Some say Republicans can win by turning out disaffected whites—but is it working?
By Karl Rove
The Wall Street Journal
October 27, 2016
Amid this dreary campaign’s daily back-and-forth about his alleged groping and her embarrassing emails, the strategic premise of Donald Trump’s presidential bid is being tested.
Mr. Trump and his managers assume that victory depends on turning out whites who did not vote for Mitt Romney in 2012. This theory holds that President Obama won re-election by 4.9 million votes only because five million whites stayed home, unenthused by Mr. Romney, who didn’t connect with them or wasn’t harsh enough on Mr. Obama.
On the surface, the “missing five million” sounds plausible. Although 129 million Americans—55% of the voting-age population—cast ballots in the 2012 presidential election, 106 million people didn’t. Among them, according to the website FiveThirtyEight, were 47 million whites without a college degree, including 24 million men.
Exit polls from 2012 show that Mr. Romney won 59% of white voters, and that whites constituted 72% of the turnout. The Trumpers say their man can win by boosting those figures only slightly. Increase the GOP’s share of the white vote a few points, say to 62%. Raise the white turnout to 74% or 75%. Voilà, President Trump.
In the GOP primaries, two Republicans based their campaigns on the “missing five million,” but they differed on who the absent voters were. Texas Sen.Ted Cruz contended that they were white evangelicals. Mr. Trump argued that they were white blue-collar workers. But the two agreed that the path forward was to adopt a populist antiestablishmentarianism.
Sen. Cruz and Mr. Trump hurled almost as much abuse at what they said were pusillanimous Republican leaders as they threw at Mr. Obama. Mr. Trump won the nomination by arguing that the “missing five million” would turn out for hard-line immigration policies, anti-trade rhetoric and a neo-isolationist foreign policy that put “America First.”
How’s that working out so far? The Trump camp’s first strategic premise—that he can do better among whites than Mr. Romney did—isn’t being borne out. The Oct. 17 poll from Fox News is representative: Among registered voters, Mr. Trump drew 49% of whites and Mrs. Clinton 38%. Other polls also show Mr. Trump lagging Mr. Romney’s performance among whites. Perhaps he could match or exceed it on Election Day if he converts virtually every undecided white voter, but that isn’t likely.
We can’t evaluate the second strategic premise—that Mr. Trump can increase the white turnout—until after the election. But recent history doesn’t suggest a dramatic increase in the offing. Exit polls show that whites were 81% of turnout in 2000; 77% in 2004; 74% in 2008; and 72% in 2012. The country is becoming more racially diverse. It will be nearly impossible for Mr. Trump to keep the white share flat, let alone increase it.
This election is also testing the messages being used to energize the “missing five million.” Is Mr. Trump’s support built on nativism, protectionism and neo-isolationism? Or is it based more on vociferous opposition to Mr. Obama’s unpopular policies (like ObamaCare), as well as the country’s overwhelming demand for change?
Do most voters really believe that Mr. Trump will somehow make Mexico pay for a wall on the southern border? Or that he will deport millions of illegal immigrants? Perhaps that over-the-top rhetoric is hiding his real appeal: that voters believe he would secure the border and get violent illegal aliens off the streets. After all, in every general-election poll and virtually every exit poll from the GOP primaries, a majority of voters want to provide a path to legal status for illegal immigrants.
Do most Americans want to rip up trade agreements and start trade wars? Or has Mr. Trump simply tapped into a sentiment that America plays by the rules while other countries don’t? There is a big difference between wanting to slap tariffs on imported goods, so Americans pay more for life’s necessities, and wanting other nations to remove obstacles to U.S. goods and services.
Do most voters really believe in a neo-isolationist foreign policy? Or is it that many think the world has become much more dangerous—and the U.S. much less secure—under Mr. Obama’s feckless leadership? If the latter, the electorate is unlikely to support a full-scale retreat from the world.
In 12 days, voters will render their verdict, not only on Mr. Trump’s conduct and character, but also on his strategic framework, message and policy agenda. If the “missing five million” fail to reappear, Republicans will have to find another road to political dominance and 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
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