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Friday, March 25, 2016

Could Trump Win the General Election?

Could Trump Win the General Election?

The rise of Donald Trump as the leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination has taken almost every political observer by surprise. But now that Trump is the favorite to be the Republican nominee, some analysts are beginning to seriously assess whether he has a plausible path to winning the general election. To assess this question we need to look closer at why we may have misdiagnosed the staying power of Trump’s candidacy. 

One reason Trump’s ascendance may have been missed is that we failed to recognize the strength of racial and ethnocentric attitudes undergirding the American public, along with Trump’s willingness to exploit it. Another reason for missing Trump’s ascendance may be that the rise of the Tea Party, “make-no-compromises” wing of the Republican Party has distracted us from some of the other issues that divide members of the party. While many were speculating whether Republicans would nominate an establishment candidate such as Jeb Bush who could govern from the center right or a firebrand such as Ted Cruz that has expressed an unwillingness to compromise, Trump stepped into the breach and upset the balance of power by exploiting a set of issues that attract white, working-class citizens. Specifically, Trump advocates for strengthening the border with Mexico, restricting immigration, renegotiating and limiting free trade deals, and advocating for the torture of terror suspects

These positions have certainly elevated Trump’s chances of winning the Republican nomination but what effect would they have on his general election chances? What is interesting is that these are issues that divide both Republican-leaning and Democratic-leaning voters. To better explain this, I draw on my research with Ted Carmines and Michael Wagner that seeks to have us see beyond the traditional left-right divide. We argue that citizens evaluate the two major political parties based on how they align themselves with respect to two sets of issues. First, there are issues focused on social-welfare policies such as the provision health insurance, providing for retirement security, maintaining a minimum wage, and guaranteeing employment and policies related to government regulation of economic activities. Second, there are questions about traditional morality and behavior and the government’s role in regulating those behaviors. Attitudes towards issues such as abortion, gay marriage, and gender equality tap into what many have labeled as the Culture War. What we show is that those citizens that are conservative on both sets of issues have become reliable supporters of the Republican Party, whereas citizens who possess liberal stances on both sets of policies are staunch supporters of the Democratic Party. But in addition to these Conservatives and Liberals (and the Moderates who are in the middles of the road on both sets of issues), there are Populists (who are conservative on cultural issues but liberal on economic issues) and Libertarians (who are liberal on cultural issues but conservative on economic issues) that do not fit comfortably into the current left-right divide. Further, we show that these latter two types of citizens are the most likely to change their partisan identification, split their votes between the parties, and change which party they support across elections. And given that Populists and Libertarians make up approximately one-fourth of the electorate, these two groups can shift the balance between the parties.

The importance of this for the 2016 election is that Trump’s positions on trade, immigration, and torture are more popular with Populists who are stronger supporters of the Democratic Party. Consider the following data from the 2008 American National Election Study (ANES) on respondents’ opinions about four issues: (1) how likely is it that immigration takes away jobs; (2) should the government discourage companies from outsourcing; (3) favor or torture of terrorist suspects; and (4) do blacks have too much influence on politics. The data below are the percentage of white citizens among each ideological type that support/agree with the position. We focus on white respondents given the Trump’s appeal is almost exclusively to those citizens. The chart also includes the ratio of Democratic to Republican Party identifiers.







Immigration takes Jobs 






Discourage Outsourcing






Favor Torture






Blacks have too much Influence






Ratio of Democratic to Republican Identifiers






Note: Data are from 2008 ANES. Cell entries are sample-weighted percentages.

The chart illustrates that white Populists are the most supportive of the issues that we would associate with Trump’s candidacy; white Populists are the most likely to think that immigration takes jobs, to agree that the government should discourage outsourcing, and to favor the use of torture. And while Trump’s positions on these issues are attractive to Populists, these citizens are the second most pro-Democratic Party group (55 percent identify as Democratic but only 27 percent identify as Republicans). Further, white Populists are the second most likely to think that Blacks have too much influence on politics and thus may not be as bothered by Trump’s racialized campaign.

So could attracting white Populists away from the Democratic Party provide a path for winning the Electoral College for Trump? I do not think so for at least two reasons. First, there are not enough white Populists that would switch to sway the outcome; it is difficult to break citizens from their partisan moorings. Further, for each Populist that Trump may attract, he would just as likely push a Libertarian voter to the Democratic Party. 

However, a general election campaign with Trump could alter American politics in a number of ways. We have already seen the chaos it is causing within the Republican Party. Further, it may push the Democratic Party to respond to the interests of Populist voters more effectively. Or alternatively, it may compel Democrats to appeal more explicitly to Libertarian voters that may be repelled from the Republican Party. So while I do not think Trump can win a general election matchup against Hilary Clinton, it seems that the forces that Trump has unleashed will not only affect the Republican Party but may affct which issues Democrats address, and how they address them going forward.

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