I’ve had the opportunity to speak about the election in recent days at Bryn Mawr College and at my home university, Villanova, where we somehow found time to talk about a matter other than basketball. Located as these institutions are in the politically moderate Philadelphia suburbs, I encountered a number of people who are deeply worried about the Trump phenomenon. They see his unruly, outsized crowds, recognize that he is the favorite to win the Republican nomination, begin to imagine the possibility that he could be elected president – and start to panic. To them, and to others who share their fears, I say: please stop worrying. Seriously. Stop worrying. We’re nowhere near the point where Donald Trump can be elected president.
The best way to regain some perspective is to imagine the difference between the people who vote in primaries and the wider general electorate. Primary voters are a non-random subset of voters at large. They tend to be more motivated to participate in politics and more responsive to partisan ideas, which means Democratic primary voters tend to be more liberal and Republican primary voters more conservative than the public overall. This isn’t a new phenomenon and in normal election years it isn’t much of an issue because party nominees invariably moderate their positions to appeal to that larger, more moderate general electorate. In most years, public opinion is shaped like a big bell curve with a huge bump in the middle. Republicans occupy space on the right and Democrats occupy space on the left, but neither strays too far from that big middle bump because that’s where most of the votes are.
The thing that makes this year so different is the radicalization of a portion of the Republican base. This has caused the Republican Party to become what I have described as two parties – a traditional conservative party and a reactionary party – sharing a common label and infrastructure. Trump has emerged as the first choice of the reactionary group, which this year boasts the most active and engaged voters. This, coupled with the inability of conservative elites to coalesce around a single candidate, gave Trump a huge opening to exploit, to the point where he is now in a commanding position to become the Republican presidential nominee.
The problem for Republicans – and one of the reasons for the massive elite-driven effort to deny Trump the nomination – is the voters who are propelling Trump to victory in the primary do not resemble the voters he would face in a general election. Imagine a second, smaller bump toward the right tail of the above figure. That’s the home of the Trump primary voter. The radicalization of a portion of the Republican base has created a rare bimodal distribution in public opinion, making it possible for a candidate like Trump to win the nomination by winning a plurality of voters in the mode inhabited by the base. But because there is little to no overlap between their preferences and everyone else, Trump as a general election candidate would find it challenging – to say the least – to span the gulf between the preferences of his core supporters and the rest of the electorate. His primary voters are responding favorably to Trump’s rhetoric about Muslims, women and immigrants. Opinion in the rest of the electorate is another matter, and because of the gap between the two it is difficult to see how he wins the support of general election voters without losing the support of his base.
In one regard, Trump is a wildcard because his appeal is to strength, not ideology, but his candidacy would face significant, perhaps unprecedented challenges in the fall. Saturday’s New York Times looked at the end game of the 2016 election – the 270 electoral votes needed to win – and illustrated just how hard it would be for Trump to be competitive. I urge all those worried about a Trump presidency to take a look. General election match-ups between hypothetical candidates are useless this far away from an election, but favorability ratings are a good measure of where the candidates stand with voters, because it is difficult (though not impossible) to get voters to pull the lever for you if they dislike you. And voters dislike Donald Trump. They really, really dislike him. His net favorability rating is by far the lowest of any nominee in recent history, with only 19% of the overall electorate expressing support. And you can usually get one-third of the country to approve of just about anything.
In the wider electorate, there isn’t a single group outside older working class white males who offer anything resembling support. He is deeply unpopular with women, including white women, as well as voters of color, young voters and voters with a college degree – the emerging coalition that formed the backbone of Obama’s two victories. When translated into electoral votes, the picture gets even uglier. As things stand now, according to estimates by the University of Virginia’s Larry Sabato, the states expected to decide the election – Ohio, Florida, Virginia, Colorado, Nevada and North Carolina – would all turn blue. In their place, solidly Republican Georgia, Arizona and Missouri would become swing states. There’s even talk of a contest in Utah if that state’s large Mormon population remains hostile to Trump’s candidacy. Not likely, but – Utah?
So to those who are worried that Trump’s strong position in the Republican primary contest is a sign of a competitive election ahead, I would urge you to step back for now and see how events unfold. It is certainly true that once nominated for the presidency, there is always some probability that a given nominee will win. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen or even that it’s likely to happen. Trump has not yet even secured the nomination. He has neither the support of the wider electorate nor the support of most Republican elites. It’s natural and wise to be concerned when you see a major party going off the rails, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to take the rest of the country with it. There is a much larger and more diverse electorate yet to be heard from, and they ultimately will have the final word.