People who study political polling are all agreed: There is no way that Donald Trump can beat Hillary Clinton and become US president this year. It’s simply not going to happen.
And yet … never say never.
Some people have been passing around this chart of the 1980 election, which shows President Carter polling 29 points ahead of Ronald Reagan at the beginning of the year. He was just a celebrity, not a serious politician, after all:
Of course, as the chart shows, Reagan went on to win, realigning American politics in favour of the Republicans for a generation. (And, it should be said, Gallup’s polling was not as sophisticated as it is today.)
The implication is that the same scenario might repeat itself: The media and the pollsters are underestimating Trump’s appeal. After he has won the GOP nomination he somehow steadily gains ground by tacking toward the political centre. Clinton puts in an uninspiring performance. And Trump wins by a narrow margin in November, the theory goes.
Currently, the polls show that is not likely to happen. RealClearPolitics has a nice chart showing polls for a Clinton-Trump matchup:
Hillary is comfortably ahead, and always has been. There were two points, in December 2015 and February 2016, at which Trump apparently pulled within striking distance. In the December poll, the pair were separated by less than a point — well inside the margin of error.
Most people are writing off those two polls as outliers. They appear as sudden deviations from the trend, and the following polls showed no diminution of Clinton’s lead. The University of Virginia’s Center for Politics has a great map of what that looks like in the electoral college — a landslide for Clinton.
Nonetheless, there are several polls in that RCP series where the difference between them is only three or four points. If these two were any other candidates, jumping that gap would look doable for the Republican.
One scenario in which Trump wins was outlined on Quora by Matthew Gagnon, a Republican political strategist from Maine. Now, before you start freaking out, Gagnon makes it clear that he doesn’t like Trump and doesn’t think Trump can win. But the rest of his analysis is an interesting speculation.
It goes like this: If you’re white and don’t have a college degree, and you lost your job or saw your wages cut because of the globalisation of free trade, then you’re angry at both the Republicans and the Democrats right now. Both parties cheered the free trade deals that gutted the good manufacturing jobs from the North and Midwest of America, and Trump has a staunch anti-NAFTA, anti-China position. Gagnon writes:
The number of these voters who have been depressed, ignored, dismissed, and outright ridiculed is tremendous. And there are a lot of them in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin. A lot.
That means that these states — particularly Pennsylvania and Michigan — which have been Republican targets for nearly thirty years to no avail, have a very real possibility of flipping.
How real is that “very real possibility”? Perhaps not as real as Gagnon thinks because this demographic will shrink from 36% of the electorate in 2012 to 33% in 2016, according to FiveThirtyEight, the respected polling and stats website. In other words, even if Gagnon’s theory is accurate Trump is dependent on a declining portion of the electorate.
Having said that, FiveThirtyEight has a nifty interactive graphic that lets you adjust levels of support among the various demographic groups so that you can plot various election scenarios. It uses the 2012 election, which Obama won with 51.7% of the vote, as its baseline.
If you’re a Trump supporter (or if you buy Gagnon’s theory), then try sliding the scale for “non-college educated white people” from 62% Republican support in 2012 to 69% today. You get this:
A Trump victory in the electoral college with just 48.2% of the vote
If you believe that under-educated whites are the key to the election then Trump needs an increase of seven points in Republican support among that group. That’s a big leap, but not impossible. That result also assumes all the other demographics vote the same way as they did for Obama in 2012 — which isn’t likely.
Again, the likely result is that Trump is so offensive to Democrats and moderate Republicans that he drives them to vote for Hillary, or to not vote at all, thus handing Clinton the White House.
But stranger things could happen.
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