“The risk in Donald Trump’s base-first electoral strategy is only rising—because the size of his base is shrinking.
Working-class whites are on track to continue declining as a share of eligible voters in 2020, according to a study released today by the liberal think tank Center for American Progress. In turn, two groups much more resistant to Trump will keep growing: Nonwhite voters will swell substantially, while college-educated white voters will modestly increase.
These shifts in the electorate’s composition may seem small, but they could have big implications next year. The report projects that these demographic changes alone could provide Democrats a slim Electoral College majority by reversing Trump’s narrow victories in the three blue-wall states that keyed his 2016 victory: Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. Indeed, the shifts could be enough to narrowly tip these states back toward the Democrats even if college- and non-college-educated whites and minorities behave exactly as they did in 2016—if their turnout rates stay the same and if they split their votes between Trump and the Democratic nominee in exactly the same proportions as they did then.
And, if all other voting patterns hold equal, these changes alone could add another percentage point to the Democratic nominee’s margin of victory in the national popular vote, giving that candidate an advantage over Trump of more than 3 points. All told, the study, provided exclusively to The Atlantic, underscores how narrow a pathway the president is following headed into 2020.
If Democrats “are relying on demographic change to win, you are praying nothing else will change, and you are hoping to squeak out a victory by the tiniest margins,” Teixeira says. But it is a “bonus” for Democrats, he explains: “Even if [Trump] accomplished exactly what he did in 2016, he would probably lose the election. So he not only has to do that; he has to try to do more.”….
Given the resistance Trump has faced from minorities and college-educated whites, especially women, the report’s findings highlight how much he will depend next year on maximizing both turnout and his margins among white voters without a college degree. Yet both goals could prove challenging. Though Trump remains extremely popular with non-college-educated white men, an array of polls shows him suffering erosion among white women without a college degree, a group that notably moved away from the GOP in 2018.
And even if Trump, as he’s shown the capacity to do, can further juice turnout among non-college-educated whites, especially outside of urban areas, those gains could be offset by higher engagement among the groups that are growing in the electorate. That’s what happened last year: Working-class whites turned out at elevated levels for the midterms, but that increase was swamped by a spike in participation among college-educated whites and minorities. As a result, blue-collar whites plummeted by 4 percentage points as a share of the total vote compared with the 2014 midterms, according to calculations by Michael McDonald, a University of Florida political scientist who specializes in voting behavior. That’s an unusually large decline.
Something like that could happen again in 2020, Teixeira notes. “They can shrink [more] if everyone else comes out—that is the nature of the beast,” Teixeira says. “This is part and parcel of the challenge that Trump will face. He is utterly dependent on this group, but he can’t really stop their ongoing decline as a share of voters … In a high-turnout election, things may turn out even worse” for them, given the growth among other demographic groups.
The report makes clear that Trump could again manage a narrow Electoral College win, even if he loses the popular vote. (Teixeira believes that the demographic trends virtually ensure he won’t win the most voters overall.) Non-college-educated whites, even after their expected decline, will still represent a much larger share of the total vote in the key Rust Belt battlegrounds than they do nationally. And in many of the Sun Belt battlegrounds, Democrats have struggled to turn out growing minority populations, failed to match their gains elsewhere among college-educated whites, or both. The strong economy might also allow Trump to suppress defections among college-educated white men and possibly make some gains among black and Latino men.
Taken together, these factors could mean, as I wrote on Election Day in 2016, that the Democratic coalition in the Rust Belt again crumbles faster than it coalesces in the Sun Belt, allowing Trump to break through to another win. But the study also pinpoints the inexorable math pressing on Trump’s exclusionary vision for the GOP: His most likely path to a second term will require him to squeeze even bigger advantages out of dwindling groups.
Trump’s incendiary populism has been unable to reverse the tides of demographic change that, like an ocean encroaching on a beach, are diminishing the constituencies most drawn to him. And that unstinting current of change leaves him with even less margin for error in 2020 than in 2016.”