Republican machine commissioned an exhaustively researched report into the loss, which was published in 2013 – just as the demographic shift took place – and became know as “the autopsy”.
The autopsy found that the Republican Party could no longer expect to win presidential elections by pursuing an ever-larger turnout from an ever-smaller target demographic. As Jones puts it, 2012 was the last time such a strategy could even be considered plausible.
“Public perception of the Party is at record lows,” the autopsy read in part. “Young voters are increasingly rolling their eyes at what the Party represents, and many minorities wrongly think that Republicans do not like them or want them in the country.
“If Hispanic Americans perceive that a GOP nominee or candidate does not want them in the United States [i.e. self-deportation], they will not pay attention to our next sentence. It does not matter what we say about education, jobs or the economy; if Hispanics think we do not want them here, they will close their ears to our policies … Other minority communities, including Asian and Pacific Islander Americans, also view the Party as unwelcoming.”
The party took the report and its authors seriously. Figures such as Marco Rubio, planning a 2016 run, embraced immigration reform. Jeb Bush hired one of the authors.
But Donald Trump was watching too, and perhaps already considering a run. He might not know much about politics, but he certainly understood marketing. He fired off a tweet.
“New @RNC report calls for embracing “comprehensive immigration reform.” http://nbcnews.to/1088vJF Does the @RNC have a death wish?”
The RNC and the conservative political establishment might have understood that demonising minorities would doom the party, but Trump did not care. He is not, after all, a party guy.
Trump’s gamble this year is that there is just one more presidential race to be won by breathing life into the old animosities. What happens next does not bother him.
The GOP machine, the people that Trump dismisses as “the Washington elites” watched on in horror as Trump went about destroying the groundwork it had started to make in outreach to Hispanics. Worse, he seemed determined to shed the support the party had among women too. In 2012 Mitt Romney was viewed negatively by 42 per cent of suburban women. Trump is now seen in a negative light by 60 per cent to 70 per cent of suburban women.
In August one of the report’s authors, Sally Bradshaw, who has spent a lifetime working for the Republican Party, announced that if the state of Florida looked close she would vote for Clinton.
“I can’t look my children in the eye and tell them I voted for Donald Trump,” she told CNN. “I can’t tell them to love their neighbour and treat others the way they wanted to be treated, and then vote for Donald Trump. I won’t do it.”
Jones’ demographic analysis is useful because it does more than just help explain why the polls have been relatively stable throughout such a wrenching campaign. It helps explain a host of other phenomena.
It helps explain the rise of what is now known as the alt-right and the return of the old language – and characters of white supremacy. This year we see the former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke is running for the senate. The KKK itself has endorsed Trump and social media is full of brash, proud, overtly racist pro-Trump propaganda.
This is not to say that all Trump support is racist, but that racists understand he is addressing racial and cultural anxieties.
You can apply a similar analysis to the states that were once reliably Republican but are now in play or Democratic. The southern section of Virginia is Trumpland but it is is being overwhelmed electorally by the state’s north, over which the multicultural suburbs of Washington are spreading.
Rural North Carolina is solid Republican but its two largest cities, Charlotte and Raleigh, have booming high-tech and banking sectors and are drawing in a younger, more educated, multi-racial population. The same trend is happening in Georgia. In Nevada, Arizona and even Texas the Hispanic population is growing and the Democratic Party is either competitive, or will be in the foreseeable future.
And Jones’ analysis helps explain the ferocity of animosity some Trump fans have for Clinton and the broader progressive movement.
“Imagine being a conservative white Christian in the South,” says Jones. “In the past few years they have gone from being in the demographic majority to the demographic minority. They have seen support for gay marriage go from 4 in 10 [voters] in 2008 to 6 in 10, so now they feel they are a moral minority too. The pace of change is head-spinning. They feel cultural dislocation, they feel vertigo.”
It also help explain why Christian evangelicals back Trump, a man who quite clearly does not live up to their ideals. According to Jones, Trump has been able to convert people who were once “values voters” into “nostalgia voters”.
When Trump says he wants to ‘Make America Great Again’ the word his supporters hear loudest is “again”, says Jones. Trump is signalling that he understands their anxiety, that his vision of an ideal America is like theirs, rooted in the 1950s, an America before the Civil Rights Act was introduced, the Jim Crow laws scrapped, before free-trade agreements and mass immigration, before the suburbs and cities changed colour and tone.