PHILADELPHIA – The presidential primaries are just about over and the nominees have emerged. And the general election begins with Democrat Hillary Clinton already ahead of Republican Donald Trump on the Road to 270.
Trump, who shook the last of his rivals weeks before Clinton locked up her nomination, has made the GOP’s uphill path to the White House more treacherous by failing to seize on that head start in the race for the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency.
In the dozen or so states most likely to determine the race, Trump has made little progress building a campaign operation to match Clinton’s sophisticated get-out-the-vote machine. At the same time, he’s created new problems in Florida, Colorado and Nevada with comments that Republican leaders decry as racist.
There is a path for the billionaire real estate mogul and reality TV star to find his way to 270. But it’s narrow, given the map’s opening tilt toward the Democratic Party, and hinges on Trump’s ability to continue to defy political norms.
Trump will need to turn out white voters in the Upper Midwest in numbers that far exceed those in past presidential elections. Even if that happens, he’s still likely to need to convince women in swing-voting suburbs that he has the temperament to be commander in chief.
And he must stop his party from losing more ground among minorities, particularly Hispanics. That will be a particularly tough task against Clinton, who powered past Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side due in part to her overwhelming popularity among black voters, as well as Latinos – a fast-growing voting group that is turning Southern and Western states into presidential battlegrounds.
Trump insists the rules that govern past elections don’t apply to his untraditional candidacy, and he offers his victory against 16 candidates in the GOP primaries as proof. He says he will put reliably Democratic states such as New York and California in play.
But before Trump tries to expand the electoral map, he must make sure he can protect the safely Republican states the 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney won.
“Trump can’t even take the Romney map for granted,” said Pennsylvania GOP strategist Ray Zaborney.
Where does Trump begin his journey? A look at four questions he’ll need to answer successfully to beat Clinton. The primary season ends Tuesday with the Democratic contest in the District of Columbia:
CAN TRUMP TURN OUT MORE WHITE VOTERS?
For Trump to have a shot, he’ll need to replicate his overwhelming success in the GOP primaries at winning over white voters, but also count on doing even better on Nov. 8.
It’s a risky strategy because white, noncollege educated voters have shrunk as a portion of the overall electorate in recent years. Also, it’s at odds with many Republican leaders, who believe the party’s White House prospects hinge on appealing to the growing number of black and Hispanic voters.
Yet Trump’s campaign is confident he can turn out whites who have not voted in past elections in states such as Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
Winning all three would reverse decades of Democratic dominance there. If Trump could win Ohio as well, he would offset potential Clinton victories in Florida, Nevada and Colorado.
“Mr. Trump has the opportunity to bring people out,” campaign manager Corey Lewandowski said.
Some Democrats think that’s a real concern for their nominee.
“If the election were held today, there’d be a significant number of blue collar, whites – males particularly, but some females – who are registered Democratic and would vote for Trump,” said former Gov. Ed Rendell, D-Pa.
Mike Baker, GOP chairman in Pennsylvania’s rural Armstrong County, said hundreds of Democrats in his area voted in the Republican primary because of job losses in the region’s coal mines.
“It’s all about jobs and coal,” Baker said. “Trump talks about unfair trade, and that appeals to people here.”
But to win Pennsylvania, Trump also probably would need to capture more of the white vote in moderate areas, including the Philadelphia suburbs. Romney narrowly lost to President Barack Obama in the combined four-county area outside of Philadelphia and lost Pennsylvania by five percentage points.
“If someone tapped me to figure out a way for Donald Trump to win Pennsylvania, I would have him camp out in the Philly suburbs,” Zaborney said.
CAN TRUMP CLOSE GAP WITH SUBURBAN WOMEN?
Trump is trailing badly among female voters, putting him at a disadvantage in numerous states.
A recent Associated Press-GfK poll found that 70 percent of women nationally have unfavorable opinions of Trump. He trailed Clinton by double digits in support from women in a range of polls this spring, including surveys conducted for Democratic, Republican and nonpartisan groups.
