The Democratic National Convention began under a cloud. It seems the previously unthinkable has happened: Donald Trump is now leading polls in the race to become the president of the United States.
Trump is winning because he is absolutely trouncing Hillary Clinton among white voters. In the latest CNN/ORC poll conducted July 22-24, Clinton only has the support of 34% of white voters, compared with 56% for Trump. That differential of 22% seems shocking. After all, in the 2010 census, 63.7% of Americans identified as non-Hispanic white.
But what most political observers don’t realise is that this white voter advantage for Republican candidates is nothing new, even if it is starker than it has been in the past.
In Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election bid against former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, six in ten white voters voted for Romney – but Obama won the race handily, taking 51% of the vote to Romney’s 47%.
Thanks to the US’s changing demographics, winning white voters is no longer necessary to win the White House. Exit poll data from 2012 found that non-Hispanic white voters comprised about 72% of the electorate, but that share is already a sharp drop from past elections; in the 1980’s, this same demographic comprised as much as 85% of the electorate.
In fact, it now appears certain that Trump will carry white voters overall, with a huge advantage among white men in particular, but could still lose in November. This is possible because the US’s sizeable and growing minority groups are overwhelmingly flocking to the Democrats.
In 2012, Romney won a lacklustre 27% of Latino voters, and an abysmal 6% of African-Americans. And even though more white women voted for Romney than for Obama, the president nonetheless scored an 11-point win among women overall.
When the dust settled from Romney’s defeat, the Republican national party commissioned an election “post-mortem” report, the Growth and Opportunity Project, to determine why it had lost. The report had many findings, but one was key: the Republican party can only hope to be competitive in future presidential elections if it does a better job at reaching out to women and Latino voters.
Yet if the Republican party had hired Dr Frankenstein as a political consultant and tasked him with creating a candidate who would alienate Latinos and women, it’s hard to imagine him coming up with someone more effective in doing so than Trump.
Lowest of the low
Trump has painted Mexican immigrants as rapists and murderers. He has suggested that an American-born judge was professionally biased against Trump’s business interests simply because his ancestry was Mexican. He then tried to defuse the justifiable accusations of racism by tweeting a photo of himself eating a taco bowl.
And whether it was suggesting that Fox News journalist Megyn Kelly was aggressively questioning him because of her menstrual cycle, or a long history of using derogatory terms to refer to women, Trump has done little to soften his sexist image.
And yet, Clinton’s flawed campaign has struggled to capitalise on this divisiveness. In the latest CNN poll, as in others before it, her advantage among women was thin, particularly among younger women, whom she lost to Bernie Sanders during their marathon primary. (The rancour of their contest was revived just as the convention began, when the chair of the Democratic National Committee was forced to resign after Wikileaks released a trove of emails indicating that she and her staffers had at least mouthed off and at worst plotted against the Sanders campaign.)
The same cannot be said, however, for Clinton’s advantage among non-white voters: just as she won decisively among them against Sanders, she currently leads Trump among non-whites by a margin of 66% to 21%, with 13% yet to decide.
But alongside all these numbers, it’s important to remember that the road to the White House goes through the electoral college – an arcane and obscure method of picking the world’s most powerful person that makes these demographic splits all the more crucial.
Where to win
The electoral college system was designed to give greater power to individual states. As a result, each state is allocated a certain number of “electoral votes”, equal to the number of representatives in Congress that each state is apportioned (in turn a reflection of its population).
My home state of Minnesota, for example, has eight representatives in the House of Representatives and two senators (like every other state), so Minnesota has ten votes in the electoral college. California, the largest state by population, has 55 electoral votes. In order to win the presidency, a candidate needs to reach 270 electoral votes.
This gives Clinton a major advantage. Since 1992, 18 states and the District of Columbia have voted for the Democratic candidate in every presidential election. Assuming this so-called “blue wall” doesn’t crumble, Clinton starts with 242 electoral votes already in the bag. If she simply adds Florida, with its 29 electoral votes, she will reach 271 and therefore the White House.
Put more simply, if Clinton wins Florida – which has voted for Obama twice – she will almost certainly be America’s 45th president. And even if she loses Florida, she could still win with a variety of other state combinations: the blue wall plus Ohio plus Virginia, for example. Again, Obama managed that feat in 2012, winning many other “swing states” besides.
Playing to the crowd
Clinton’s electoral challenge is therefore much more straightforward than Trump’s. Only 13 states have voted Republican with the same regularity as the “blue wall”, and they are less populous; as a result, Trump can only count on a guaranteed 102 electoral votes.
This means Trump’s path to the White House will necessarily run through a string of swing states, not just one. More challenging still, most of those swing states – Wisconsin, say, and Pennsylvania – have leaned Democratic in recent elections. It’s hard to imagine a scenario where Trump both loses Florida and wins the White House.
Again, demographics are his problem. Of Floridians, 23% identify as Hispanic/Latino, and the state is home to the third-largest bloc of Latino voters in the US.
Clinton’s campaign is well aware of this, and is working hard to make hay of it while the sun shines. For proof, look no further than her recently unveiled running mate, Virginia Governor Tim Kaine.
His addition to the ticket is an attempt to stem the flow of alienated white male voters to Trump, but it’s also a clear overture to Latino voters. Kaine’s debut on stage with Clinton in Florida saw him effortlessly slipping between English and Spanish; he is fluent in Spanish due to a year spent living in Honduras as a young man.
Kaine will be a powerful weapon as he crisscrosses battleground states, particularly ones like Florida with large Spanish-speaking populations.
So even as the Democrats gather to nominate Clinton with Trump apparently leading the polls, they know full well that if they play their cards right, his startling advantage among white voters (and men in particular) can still be trivialised. Winning white voters no longer necessarily wins you the White House.