If, as pundits now anticipate, a majority of Indiana voters back Donald Trump in the state’s primary contest today, then Donald Trump will likely be the Republican Party nominee come July.
The source of the forecast: Nate Silver, a statistician and founder of the polling aggregation website, FiveThirtyEight. A main stage speaker on Monday at the 2016 annual meeting of the AALU, being held in Washington, D.C., May 1-3, Silver explored the unusual factors underpinning Trump’s campaign for the presidency and his chances of defeating his expected Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.
“If Trump wins the primary in Indiana, where he holds a doubled-digit lead, then he will most likely be the Republican Party nominee,” said Sliver. “He has a comfortable lead in the delegate count. With an Indiana win, the path to the nomination is looking pretty safe for him.”
Or so the numbers would seem to indicate. Trump, he noted, has secured to date about half of pledged Republican delegates. Ted Cruz is in second place with about 29 percent of delegates.
That margin will probably widen in the remaining contests. Earlier in the campaigns season, Trump’s support among GOP primary voters capped at about 35 percent. In recent contests in the northeast, most notably New York, he’s secured well over a majority.
Adding to his delegate count are formerly unpledged delegates. In Pennsylvania, Silver noted, some of the state’s delegates have indicated their intent to support him at the GOP convention in Cleveland in July (either because they favor him personally or because more than 50 percent of the mid-Atlantic state’s primary voters backed him).
Such support within the GOP is unusual, said Silver, given that Trump has taken moderate positions contrary to traditional Republican stances on hot-button social issues such as gay marriage and abortion. His provocative statements on Muslims, immigration from Mexico and trade have also rubbed the wrong way with the party establishment.
These comments have contributed to a record-high “unfavorable” rating with large segments of the electorate: Nearly 61 percent of voters in a recent Huffington Post poll have a poor impression of him.
All of this makes Trump an odd choice as the GOP’s standard-bearer.
“Usually, the Republican Party nominates someone who is ideologically aligned with party positions and is highly electable in November,” said Silver. “Trump is neither of these things. He’s unorthodox.” Party figures who didn’t take his candidacy seriously earlier on, said Silver, were not cognizant of the anger, resentment and alienation that rank-and-file members increasingly feel towards the GOP establishment. They also didn’t anticipate Trump’s unique ability to tap into these emotions.
Trump also blindsided GOP leadership with an inordinate amount of media attention. Countless hours of free on-air time lessoned Trump’s dependence on ad dollars to promote his (largely) self-funded candidacy. That media focus has also diverted coverage from his GOP competitors.
Why the near-saturation reporting of Trump? Silver credited his gift for self-promotion, name recognition and celebrity. He pointed as well to the growing sensationalism of news coverage and election campaigning.
The brinkmanship and political polarization that has prevented lawmakers from addressing pressing national issues also is a factor. Trump has exploited the legislative gridlock — and voter frustration over the lack of movement — to his advantage.
That frustration is percolating not just among blue-collar workers, once thought to be the overwhelming majority of Trump’s supporters. As recent primaries in New York and other northeast states have demonstrated, Trump’s backers now span a broad cross section of the Republican electorate.
In terms of income, Trump’s base is comprises of about a third of GOP voters earning less than $50,000 annually, and a nearly equal share of those whose incomes top $100,000. As to education levels, college graduates and postgraduates account for more than 4 in 10 of his supporters. Significantly more Trump supporters (about 16 percent) have no more than a high school diploma.
The Republican Party, Silver said, has for too long ignored the mounting alienation of these groups, a coalition of the “neglected” that is now making its presence felt in GOP primaries. Their numbers are greatest in rust-belt states that have lost manufacturing jobs to overseas competition; among those employed in service industries where wages have failed to keep pace with inflation; and along southern border states that have experienced an influx of immigrants and changing demographics.
These voters also span the political spectrum in terms of economic and social priorities.
“Trump’s backers include voters who are economically conservative but socially liberal,” Silver said. “They also comprise socially conservative voters who like the welfare state. Trump has tapped into a big group within the GOP that has been marginalized.”
These voters may put Trump over the top in Cleveland, giving him 1,237 delegates needed to secure the GOP nomination. But securing a general election victory in November, said Silver, will require winning over groups that, polls show, account for his unfavorable ratings: Latinos, African-Americans, college students, urban white-collar whites and, most especially, women turned off by Trump’s (real or perceived) misogynism.
Silver said many of these voters are now firmly in the Democratic camp, their loyalties split (albeit unevenly) between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. While Sanders continues to perform well in suburban and rural areas where whites hold large majorities, Clinton is winning the lion’s share of state primaries that have significant minorities populations. She’s also doing well in swing states, large metropolitan areas and economically-diverse counties.
“Sanders would have to beat Clinton by a 2 to 1 margin in remaining state contests to catch up to her in pledged delegates,” said Silver. “He’d have to win California by 30 points and Indiana by a similar margin — a state where he’s behind. It would take a big scandal to cost Clinton the nomination at this point.”
Whether she can defeat Trump in the general election, however, is an open question. Like the presumptive GOP nominee, Clinton has a high unfavorable rating among likely general election voters, a low opinion formed during the scandals of her husband’s presidency and (more recently) while serving in the Obama administration.
The political baggage she carries, said Silver, could irreparably handicap her campaign in coming months.
But a victory or defeat for Clinton could hinge more on the deportment of her opponent. On this score, Silver suggested scenarios. Under one theory, the Trump candidacy is akin to a “black swan” event: an unexpected phenomenon that, riding a moment unique in U.S. politics, propels the real estate developer to the White House.
Silver said Trump will help his chances if, as seems likely, he “pivots” in the general election, taking a more moderate and presidential tone to appeal to independent voters.
Silver cautioned, however, that Trump could be at a disadvantage due to a cash shortage (theory 2), resulting in his defeat. Though a billionaire, most of Trump’s wealth is tied up in illiquid assets, particularly real estate. He may be loath to jettison these assets in unfavorable market conditions.
Securing funding from outside contributors may also be a challenge. Many of the GOP’s wealthiest donors, including the Koch brothers, don’t approve of Trump and are directing their campaign dollars to helping Republican candidates for the House and Senate.
Theories 3 through 5 tend to favor Clinton victories in November because: (3) she’s allied to the White House incumbent (Obama) during a period of continuing economic growth; (4) the nation’s changing demographic make-up —including a fast-growing Latino population — prefer the Democratic Party; and (5) recent polls points to a Clinton win.
While tagging her as the odds-on favorite, Silver believes that Trump has a 1 in 4 chance of securing the presidency.
“Clinton is up by 5 to 10 points over Trump in the polls,” Silver said. “A year ago I would have given Trump a 5 percent chance of winning the nomination. Today, I think, his chances stand at about 25 percent.”
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