Trump’s Math Problem

Key segments of Trump’s base are fleeing.

Illustration by Peter Grabowski.

Elections are an exercise in addition. That’s a problem for Team Trump.

The president is perpetually trying to win the Republican primary. Somebody within Trump’s orbit needs to instruct him that even the most diehard members of his base can only vote once. (Unless you are from North Carolina, of course.)

The debate was no help for the president. He began relatively strongly, with an economic message and an attempt to push Biden to the left, but the near-constant interruptions, shouting, and otherwise off-putting behavior, including evoking Fox News conspiracy theories about Hunter Biden, Burisma, and the mayor of Moscow, derailed any effort to win the middle of the voting bloc. There was one president on stage that night, and it wasn’t Trump.

His most recent rally was no help, either. He told a mostly white crowd in Minnesota that they “have good genes” and referenced the “racehorse theory.”

The basic strategy behind elections have remained constant for generations. The two part plan is to feed enough political chum to your base to get them to turn out, and pivot to the ideological center enough to convince moderates, undecideds, independents, and nonvoters to push you across the finish line. Trump is only doing part one. And because of how he’s doing part one, part two is damn near impossible.

First, let’s take a look at the damage.

The most recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey found that Biden is now leading Trump by 14 points nationally. The same survey had Biden up eight last month and 11 in July. The president support has dropped into the upper 30s. The most recent CNN/SSRS poll shows Biden with a commanding 16 point lead, also his largest lead this entire election process.

Elections aren’t won nationally, that would make too much sense for our broken political system. Instead, let’s take a look at some key states with the most recent polling averages, courtesy of FiveThirtyEight:

Arizona: Biden +4.1

Florida: Biden +3

Georgia: Biden +0.6

Michigan: Biden +7

Minnesota: Biden +9.2

Nevada: Biden +6.2

North Carolina: +1.8

Ohio: Biden +0.2

Pennsylvania: Biden +6.1

Wisconsin: Biden +6.7

The Trump campaign has targeted three states that Hillary Clinton won in 2016 that they hope to flip red. Trump lost New Hampshire, Nevada, and Minnesota by around two points or less in each. The most recent polling averages in those three states have Trump trailing by 9.7, 6.2, and 9.2 points, respectively.

In other words, there is no offense. Given the numbers and limited resources, it seems unlikely that Trump would pick up any new states. Instead, out of desperation, he is forced to defend the political map that won him the 2016 election.

The issue is that the president needs to parlay all these states. Even losing one of these states, like Florida, could end his presidency. Additionally, the margins were small to begin with, and have only gotten smaller.

Consider Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. All three states went to Trump in 2016 by less than one point, which combined, is less than 80,000 votes or about 0.06% of the entire vote cast. Had Clinton won these three states, she would be president.

So the margins for Trump are small. There’s no realistic shot at picking up any new states, and the states he needs to defend are favoring Biden.

Anecdotally, who is voting for Trump in 2020 that didn’t vote for him in 2016? There are plenty of former Trump voters that the Trump experience has hemorrhaged over the last few years.

Let’s take a look at three specific constituencies of Trump’s base.

First, there are the “neither/nors.” These are the voters that dislike both Trump and the Democratic nominee. In 2016, this group accounted for 14% of the total vote share, and they broke for Trump by 54 (!) points. Had Clinton just broke even with this group, she would have become president.

Trump isn’t repeating his magic with this group, however. Among voters who dislike both Trump and Biden, the president is losing by 17 points. The Trump campaign’s labeling of Clinton as “Crooked Hillary” allowed Trump to clean up in this category four years ago. The problem for Team Trump is that Biden isn’t viewed as unfavorably as Clinton was four years ago. In just one election cycle, this cohort of voters swung 71 points in favor of the Democrat.

Second, there are white, college-educated women. Less than two weeks ago, Biden was carrying this demographic by 10. Today, based on the tracking poll by Yahoo News/YouGov, Biden increased his lead to 22, a remarkable swing in such a short amount of time. Some political scientists believe Trump’s bombast at the debate is partially to blame.

Finally, the last part of the Trump coalition that is bailing is the “swing” vote. These are voters who voted for Trump in 2016 but voted for Democrats in the 2018 midterms. In that same tracking poll, less than two weeks ago Biden was up nine in this group, but today less than two weeks later, he is up 25 with this cohort.

There are certain elements of Trump’s base that will not leave him — the hat wearers, the rally-goers, the Fox News viewers. For Trump to be successful in a few weeks, he needs to close the gap on these three critical groupings: the “neither/nors,” college-educated white women, and the “swing” voters. If he fails to, Trump will be a one term president.

Trump is doing a lot of subtracting, and virtually no adding. That’s his math problem.

political science researcher. former valedictorian. reader/writer. host of “Politics Mostly” podcast.

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