Back in April, when Donald Trump was 12 points behind Hillary Clinton in the polls, I advanced the theory that Trump could unexpectedly become president if there was one key demographic shift among American voters*: If Trump received 69% of the votes of “non-college educated white people,” rather than the 62% that the Republicans received in 2012, he would win a majority in the electoral college, giving him the presidency with just 48% of the total vote.
This was not a popular theory at the time.
In fact, two of my colleagues poured scorn on it, and suggested I should not write it, because the polls showed that Trump was so unpopular with all the other voter demographics that there was no way he could win.
But two polls came out on September 15 that suggest it may yet come true.
Today, the rolling average of polls looks like this:
Trump is once again closing the gap on Clinton, marking the fifth time in this election cycle he has come close to overtaking Clinton or at least making it a 50-50 tossup.
He has made that advance by winning more support in Ohio and Florida, where a Bloomberg Politics poll and a CNN poll give him a 5-point lead and a 3-point lead, respectively.
It turns out that winning Ohio and Florida — even if he does not win a national majority of votes — is exactly what Trump needs to do in order to become president.
Here is how the last election played out in 2012:
- Obama won Ohio and Florida.
- The Republicans got 62% of the “non-college educated white people” vote.
- The electoral college gave Obama a solid majority on just 51.7% of the national vote, according to the FiveThirtyEight database:
You can adjust the demographic vote shares on the FiveThirtyEight interactive map to see various speculative scenarios. In order to create a Trump victory, the smallest voter shift required is moving Republican support among “non-college educated white people” from 62% to 69%.
When you do that, here is how it plays out in 2016:
- Trump wins Ohio and Florida.
- Republicans win 69% of “non-college educated white people.”
- Trump wins a majority in the electoral college with just 48% of the national vote.
Now, there are some obvious caveats to this theory.
The first is that even in my Ohio/Florida/whites scenario, Clinton still gets a majority of the national vote, and usually that will create a majority in the electoral college too. This theory is highly dependent on Trump winning key states. The marginal states of New Mexico, Wisconsin, Colorado and New Hampshire all have to flip from Democrat to Republican in this cycle along with Ohio and Florida.
It also ignores the expectation that the population of “non-college educated white people” will decline from 36 per cent of voters in 2012 to 33% this year, according to FiveThirtyEight.That suggests the odds are stacked against Trump.
The only way Trump overcomes this is if he can motivate a ton of new white people who didn’t previously vote, and get them to the polls. Whites make up 72% of the electorate, as my colleague Josh Barro points out.
So it’s do-able. Not likely, but do-able.
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