Will Donald Trump turn out millions of 'missing' white voters?

The 'missing' white voter phenomenon was discussed after the 2012 election, and some now say Donald Trump is the candidate best positioned to tap those voters.

Gretchen Ertl/Reuters
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump works the rope line following a campaign rally in Nashua, N.H., Jan. 29, 2016.

Will Donald Trump solve the mystery of the GOP’s missing white voters? And if so, does that make him electable – maybe the most electable of the Republican presidential hopefuls?

The answer to both of those questions is probably “no.” But an exploration of the data here is still quite interesting and illuminates Mr. Trump’s actual chances of winning the White House, which are not zero.

The idea that millions of white voters went AWOL from the polls in 2012, helping Mitt Romney lose, comes from the work of Sean Trende, an election analyst at RealClearPolitics. In the immediate aftermath of the 2012 vote, Mr. Trende asserted that the demographic changes in the electorate that helped win President Obama a second term were driven by a decline in white participation, rather than increased turnout among other groups.

Now he’s revisiting this subject as part of an excellent trilogy on the nature of Trump’s rise and his place in today’s Republican Party.

Here are Trende’s main points: First, there was, indeed, a big drop in white voters in 2012. About 6.5 million of them stayed home, rather than vote for Mr. Romney.

Second, the missing voters appeared to be largely low-income blue-collar workers concentrated in areas that voted for populist third-party candidate Ross Perot in 1992. They were disenchanted by Romney’s stiff image, plutocrat ways, and macroeconomic policies.

Third, this did not lose Romney the election. The Mittster would have had to win 90 percent of the absent voters to beat Mr. Obama – highly improbable.

And fourth, the current GOP candidate best positioned to turn these voters out in 2016 is the man who missed Thursday night’s debate. Ted Cruz has argued that he can win if conservative Evangelicals who sat on their hands four years ago vote this time around. But the missing voters Trende is talking about largely aren’t religious, or even conservative. They’re populists, what used to be called Reagan Democrats. That’s Trump territory today.

“The candidate who actually fits the profile of a ‘missing white voter’ candidate is Donald Trump,” according to Trende.

As noted above, exciting the missing 6.5 million enough to get them to the polls is unlikely to actually win Trump – or any other GOP nominee – the election. They’d have to get virtually all these people to vote, and for only them – no defections to the Democrats allowed.

Those revitalized voters would also have to be grouped enough to make a difference in swing states. As Amy Walter noted in a 2015 Cook Political Report analysis of the “missing white voter” theory, those who stayed home seem to disproportionately live in noncompetitive states. Increasing white turnout in Alabama, for example, would not help the GOP very much.

And crucially, any attempt by Republicans to reach and motivate missing white voters would probably have the unintended effect of also mobilizing Democratic nonwhite voters.

“A campaign is a balancing act. Lean too far one way and you fall off,” Ms. Walter writes.

Trump is living proof of how this dynamic works. While his voters are spread across all GOP demographic groups, he’s especially popular with lower-income, blue-collar whites – just the sort of folks who fit into the “missing voter” template.

But this group seems attracted to Trump by his belligerence and harsh rhetoric against undocumented immigrants and Muslims. Conversely, that rhetoric has alienated Hispanic voters and US citizens who are Muslims. They vote, too – and Hispanics in particular are a fast-growing, potentially powerful group. Hispanic activists say they are already seeing a “Trump effect,” a rise in new voter registrations among Latinos upset by his positions.

Whites are still a much larger slice of the US electorate. In 2016, demographers predict that about 70 percent of all US voters will be white, while 11 percent will be Hispanic.

But the Hispanic vote could be key in some swing states. Florida voters will be 28 percent Hispanic in 2016, according to Pew Research data. The corresponding share for Nevada will be 17 percent.

In any case, as already noted, motivating whites is not enough to win the election, even for Trump. He’ll probably need to boost his appeal to nonwhites as well. How’s he going to do that?

“It’s a very tough road for Trump, but not an impossible one. But regardless, it can’t be all about the missing whites,” Trende concludes.

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