One of the biggest reasons Donald Trump is considered to be a long shot to win the presidency is the diversity of the country.
As Joe Scarborough of MSNBC put it, “There are not enough white voters in America for Donald Trump to win while getting routed among minorities.”
But a growing body of evidence suggests that there is still a narrow path for Trump to win without gains among nonwhite voters.
New analysis by The Upshot The New York Times shows that millions more white, older working-class voters went to the polls in 2012 than were found by exit polls on Election Day. This raises the prospect that Trump has a larger pool of potential voters than previously believed.
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That may help explain why Trump is competitive in early general election surveys against Hillary Clinton. And it calls into question the prevailing demographic explanation of recent elections, which held that Barack Obama did very poorly among whites and won only because young and minority voters turned out in record numbers. This storyline led Republicans to conclude that they had maximized their support from white voters and needed to reach out to Hispanics to win in 2016.
Those previous conclusions emerged from exit polls released on election night. The new data, from the census, voter registration files, polls and the completed results, tells a subtly different story with potential consequences for the 2016 election.
The data implies that Obama was not as weak among white voters as typically believed. He fared better than his predecessors among white voters outside the South. Demographic shifts weren’t so important: He would have been re-elected even with an electorate as old and white as it was in 2004. Latino voters did not put Obama over the top, as many argued in the days after his re-election. He would have won even if he had done as poorly among Latino voters as John Kerry.
This is all good news for Trump. There’s more room for him to make gains among white working-class voters than many assumed – enough to win without making gains among nonwhite or college-educated white voters.
But Trump’s narrow path could close if he loses ground among well-educated voters and alienates even more nonwhite voters than Mitt Romney did four years ago. His ratings among these groups remain poor, and he continues to draw new criticism, most recently for saying the judge overseeing a lawsuit against Trump University is biased because of his Mexican heritage.
Older and whiter
When you hear about the demographic challenges facing the Republican Party, almost all of the data comes from exit polls: surveys conducted with tens of thousands of voters at precincts across the country on Election Day, along with a supplemental telephone survey with early voters.
The exit polls are excellent surveys. But like any survey, they’re imperfect. The problem is that analysts, including me, have treated the exit polls like a precise account of the electorate.
“There are campaigns and journalists who take the exit polls as the word of God about the shape of the electorate and their voting propensities,” said Michael McDonald, a political scientist at the University of Florida who researches voter turnout. “They’re meant to tell us why people voted. They’re not designed to tell us much about the demographic profile of the electorate.”
The exit polls have a series of subtle biases that depict a younger, better-educated and more diverse electorate. McDonald tentatively reached this conclusion in 2005, and the pattern has been seen in a broader set of data.
The evidence for a whiter, less-educated and older electorate comes from two main sources.
The first – and longer-standing – source of alternative data is the Current Population Survey, known as the CPS. Conducted by the Census Bureau, it is the same monthly survey that yields the unemployment report. After elections, it includes a question about whether people voted.
A second source is the so-called voter file: a compilation of local records on every American who has registered to vote, including address, age and whether the person voted in a given election. The voter file data used for analysis here comes from Catalist, a Democratic data firm that offers an academic subscription. Researchers have found that the data is unbiased and more accurate than public voting records. Catalist models the demographic characteristics of voters, based on where they live, their names, survey data and other information.
These sources show a 2012 electorate that was far whiter, older and less educated than the exit polls indicated.
Overall, the exit polls suggest that 23 percent of voters in 2012 were white, over age 45 and without a college degree. Catalist puts this group at 29 percent, and the census at 30 percent – implying 10 million more voters than the 23 percent figure.
There are long-standing sound explanations, acknowledged by the exit pollsters.
“The truth, if you could ever get to it, is probably somewhere between the three measures,” said Joe Lenski, the vice president at Edison Research, who runs the exit poll, “because they all have their faults.”
They do have their faults.
