Clinton Starts with a Decisive Advantage

by Stuart Rothenberg May 13, 2016 · 9:30 AM EDT

The warnings about jumping to conclusions about November are widespread.

I’ve heard that it’s early in the presidential race and that we underestimated Donald Trump last time so we should be careful now. I’ve also heard that Trump’s strength with working-class whites could change the electoral map, giving him a path to an Electoral College win.

The purpose of these and similar warnings is to convey the impression that the 2016 presidential contest should be regarded as competitive. This is utter baloney.

Yes, it’s still six months to November and Trump has an opportunity to change the trajectory of the race, either by demonizing Hillary Clinton, improving his own reputation, or bringing in a flood of new voters.

Given the makeup of the likely electorate, state voting patterns, the images of the candidates, the deeply fractured GOP and the early survey data, Clinton starts off with a decisive advantage in the contest. A blowout is possible.

Trump’s problems start with the electorate’s demographics, though you wouldn’t know it given the chatter about his appeal with working-class white voters.

Trump has done well with working-class whites, and will continue to do so. But that’s not a game-changer in the general election because working-class whites are now a core Republican constituency, having fled the Democratic Party over the past three decades. Their realignment is why states like Kentucky, West Virginia, Arkansas and Louisiana are now GOP strongholds.

An excellent January Wall Street Journal piece documented the change. In 1992, whites without a college degree constituted 63 percent of all registered voters. But in 2015, they accounted for only 46 percent of registered voters. However, they were still a substantial 58 percent of GOP voters, which is why they had a more substantial impact in the Republican race than they will in November.

The NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll of April 10-14, 2016, asked registered voters whether they wanted the next president to be a Republican or a Democrat. They preferred a Democrat, though by only a single point, 46 percent to 45 percent. But whites with no college degree preferred a Republican, 59 percent to 31 percent.

The same survey matched Clinton against each of the three Republicans then in the race. Among whites without a college degree, Trump held a 57 percent to 33 percent lead over Clinton. But Ted Cruz’s 56 percent to 30 percent lead over Clinton was almost identical, and John Kasich slaughtered Clinton 63 percent to 24 percent among those same voters.

The bottom line is pretty clear: most whites without a college degree are reliable Republicans, not a pool of new voters — or Democrats — for Trump to turn out in November. Trump’s appeal with those voters does not alter the election’s arithmetic.

Given the changing electorate and Trump’s very limited appeal among Hispanic and non-white voters, he faces very serious obstacles.

Yes, Trump says he loves Hispanics and they love him. But the numbers don’t lie. He is hugely unpopular with them, with high negatives — a 77 percent unfavorable rating among Hispanics, according to Gallup — that suggest he will do worse than Mitt Romney did in 2012 among that voting group.

African-Americans, particularly African-American women, are a reliably Democratic group, and they gave Clinton strong support in the primaries. They will continue to support her in big numbers. In addition, Trump isn’t likely to have much appeal among the 39 percent of whites who voted for Obama in 2012. They are liberal and strongly partisan, and Trump isn’t going to shake them loose from their party.

Trump must hope that many Obama voters, particularly 18-29 year olds and those of color, stay home in 2016, disappointed with the two nominees. But he must also retain all of Romney’s voters. Given the large number of dyed-in-the-wool Republicans already refusing to support the ticket (and in some cases even defect to Clinton), Trump cannot count on a united party.

National polling (see RealClearPolitics) shows the former secretary of state leading Trump by from 7 to 12 points. There are a few polls that show a close race, of course, but they are distinct outliers. The most widely respected surveys show a clear Clinton advantage, with the former New York senator usually drawing about 50 percent of the vote to 40 percent for Trump.

That is a big margin. Sen. John McCain lost to Obama in 2008 by slightly more than 7 points, while Obama beat Romney by almost 4 points (51 percent to 47.2 percent). Trump’s margin of defeat could easily be bigger.

I’ve heard that Trump has a “path” to an Electoral College victory, but it is about the same path that John Kasich had to winning the Republican nomination. In other words, it is a path built on “what ifs.”

Trump can win most, maybe even all, of Mitt Romney’s 2012 states, but after that his options shrink. North Carolina will be a headache for him, and if he loses by more than 8 points nationally, other reliably Republican states will be competitive.

Florida is a swing state most years, but Trump could see noteworthy defections in affluent areas on both coasts, and the Sunshine State’s growing Hispanic population will be a problem for him given his comments about Hispanics and immigration, as well as his mocking of Sen. Marco Rubio and former Gov. Jeb Bush.

Colorado looks close to impossible for Trump given the state’s politically powerful upscale suburban GOP voters and its conservatives, many of whom won’t find him to their liking. The state’s large Hispanic population is an additional problem for Trump.

Virginia also looks like another hill too high to climb for Trump, considering the growing power of Northern Virginia, the kind of territory where Trump is weakest in his own party.

Can Trump peel off Pennsylvania or Nevada? Maybe, but that would not be enough. Michigan? Even New York, as he says? Don’t be silly. Even raising New York as a possible Trump state is delusional given its demographic and partisan make-up.

If Trump loses the popular vote by 7 or 8 points, he isn’t going to carry any states that Obama did four years ago.

One of the reasons why political analysts (including myself) missed Trump’s strength is that we dismissed the early polls, which Trump cited so often. They showed him leading last fall and in the early primaries, but we discounted those numbers, promising things would change. They didn’t.

But now, the early numbers show Trump trailing badly and even more unpopular than Clinton. That makes sense given Trump’s controversial campaign and often contradictory message.

So, don’t get caught up in all the white working-class chatter or the hesitation to call the race what it is. It isn’t close now, and it may never get all that close. Hillary Clinton is the clear and undeniable early favorite in this race, and a double-digit win would not be surprising.