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Rust Belt Could Be Donald Trump’s Best Route To White House

Posted: Mar 7, 2016 at 7:51 pm   /   by   /   comments (0)

Wall Street Journal

Donald Trump’s success in attracting white, working-class voters is raising the prospect that the Republican Party, in an electoral gamble, could attempt to take an unexpected path to the White House that would run through the largely white and slow-to-diversify upper Midwest.

Most Republican leaders believe the party’s best way forward in a racially transforming nation is to draw in Hispanic and other minority voters. Their hope has been to move Florida, Colorado, Nevada and other rapidly diversifying swing states into the GOP column in the Electoral College vote.

But Mr. Trump’s focus on stopping illegal immigration, as well as his coarse description of Mexicans and other groups, has produced an intensely negative image of his candidacy among Hispanic voters, hindering an Electoral College strategy that relies on them, a range of polling shows.

Sen. Ted Cruz asserted himself over the weekend as the most-viable GOP presidential alternative by winning two states and finishing closer than expected to the front-runner in two others. The next states will test whether the newly intensified criticism of Mr. Trump’s temperament, business record, and past association with Democrats is getting through to primary voters.

For now, Mr. Trump leads the GOP race in convention delegates and states won, largely built on a cadre of supporters—mostly white and without college degrees—who are angry about economic stagnation and are drawn to his aggressive immigration proposals, among other stances.

Some demographers and political analysts say Mr. Trump, if he wins the nomination, may boost voting rates among white, working-class residents in states where their turnout was low in 2008 and 2012. These include Pennsylvania and upper Midwest states such as Michigan, although a Wall Street Journal/NBC News/Marist poll released Sunday showed Mr. Trump trailing Democrat Hillary Clinton in that state by 17 percentage points in a potential general-election matchup. The upper Midwest is diversifying more slowly than the nation as a whole.

ENLARGE

Some two million fewer whites voted in 2012 than in 2008, census data show. Turnout among white, non-Hispanic voters fell from 67% nationally in President George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election bid to 66% and 64% in the following two cycles.

Mr. Trump would face some tricky electoral math, however. In the course of motivating white, working-class voters with his controversial proposals, he also could prompt Hispanics, African-Americans and other minorities, as well as women, to vote in higher rates than might have been the case with President Barack Obama no longer on the ticket. Moreover, minorities are growing as a share of eligible voters, suggesting that their power in the electorate is likely to increase.

White voters are shrinking as a share of the potential electorate—and yet, the actual number of white voters could rise if their turnout rates returned to prior levels.

States that saw a downturn in white voting rates in recent years included those in the Rust Belt where a majority of eligible voters are whites without a college degree, an analysis by Brookings Institution demographer William Frey found. These included Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota. Analysts commonly use lack of a college degree to designate voters as working-class or blue-collar.

Some strategists say the falloff in white turnout rates reflects a relative lack of enthusiasm for recent GOP presidential nominees. A candidate such as Mr. Trump, they suggest, could boost turnout rates among working-class, white voters, who as a group have increasingly favored GOP candidates.

“I think there is an opportunity for a hidden white vote to come out, especially among less-educated voters in these states,” said Mr. Frey, who added that this week’s Michigan primary could show the depth of Mr. Trump’s appeal among them in Rust Belt states.

“We’ll know more after we see the primary in Michigan about how angry they are,” Mr. Frey said. “Michigan could put an exclamation point on it.’’

A Wall Street Journal analysis of county-level data also suggests a large number of white, working-class voters are untapped by any candidate.

In 125 counties in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin—more than half of all counties—the share of white residents without college degrees was higher than the state average, census data reviewed by the Journal show. In 94 of those counties, or 75%, voter turnout was below the state average—in some cases, far below.

In Lawrence County, Ohio, 53% of registered voters cast ballots in 2012, according to the secretary of state, well below the statewide average of 70.5%. In Fayette County, Pa., turnout was 53%, well below the statewide average of 67.6%. In both counties, nearly three-quarters of voting-age residents are whites without college degrees.

The numbers suggest that tens of thousands of nonvoting residents remain available to be moved to the polls—if a candidate is able to motivate them.

Many strategists say a route to victory through these states is implausible, as Mr. Trump is alienating some voters in the course of drawing in others. Mr. Trump “is going to give up an awful lot of independents and upscale Republicans in his gains with less-educated and lower-income white voters,” said Peter D. Hart, a Democratic pollster.

Moreover, some GOP strategists worry that Mr. Trump’s recent hesitation to denounce the Ku Klux Klan might boost African-American turnout above the record levels driven by Mr. Obama’s two campaigns. That could offset gains among working-class whites.