Donald Trump’s status as the Republican nominee is clear: according to the overwhelming bulk of the polling data we have, he is the least popular nominee in the modern era. He has seized the nomination of the party even as he has dramatically expanded his negative favorability ratings with virtually every group other than white men, and even they are not enthused about his candidacy. Roughly two thirds of Americans view him unfavorably, and his ratings with young, minority, and college educated voters are so awful as to make the recombination of the Obama coalition a much easier task for Hillary Clinton – Clinton leads Trump by a higher percentage among young voters than Obama led in either of his elections. Trump’s status in national polls currently shows him losing a general election to Clinton by ten points, and in state polls, he currently is behind in North Carolina, Missouri, Arizona, and Utah – all states Mitt Romney won.
These are all facts, and the ebullient Trump supporters who are already beginning to litigate a future loss as being the fault of the conservative #NeverTrump crowd exaggerate the number of people represented by that movement: they are a drop in the bucket compared to the non-conservative Trump opposition.
A recent ABC/Washington Post poll showed Mr. Trump with just a 29 percent favorability rating among white women and 23 percent among white college graduates, while 68 percent and 74 percent had an unfavorable opinion. Mr. Trump is faring worse than Mr. Romney among white voters in all of the presidential battleground states. Polls even show Mr. Trump losing white voters in states where Mr. Romney won them, like Colorado, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin…
The Trump campaign’s aim to compete in industrial Democratic-leaning states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio has not looked promising either. That’s in part because of his broader challenge with well-educated whites (a recent NBC/Marist survey showed Mr. Trump trailing by 29 points in the Philadelphia suburbs), but it’s also because he isn’t connecting among white working-class Democrats the way the campaign had hoped.
The path for Hillary Clinton to the presidency is an obvious one: reconstitute the Obama coalition with the spectre of Donald Trump as your primary tool. Mitigate a lack of excitement for your candidacy with near-constant fear mongering about Trump’s immigration stances, which will likely begin to shift given the politics of a general election. The ability of Clinton to target messages to particular audiences is key here: 77 percent of Hispanics view him unfavorably, and they will be battered with Trump’s words for the next several months. For single women, Trump’s statements about abortion will be front and center. For black Americans, his comments about David Duke will be the message. And for pro-lifers, his statements on Howard Stern about encouraging the abortion of his child will be in regular circulation. Each approach will be targeted by the Obama-Clinton campaign apparatus toward populations that will either fear Trump or be discouraged from voting by his words, and he has supplied plenty of material.
For Trump, the path is much narrower. He must win the same states as Mitt Romney, with the addition of Florida and the Rust Belt. Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan are his hard targets, and he must focus on them with all his might. The problem for him is that in two of those states, Pennsylvania and Michigan, Hillary Clinton already received more votes than he did (in a losing effort in the latter). Trump will need to make a strong appeal to Kasich voters in Ohio and to Sanders voters in Pennsylvania and Michigan in order to have a shot at taking the presidency. Part of the challenge here has to do with the mythology of Trump’s ‘working class’ support – as the ground shifted to the Northeast, Trump picked up a significant boost in the level of income among his supporters. He will need to increase his support among lower income voters to offset any losses among the more ideological cohort.
The odds of Trump becoming president are low, but they could increase. The three things that come to mind that could increase them are varying in their degrees of terribleness and likelihood:
1. Economic meltdown
2. Munich in Rio
3. Vladimir Putin emerges in press conference in October to read unredacted Hillary emails
Trump’s greatest hope for taking the White House is an exogenous shock which upsets the order of things and offsets his significant losses among women, young people, minorities, and the college educated. But even this presumes that he can handle the media onslaught that is incoming and the opposition research the Clinton machine is prepared to dump on him. The response by Jake Tapper to Trump pushing tabloid nonsense about Cruz’s father and JFK assassination yesterday is the template for how the media writ large is about to alter their coverage of the candidate.
The Trump experience in the primary was that significant portions of the media effectively acted as a promotional surrogate for the Trump campaign, giving him enormous amounts of free media with relatively little criticism and blanketing his opponents with questions about his latest insult. But there is no reason to think that will be repeated against Hillary Clinton. Instead, we are likely to see a marked increase in anchor-driven contempt of Trump and embarrassing debunking of every idiotic thing Trump says. Of the millions of relevant outlets that cover a presidential election, all but a handful of them will be openly hostile to Trump, and the pushback and cover he receives from friendly outlets will not extend beyond his supporters.
For Trump and his campaign, their response to early negative polling is going to be interesting. His supporters have insisted for a while now that he does not need conservative opponents to coalesce in order to beat Hillary Clinton. The campaign has not been so boldly insistent, but has operated under the assumption that conservatives will return to the fold once he won the nomination due to Clinton’s awful record. There’s a key problem there: many of the worst things about Clinton are old news. They are from the 1990s, and they are part of the reason younger voters on the right are less open to the idea that Trump would be a better president. The fact that Trump’s path requires him to concentrate on four states without strongly conservative tendencies make it more likely he will do little to unify the fractured party. He needs to undo his bad positioning with women more than he needs the votes of movement conservatives, which likely means a move to the left, not the right. And if this is the case, the mockery Trump-supporting conservatives receive today will be nothing compared to what they receive as his positions soften.
In order to win, then, Trump will need to stoke the fires of anger against Hillary in ways that keep the nasty energy going in favor of his candidacy. Ted Cruz’s theory of the race was that conservatives were angry. It turns out that everyone was angry. But that was the Republican primary electorate. The electorate as a whole is not so angry. There is no wave of anti-incumbent energy sweeping the nation. The Chamber of Commerce’s favored candidate won Indiana last night handily. A majority of voters view Barack Obama favorably. For Trump, winning in November demands that he alter the current polls dramatically, and in so doing defy the odds once again in the space of a few short months.