Donald Trump is wily, unpredictable, unprincipled, and opportunistic. And for some observers, this makes him a formidable prospect in a general election. “To be successful as a Republican candidate you have to be the equivalent of a neutron bomb,” said Republican strategist Steve Schmidt to the Washington Post. “He’s a neutron bomb. Donald Trump has been disruptive in the way Uber has been disruptive in the taxi industry.”
“I think there’s a lot of Reagan Democrats waiting to vote for him,” said Chris Matthews during a January broadcast of his MSNBC show Hardball. “I think Pennsylvania might well be in play if he’s the nominee because he’s unpredictable.”
Because Trump isn’t a doctrinaire conservative—because he appeals on emotion and not policy—the theory is that he can win white working-class Democrats and other disaffected voters in the Democratic coalition. Trump, incidentally, agrees. “I have a chance of winning New York. You know, you look at these politicians [and] they always talk about the six states—you’ve got to win this one, that one. You have to win Ohio, you have to win Florida,” he said last month. ”I can change the game because I really have a chance of New York, I’m going to win Virginia. I’m going to win Michigan, as an example.”
But there’s a big problem with this theory, which also underlies a cottage industry of fan fiction about the presidential election: There’s no evidence. At this stage of the election, there is nothing that points to any Democratic support or enthusiasm for Trump. Instead, it’s just the opposite. Trump is deeply unpopular with Democratic voters. Even white ones.
According to the Reuters tracking poll, which follows responses over time to measure changes in support or opinion, more than 73 percent of whites who voted for President Obama in the last presidential election hold a negative opinion of Trump, versus 27 percent who hold a favorable opinion. It’s difficult to do a direct comparison, but this is in line with Mitt Romney’s standing among white self-identified liberals in the September before the 2012 election. Better is an apples-to-apples comparison between Trump and his nearest rival, Ted Cruz. Whites who voted for Obama like Cruz—a doctrinaire conservative ideologue—about as much as they like Trump, 28 percent favorable to 72 percent unfavorable.
What about working-class whites? As it stands, the real estate mogul breaks even among whites with a high school degree (a rough measure of “working class”), 52 percent favorable to 48 percent unfavorable. Among those who voted for Obama, this drops to 27 percent favorable to 73 percent unfavorable, tying Cruz on both scores. Trump, in other words, is about as liked among working-class Democratic whites as the least-popular Republican politician left in the field. This is in line with a focus group of white working-class voters conducted by Working America, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO, which canvassed neighborhoods outside of Cleveland and Pittsburgh. Ninety percent of respondents voted in 2012, and among “decided” Democrats, 25 percent backed Trump. But when you counted all Democrats—those without a candidate choice as well as those with one—just 11 percent backed Trump.
None of this should be shocking. Missing in the discussion of working-class whites and the Democratic Party is the degree to which Democrats have already lost much of the white working class. Just 36 percent of whites without college degrees voted for Obama in 2012, when he won the election by a 4-point margin in the popular vote, picking up 26 states (and the District of Columbia) and 330 electoral college votes.
Democrats don’t need to win working-class whites or even to come close—they just need to stem their losses. And even that’s less acute than it’s been. A growing Hispanic and Asian electorate, along with steady black voting, has tilted the electoral board a little more in the Democrats’ favor, giving them a greater cushion with white voters. On the other side, without an influx of minority voters—which isn’t happening—Republicans need supermajorities of all white voters to win, even in Rust Belt states where Trump allegedly has his greatest appeal. And as Greg Sargent points out for the Washington Post, this is a huge reach. To win Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Ohio on the strength of working-class whites, Trump would have to beat Romney’s totals by an average of 12 points, assuming he doesn’t lose any college-educated whites or see worse performance with nonwhites. If you broaden the analysis to all whites, Trump has to improve on Romney by an average of 8 points—a difficult challenge, even before you consider the Democratic campaign against him.
The basic truth is that Donald Trump is one of the most unpopular figures in national politics. He’s disliked (or despised) by a large majority of Americans. This isn’t because the public doesn’t know him. With nearly $2 billion in free coverage from news networks—dwarfing Hillary Clinton’s $746 million—the public knows him well. And they don’t like what they see. Far from scrambling political alliances in his favor, Trump may be the key to further gains for Democrats, from solidifying an advantage with Hispanics to making inroads with college-educated whites.
If Trump upends the fall presidential race, it likely won’t be because he’s gamed the system or discovered a new, unprecedented path to a majority. It will be because, like Ozymandias’ creature, he united a divided electorate against him, in a broad effort to save the country from its worse impulses.