Can Trump Overcome the Decline in White Voters?

The proportion of minorities, particularly Latinos, has increased in states he needs to win.

Supporters of opposing candidates at a Memorial Day parade in Chappaqua, N.Y.
AP Photo/Mel Evans
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S.V. Dáte
June 2, 2016, 10:58 a.m.

Re­pub­lic­an Don­ald Trump’s cam­paign to win the White House on the backs of white voters across the coun­try is about to hit a demo­graph­ic real­ity: There are few­er of them, par­tic­u­larly in the states likely to mat­ter most.

Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wis­con­sin, and Ohio—all of which voted for Pres­id­ent Obama in the past elec­tion, and all of which Trump’s cam­paign says are be­ing tar­get­ing this au­tumn—will have eli­gible vot­ing pop­u­la­tions that are slightly less white than four years ago.

The demo­graph­ic shift is even big­ger in states that Trump needs in or­der to even have a chance of win­ning the pres­id­ency. North Car­o­lina’s elect­or­ate is 2 per­cent less white, as is Vir­gin­ia’s. Flor­ida’s elect­or­ate is ac­tu­ally 3 per­cent less white.

While these changes may seem slight, they ex­ceed the mar­gin of vic­tory in Flor­ida and North Car­o­lina in 2012. If all oth­er factors re­main the same, North Car­o­lina could flip back to the Demo­crat­ic column this Novem­ber, while Flor­ida could be a more com­fort­able win for the Demo­crat­ic can­did­ate.

Which states, mean­while, are demo­graph­ic­ally shift­ing the oth­er way, to­ward hav­ing a great­er share of white people?

“There is not a single one,” said Ruy Teixeira, one of the re­search­ers who came up with the num­bers. All 50 states are mov­ing to­ward more di­verse pop­u­la­tions, al­beit at dif­fer­ent rates. “It’s the mag­nitude. Not the dir­ec­tion.”

Teixeira’s latest re­port is a col­lab­or­a­tion between his lib­er­al Cen­ter for Amer­ic­an Pro­gress, the con­ser­vat­ive Amer­ic­an En­ter­prise In­sti­tute, and the left-lean­ing Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion. Its con­clu­sions are con­sist­ent with demo­graph­ic trends that have been ac­cel­er­at­ing for dec­ades. The Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee, in fact, cited those trends in its 2013 “autopsy” of why Rom­ney lost.

“The na­tion’s demo­graph­ic changes add to the ur­gency of re­cog­niz­ing how pre­cari­ous our po­s­i­tion has be­come,” the re­port stated. “If we want eth­nic minor­ity voters to sup­port Re­pub­lic­ans, we have to en­gage them, and show our sin­cer­ity.”

But if the aim was to pro­duce a can­did­ate more pal­at­able to minor­it­ies—par­tic­u­larly Lati­nos, the fast­est-grow­ing minor­ity—this primary sea­son in­stead el­ev­ated a nom­in­ee far more po­lar­iz­ing than Rom­ney, who lost their sup­port after sug­ges­tion “self-de­port­a­tion” for il­leg­al im­mig­rants. Trump in the past year has called un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants rap­ists, has made build­ing a wall along the south­ern U.S.-Mex­ico bor­der a center­piece of his cam­paign, and most re­cently in­sul­ted an In­di­ana-born fed­er­al judge whose rul­ings he doesn’t like by call­ing him a Mex­ic­an.

Re­cent polling bears out Trump’s prob­lem with non­white voters. A Quin­nipi­ac Uni­versity sur­vey, for ex­ample, shows Trump lead­ing Clin­ton among white voters 50-33, while Clin­ton leads Trump 65-18 among Lati­nos and 93-4 among Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans.

Trump’s cam­paign in­sists that he will do well with minor­it­ies be­cause of his prom­ise to in­crease the num­ber of jobs, while the RNC can re­cite a long list of met­rics show­ing the in­roads it has made in­to minor­ity com­munit­ies. “We are meet­ing minor­ity voters where they live, work, and wor­ship, and shar­ing our mes­sage of op­por­tun­ity and free­dom at com­munity events, churches, and small busi­nesses,” spokes­wo­man Lind­say Wal­ters said.

Oth­er Re­pub­lic­ans, in­clud­ing some RNC mem­bers, con­cede that Trump’s state­ments about Lati­nos makes a rap­proche­ment with them all but im­possible, and be­lieve that his only chance is turn­ing out a dis­pro­por­tion­ate share of dis­af­fected white voters in the Rust Belt states.

“That’s the ray of hope for them,” agreed Teixeira. “If Trump can get those people to turn out at a high­er level, and vote for him at a high­er rate than they did for Mitt Rom­ney, he could win.”

That “if,” Teixeira ad­ded, is a big one. He poin­ted out that Trump would need to win white work­ing­class voters by nearly 30 points, or the mar­gin that Ron­ald Re­agan en­joyed in his 49-state land­slide reelec­tion three dec­ades ago. “That’s a pretty wide mar­gin. I don’t know if he can do that,” Teixeira said. “It’s not im­possible. Is it prob­able? I don’t think so.”

One of the au­thors of the 2013 RNC re­port, Ari Fleis­cher, con­curred that a massive turnout of white voters in key states is really Trump’s only chance, be­cause while Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans may not vote at the levels they did for the na­tion’s first black pres­id­ent, Lati­nos likely would vote at his­tor­ic levels. “I ex­pect a surge in His­pan­ic turnout due to fears about Trump,” said Fleis­cher, a former aide to the last Re­pub­lic­an to win a large per­cent­age of Latino voters, Pres­id­ent George W. Bush.

At the loc­al level, mean­while, Re­pub­lic­ans who’d hoped that 2016 would turn a page for their party with Latino voters will try to make the best of the situ­ation. George Rivera, chair­man of the Pueblo County Re­pub­lic­an Party in Col­or­ado and him­self a Mex­ic­an-Amer­ic­an, was hope­ful that the RNC’s ef­forts to en­gage Latino voters there in re­cent years would help flip Col­or­ado back to Re­pub­lic­ans this Novem­ber.

He said he still thinks that’s pos­sible. “The chapter on this has yet to be writ­ten,” he said. “We’ll just see what hap­pens.”

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