But for many experts in the field, these issues pale next to those facing the exit polls. Its interviewers, for example, can’t guess a voter’s education level or Hispanic ethnicity just by looking at him or her. That means they can’t adjust for the fact that some types of voters are less likely to respond than others (a problem called nonresponse). And in the end, they’re just polls, subject to a margin of error like any other survey.
Their margin of error is even larger than for an ordinary poll of its size, since they can sample only a few precincts throughout a state. Just by chance, those precincts might hit or miss important areas. Whether a New York exit poll includes an Orthodox Jewish precinct, for example, could easily shift the poll’s finding for Jewish voters.
For Bernard Fraga, a professor of political science at Indiana University, there is “no question that the exit poll is not as accurate.” He added, “It’s clearly much more reliable to look at the CPS or even better to look at the voter file-based work.”
A Democratic dependence
The larger number of white working-class voters implies that Democrats are far more dependent on winning white working-class voters, and therefore more vulnerable to a populist candidate like Trump.
Overall, 34 percent of Obama’s supporters were white voters without a college degree, compared with 25 percent in the exit polls, according to a New York Times statistical model that integrated census data, actual results and 15,000 interviews from various pre-election surveys.
Obama’s dependence on white voters might seem surprising in light of the postelection consensus. But it won’t be if you think just a little further back – to the pre-election storyline. Obama’s advantage heading into the election was thought to be a “Midwestern Firewall” – a big edge in Midwestern battlegrounds where white working-class voters supported the auto bailout and were skeptical of Romney, who was criticized for his time at Bain Capital.
The pre-election storyline was tossed aside when the national exit polls showed an electorate that was even more diverse than it was in 2008, while showing Obama faring worse among white voters than any Democrat since Walter Mondale in 1984.
But The New York Times analysis shows that all of Obama’s weaknesses were in the South – defined as the former Confederacy plus Oklahoma, Missouri, Kentucky and West Virginia – where he won just 26 percent.
Outside the South, he won 46 percent of white voters, which is better than Kerry and Al Gore in earlier elections.The data implies that demographic shifts played a somewhat smaller role in Obama’s re-election. Even if the electorate were as old and as white as it was in 2004, Obama would have won, because of the gains he made among white voters in states like New Mexico, Colorado and Iowa.
Hispanic voters played only a modest role in Romney’s defeat. They cost him Florida – a must-win state for Republicans, but also the closest contest. Elsewhere, Obama would have easily survived even if Romney had equaled George W. Bush’s 2004 share of Hispanic voters.
Can Trump win?
To pull it off, Trump will need to make gains among white working-class voters. The earliest evidence, and polling this early can be quite inaccurate, suggests that he is doing that handily.
So far, he leads Clinton by 27 points among white voters without a degree, 58 to 31 percent, in the last six national surveys from major news organizations. In the final 2012 polls, Romney led that group by just 19 points among registered voters, 58 to 39 percent over Obama.
But Trump’s big advantage among white working-class voters hasn’t translated to a much stronger position in national polls. That’s because he is underperforming Romney’s 2012 results among white voters with a college degree and nonwhite voters, often by a far greater amount than he’s gaining among working-class whites.
The same polls show Clinton leading among college-educated white voters by 47 to 42 percent. It’s a reversal from 2012, when Romney led that group by 6 points among such voters, 52 to 46 percent in the final polls.
If Trump lost 5 points among well-educated white voters and Hispanics, which is how he’s doing in current polls, his target for white working-class voters would quickly skyrocket. In a battleground state like Colorado, for example, he would need to gain 15 percentage points more of the white working class.
Whether Trump can suppress his losses among well-educated voters and Latinos will be decided by a lot more than demographics. Usually, the so-called fundamentals – including the current president’s approval rating and the pace of economic growth – play a big role in determining whether voters will support the incumbent’s party. This year, there are other big questions: whether Trump’s penchant to offend goes too far, and whether Clinton has an advantage with women and faces a penalty among men (and which is bigger).
So far, the polls suggest he will lose too much ground among well-educated and nonwhite voters to win. But the diversity of the country in itself does not rule out a victory for Trump.