The Presidential Race Divides in Ways Old and New

There are some key indicators to keep an eye on as election results come in Tuesday.

Early voting in Los Angeles on Oct. 30
AP Photo/Reed Saxon
Nov. 7, 2016, 8 p.m.

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are the two most unpopular nominees in modern history and have divided voters along some predictable fault lines—race, gender, age, and geography. But Trump’s current rhetoric and past comments about women mixed with Clinton’s polarizing nature and history of personal scandal have divided voters in other unprecedented ways.

If the current Electoral College math holds, Clinton could pull off a victory that on its face looks similar to the one President Obama achieved four years ago over Mitt Romney. But thanks to Trump and his unique ability to offend broad swaths of women and Latinos, and unite white men behind his candidacy, the contours of such a win could be distinct.

Trump’s path to victory remains narrow and more precarious than Clinton’s. His most significant problem this year has been his focus on support among white, rural, non-college-educated voters, a choice completely at odds with the Republican National Committee’s 2013 “autopsy” report, which advised the party to work to expand support among women, young voters, and minority voters to remain competitive in future presidential elections.

In line with those projections, the Voter Participation Center expects single women, people of color, and millennials to cast a majority of ballots nationally for the first time this election.

In a March 2015 column in The Wall Street Journal, Whit Ayres, a pollster for Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, wrote that “Republicans stand a slim chance of winning the presidency in 2016—unless they nominate a transformational candidate who can dramatically broaden the GOP’s appeal.”

Trump checked off that first box but left plenty to be desired on the second.

“They’re betting on a shrinking part of the electorate in slow-growth parts of the country. They doubled down,” said Greg Speed, president of America Votes, the umbrella organization that coordinates voter-contact efforts among progressive groups.

There is plenty to watch for as election results start rolling in Tuesday night. But below are some indicators by key voting blocs that will be central to the outcome of the race for the White House.

White, noncollege voters

The emerging education gap has been particularly pronounced in the Clinton-Trump race. College-educated whites appear poised to support the Democratic nominee for the first time in recent history, while non-college-educated whites, particularly men, could vote for Trump at unprecedented levels.

Trump’s path relies on his ability to both win an overwhelming percentage of white voters without college degrees and drive a higher number of them to the polls than have shown up in recent presidential elections. Political observers are dubious that combination will succeed, particularly given Trump’s weak turnout operation.

Michael Podhorzer, the political director of the AFL-CIO, said that as of Friday, white, noncollege men comprised a greater share of the early vote in battleground states than they did during the 2012 election, but their numbers have drawn primarily from the pool of voters who cast ballots on Election Day in 2012, meaning they aren’t new voters.

If that pattern continues on Tuesday, Clinton will be in fairly good shape, but a wave of new noncollege white voters might spell trouble for Clinton in states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, or New Hampshire. With the exception of Wisconsin, these states are particularly nettlesome because they offer limited opportunities for early voting, so most of their votes will be cast on Tuesday. New Hampshire is also volatile because it offers same-day registration.

“It’s a roll of the dice on Election Day,” Podhorzer said.

New Hampshire is the most overwhelmingly white state of this bunch, making it a good indicator of which way the winds are blowing among this cohort. However, in 2012, Michigan was the first of these states to be called by the Associated Press, just after 9 p.m. If Clinton pulls out a win there, it’ll likely bode well for her chances in the other three states listed here.

Latinos

Early-voting results show Latinos have shown up at higher rates than in past years, which is favorable for Clinton. This is particularly true in Nevada, where she appears to have all but won the state, but also in Arizona and Florida. The main thing to watch for, however, is whether that strength continues on Election Day.

Hispanics typically turn out at lower rates overall than white and African-American voters. In 2012, they set a new record by making up 10 percent of the vote share nationally. Higher turnout among Latinos might be necessary for Clinton to offset the lower turnout expected among African-American voters, particularly in Florida.

One bellwether for Latino turnout will be Florida’s Osceola County, which has the fastest growing non-Cuban Hispanic population in the state, thanks to a large influx of Puerto Rican residents. The county is sure to favor Clinton, but if the turnout rate is significantly higher than in 2012, that could bode well for the affect of the Latino vote more broadly. President Obama won 62 percent of the vote in Osceola County in 2012, out of just over 108,640 ballots cast.

If the pattern of higher Latino turnout holds true, it will also be worth watching Clinton’s performance in non-battleground states such as California and Texas. Higher vote tallies outside battleground states could boost Clinton’s threshold in the national popular vote.

“That’s a telling number, but as Al Gore can tell you it’s not quite the same as winning the Electoral College,” Speed said.

Women

More women have voted than men in every election since 1964, and women have consistently backed the Democratic presidential nominee since 1980. Both trends are assured to continue this year, but with shifts underneath.

Page Gardner, the president of the Voter Participation Center, is confident a majority of women will back Clinton. Unmarried women and African-American women have traditionally been the two groups that have backed Democratic nominees at the highest rates, and that’s not expected to change. But Clinton is expected to pull in new levels of support among married white women and college-educated white women, two groups who have traditionally backed Republicans but have been turned off by Trump’s vulgar rhetoric about women and women’s bodies this year and in his decades in public life.

“It’s going to be interesting,” Gardner said. “There will be different patterns among women now because of the Trump-Clinton race, including among college-educated women, and among married and unmarried women. There will also be a difference in their share of the vote.”

The primary dynamic to watch for here is whether these particular voters—married women and college-educated white women—split their votes and back Republican candidates in competitive races down-ballot for Senate and House candidates in key battleground states including New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina.

Millennials

A few months back, Clinton appeared to be at risk of losing support among young voters to third-party candidates Gary Johnson and Jill Stein, who could cut into her lead over Trump. Since then, most of those voters have come home to the Democratic ticket, but her support might not be as strong among this group as it was four years ago for President Obama.

One state to pay attention to on this front Tuesday is New Hampshire, which has the highest population of college-age student voters of any state. In 2012, voters between the ages of 18 and 29 years old made up 19 percent of the state’s electorate.

Outside of New Hampshire, college towns will also serve as good bellwethers for Clinton’s performance among young voters. NextGen Climate Action, the environmental group backed by billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer, has been working to mobilize young voters and keep them in Clinton’s corner. The group is tracking vote totals in what it has identified as 12 bellwether precincts in college towns across seven states.

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