Can Trump win?

This article appears in the Election 2016 feature series. View the full series.

Can Trump win? It is the question that haunts us all. Normally, we look at the Electoral College map, recall the first law of politics, namely, that most people vote the way they did last time, and conclude that there is no way Trump can win. Call me skeptical, not least because I thought Sen. Ted Cruz would be the GOP nominee, and my prediction, like those of most pundits, was off the mark.

This is not your normal year. We have never, repeat never, seen both parties nominate candidates with such enormously high negatives. The last time a major party nominated someone with no political experience for the presidency it was in 1952 when the Republican Party nominated General Dwight Eisenhower, and he had led the liberation of Europe. This is the first time a major party has nominated a woman to be its standard bearer. This is the first time the spouse of a former president has been nominated, although we have seen sons of former presidents nominated in the past with the Adams and Bush families.

Still, there is a bias within the political science community that says we should pay less attention to the candidates and their particularities and more to the demographics of the electorate. Every election brings candidate variables: Obama was the first black nominee and Mitt Romney was the first Mormon. What is constant is the electorate, unless there is a realigning election, as happened in 1980, when Ronald Reagan so trounced Jimmy Carter and followed that with a presidency that was viewed as a success, that Reagan Democrats redrew the electoral map. Who is to say this will not be a realigning election?

With those caveats registered, the thesis that both parties start with some states that are highly unlikely to flip, and that 10 of 11 swing states will decide the election, seems the most likely scenario. Recently, Politico ran two stories that looked at the Electoral College math. The first suggested that these 12 states will determine the election: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin. Obama swept the 11 in 2008 and all but North Carolina four years later.

I do not think anyone would quibble with that list although I would encourage Clinton to add Indiana, Arizona and Georgia to her wish list: Obama won Indiana in 2008 and it has an open Senate seat this year, and the growing Latino population in Arizona and Georgia may turn those states purplish sooner than, say, Texas. Besides, of the 11 states listed by Politico, I anticipate that Florida, Nevada and Virginia fall into Clinton’s column very easily on the strength of the Latino vote in those states, so she can afford to play in some other states that are more of a long shot.

The other Politico story looked at Trump's path to 270, and there is really only one path. Although the candidate likes to claim he can put New York and California into play, that claim rests on the likelihood Clinton would be indicted. Otherwise, the only path for Trump to victory is to flip the major Midwest industrial states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin. These graphs from that article explain why it is plausible:

There are at least a few reasons for Trump to think he can do better than Romney in Pennsylvania, which has the sixth oldest population in the country.

'For the lean-Democratic voter, Romney wasn't good enough for them to move away from Obama,' said David Flaherty, whose firm, Magellan Strategies, has done polling in Pennsylvania. 'But especially with older, Catholic white voters, Trump's talk about trade policy is hitting home, so there is more of an opportunity -- in Pennsylvania and Ohio. The other thing working in his favor is that younger voters aren't as enthused about Hillary as they were for Obama.'

"Older, white Catholic voters." I know many good people who worked on the USCCB document Faithful Citizenship over the years. I know they did the best they could given the willingness of too many bishops to align the church with the Republican Party. That said, the verdict is clear in those four words -- older, white Catholic voters -- that Faithful Citizenship has been a failure if it has so poorly formed the consciences of Catholic voters that it is they who make Trump's candidacy plausible. It is to weep.

Of the four Rust Belt states Trump would need to flip, Ohio with its 18 electoral votes was the closest in 2012, with Obama beating Romney by only 3 percentage points. Pennsylvania has 20 Electoral College votes, and Obama won it by five points four years ago. Wisconsin has 10 Electoral votes, and Obama beat Romney by 7 points in 2012. Michigan was the blowout: Obama won by 10 percentage point, garnering that state's 16 Electoral College votes. The problem for Trump is that even if he were to flip all four of those states, gaining all of their 64 Electoral College votes, combining those votes with the 164 Electoral College votes from the 19 states that are considered a sure bet for any GOP candidate still lands him 42 Electoral College votes shy of the 270 needed to win.

Could it happen? The Trump campaign ditched its campaign manager yesterday and has a chance to avoid the kinds of mistakes that his campaign has made in recent weeks, most especially Trump's calling attention to himself when Clinton was having a lousy news day. But, plenty of Democrats are equally prepared to commit political malpractice. Georgetown's Michael Eric Dyson, one of the most overrated academics in the country, has called for protests at the GOP convention in Cleveland next month. Professor Dyson: Just as it was idiotic for Trump to make news the day the State Department inspector general issued a report criticizing Clinton over her emails, why would Democrats want to take the spotlight off the internal divisions within the GOP at their convention? It would be like Nixon holding daily press conferences during the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968. The self-destructive stupidity of the left is even more objectionable than its conservative counterpart because on the right, the self-destructive idiocy comes from the uneducated, while on the left, it comes from those with PhDs

Do not kid yourselves. Trump could win this. If we have a few more bad jobs reports or a couple more terrorist attacks, and if his campaign gets its act together and the candidate himself leans some discipline, he could win it. The Electoral College tilts heavily towards the Democrats, but not prohibitively so. He could win it. Better to say, the Democrats could yet lose it.

[Michael Sean Winters is a Visiting Fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]

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