Would any Republican besides Donald Trump have beaten Hillary Clinton and been elected the 45th president? It’s an interesting question, not susceptible to a definitive answer but with consequences for politics going forward.
Last fall, I shared the widespread view that Clinton was the only Democrat who could lose to Trump and Trump was the only Republican who could lose to Clinton. Given the fact that elections are a zero-sum game because one candidate must win, this view was more an expression of distaste rather than a prophecy.
But it was based also on polling conducted during the spring, before Trump eliminated his remaining Republican opponents in the Indiana primary May 3. National polls and some state polls showed Marco Rubio running stronger against Clinton than Trump, with John Kasich running even stronger and Ted Cruz a bit better.
This seemed to make sense then. Trump had much higher negatives, especially among white college graduates, who had voted 56-42 percent for Mitt Romney in 2012. Without similar support, how could he hope to win?
We have an answer to that question now. Springtime polls seemed to assume the electorate would look much like the one in 2012. The signs that Trump would run much better than Romney among non-college-educated whites weren’t very clear, particularly when his controversial comments caused his overall numbers to sag.
Going well into the fall, few polls showed the surge of votes that decided the election in what I have called the outstate Midwest — the counties outside metropolitan areas with a million-plus people in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and (sort-of-Midwestern) Pennsylvania, states with 64 electoral votes that went to Barack Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016.
Those outstate areas trended the same way as Iowa, none of whose 99 counties is in a metro area with a million-plus people and whose six electoral votes went for Obama and for Trump. There, polls showed Trump opening up a significant lead over Clinton in mid-September. In Iowa and the outstates, Trump won percentages higher than George W. Bush did in 2004, while Clinton ran far behind Obama’s 2012 showing — 12 points behind in outstate Ohio, 11 points behind in Iowa and outstate Michigan, 9 points behind in outstate Wisconsin and 8 points behind in outstate Pennsylvania.
These are all places with many non-college-educated whites and few blacks, Hispanics and Asians. Trump’s stands on trade and immigration — distinctly different from those of other Republicans — were surely partly responsible for his outstate margins, and it seems unlikely another Republican nominee could have matched them.
Two other factors were in play, factors that led to sharp Democratic gains in these same areas in the 1970s. One was honesty. The outstate Midwest recoiled against Richard Nixon’s Republicans in the Watergate years, and this year, these voters had a similar reaction to Clinton’s email lawbreaking and lies. That helped Trump, though it probably would have helped any other Republican nominee.
The other factor was dovishness. The Upper Midwest has long been the most isolationist part of the country. In the 1970s, voters there reacted against Republicans’ support of the Vietnam War. This year, they seem to have moved toward Trump, who opposed military interventions supported by other Republicans. It seems unlikely another Republican nominee could have duplicated this appeal.
So I find myself leaning reluctantly toward the conclusion that no other Republican could have won, at least the way Trump did. Yes, others would have run better with white college graduates, whom Trump carried by only a 49-45 percent margin, and would have run much better among groups with high levels of social connectedness, such as Mormons in Utah and Dutch-Americans in metro Grand Rapids, Michigan.
But Trump saw, or stumbled into taking advantage of, an opening spotted by only a few political analysts — blogger Steve Sailer way back in 2001, RealClearPolitics’ Sean Trende in a 2013 article series and FiveThirtyEight’s Harry Enten in analyzing Republican Joni Ernst’s big Senate win in Iowa in 2014. I made similar observations but didn’t nail it the way they did.
That opening was the fact that Democrats were taking for granted their above-national-average support from non-college-educated outstate voters in their determination to build a new, “ascendant” majority of blacks, Hispanics, single women and millennials. They figured that outstate Obama voters were locked into the Democratic Party and didn’t need any special attention. Turns out they weren’t and they did.
So the familiar partisan lines of the past 20 years have been redrawn, and now we have a more downscale Republican Party and a Democratic Party confined to its coastal and campus cocoons. We’ll see how that works out.