In October 2012, with the presidential election coming down to the wire, the Mitt Romney campaign thought some of the polls showing President Obama ahead were wrong. They were not alone; I, among many, was persuaded that the Romney critique of certain key national polls was correct. To take just one example, I felt the GOP criticism of an ABC News/Washington Post survey that showed Obama with a three-point lead should be discounted by what seemed to be a seemingly skewed statistical sample in which Democrats outnumbered Republicans. That struck me as not only unreasonable but rooted in a mistaken belief that after four years in office, the president would be able to generate the same kind of massive turnout among minority, youth, and female voters that he did when he was first elected in 2008. I wrote that the idea that Democrats would make up as much as 35 percent of the electorate, as the poll claimed, was “ludicrous.”
In case anyone has forgotten what happened, along with a lot of other people, I was wrong.
If anything, the polls were undercounting the number of Democrats who would vote since exit polls revealed that they actually made up 38 percent of the electorate. Faced with the possibility that their party would lose the White House, the same groups that put Obama in office were undeterred by his poor job approval ratings. The notion that Democrats that weren’t enthusiastic about his performance would stay home was reasonable in theory but proved completely false. Whether or not they liked everything he did, they were still prepared to show up and vote to prevent his Republican opponents from triumphing.
Flash forward to 2016 and it appears that the Donald Trump is making the same mistake. Faced with the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll that shows Hillary Clinton surging into a double-digit lead, the Trump camp isn’t buying it. The candidate tweeted: “The “dirty” poll done by @ABC @washingtonpost is a disgrace. Even they admit that many more Democrats were polled.” His son Eric and other surrogates repeated that talking point on Monday. Trump supporters were reassured and pointed to other polls in which their man was “only” losing by single digits.
Like the Romney team’s certitude about Obama’s inability to repeat his 2008 electoral magic act, the palace guards at Trump Tower are sure that predictions of a massive turnout of Democrats are unfounded. Now, they have some support for their skepticism. Hillary Clinton may not be quite as unpopular as Trump, but her favorability numbers are also awful as are the results that show Americans don’t trust her. Why would minorities who had a personal connection to Obama’s triumph or young voters who preferred Bernie Sanders in the primaries turn out for her in November?
The Trump formula for victory rests in part on a shaky foundation in which white voters make up a larger rather than a shrinking percentage of the voters in 2016, as they have in each election for the last generation. I think there’s little reason to think that will be true, especially when you consider the explosive growth of the Hispanic population. But Trump is also counting on Democrat voting groups being so dismayed by the prospect of voting for Clinton that there will be no repetition of their surge at the polls in 2008 and 2012.
That assumption rests on two fallacies.
One is that Trump will win enough votes from white working-class Democrats to offset his massive losses among minorities as well as defections from Republicans who are disgusted by his antics. I think that’s wrong since most of those “Reagan Democrats” defected to the GOP long ago. The other is that he’s forgetting turnout can be driven by negative factors as well as positive ones (i.e., the desire of minorities to ensure the election and then the re-election of our first African-American president).
The key factor driving Democrat turnout in 2016 will be Trump. In a race against a Republican who was not as hated as Trump, it might be possible to imagine Democrats being so disengaged from the contest that they’d let Hillary down. But Trump’s astounding levels of unfavorability and his continuing use and defense of racist rhetoric is the sort of thing that will make up for any lack of enthusiasm for Clinton.
That’s why Trump surrogates who doubt polls that assume a massive Democratic turnout this year are as foolish as those of us who doubted Democratic willingness to show up for Obama. If Trump is to win, it will have to be in an electoral environment in which the very groups that he has gravely offended do not vote in large percentages. Such an outcome is not a mathematical impossibility. It’s just incredibly unlikely.