Clinton’s campaign and her allies are eager to exploit Trump’s weaknesses with women in the suburbs of contested states: Charlotte, Raleigh-Durham and Greensboro in North Carolina; northern Virginia; the Denver area; and the counties around several Ohio’s cities.
A super political action committee backing Clinton featured some of Trump’s most caustic comments about women in early television advertisements weeks before she wrapped up the Democratic nomination.
“That is just a bloc of voters that is going to be very hard for him to move,” North Carolina Democratic strategist Scott Falmlen said.
In his own way, Trump has acknowledged his deficit with women. “My poll numbers with the men are through the roof. But I like women more than men,” Trump said last month. “Come on, women, let’s go.”
Trump’s campaign also notes that Clinton faces her own gender gap.
“She has a massive deficit with men, worse than his with women,” Lewandowski said.
Some North Carolina polls – like national polls taken this spring – show Clinton trailing among men as badly, and in some cases worse, than Trump does with women.
Adam Geller, a Republican pollster in North Carolina, said Trump could balance out his struggles with women by cutting into Clinton’s standing with men in her own party.
“He doesn’t have to win them, he just has to keep her margins down,” Geller said.
If Trump can shrink Clinton’s lead among women and exploit his advantage with men, he perhaps could carry some combination of Colorado, Florida, North Carolina and Virginia.
It’s a daunting challenge. All are states Clinton will expect to win.
CAN TRUMP BOOST HIS STANDING WITH MINORITIES?
When Romney lost to Obama in 2012, GOP leaders quickly identified a glaring problem: Romney’s stunningly poor performance with black and Hispanic voters. Across the country, he won only 17 percent of the nonwhite vote.
Some Republicans fear Trump will do even worse.
That would put victory all but out of reach in states such as Florida, Nevada and Colorado, where Hispanics are a fast-growing segment of the electorate. In Florida, for example, Hispanics made up 17 percent of the electorate in the 2012 presidential race, and 60 percent sided with Obama.
“Romney was downright polite compared to where Trump is,” said Sylvia Manzano, a principal at Latino Decisions, which studies the Hispanic electorate. “We only have to look at prior Hispanic voting behavior to see that that kind of antagonistic talk doesn’t win voters.”
Indeed, Romney won the support of just 27 percent of Hispanics nationally in a campaign where he backed the idea of “self-deportation.” Trump has gone much further, declaring that some Mexican immigrants are rapists and criminals, calling for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and pledging to throw out all people living in the U.S. illegally before allowing “the good ones” back in.
More recently, Trump angered his own party’s leaders by raising a federal judge’s Mexican heritage as a reason he might be biased in a legal case. The comments were widely condemned as racist, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., publicly worried that Trump could push Hispanics from the GOP as Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, the Republican nominee in 1964, did blacks in that election.
African-Americans have never come back to the GOP, and there’s little expectation Trump will change that dynamic. The big question is whether black voters will show up for Clinton in the same record-breaking way they did for Obama, who carried 93 percent in 2012.
CAN TRUMP PUT NEW STATES IN PLAY?
Both Trump and Clinton are seeking a holy grail of presidential politics: winning states that long have voted for the opposing party.
For Trump, that means New York and California, two of the three biggest electoral prizes. Republicans haven’t won either since the 1980s, and the contests since haven’t been close.
Trump appears undeterred and insists he’ll compete aggressively for both. “I’m going to put in a heavy play in California, I’m going to make a play for New York also,” he said last month.
Some Trump advisers say their strategy is less about actually winning those states and more at forcing Clinton to spend money and resources defending territory that should be a sure thing.
While that’s not an unusual move, Trump has not outlined a clear strategy for flipping California or New York. Nor does his campaign appear poised to devote the resources needed to be competitive in such big, expensive states.
But Trump isn’t alone. Clinton recently suggested she could pull off an upset in Texas, a bastion of conservative politics and the second biggest stash of electoral votes.
“If black and Latino voters come out and vote, we could win Texas,” Clinton said in the interview with New York Magazine.
While Texas is becoming more diverse and potentially friendlier to Democrats, even the most optimistic party operatives generally believe the state is years away from becoming competitive in presidential elections.
Wendy Davis, a promising Democratic gubernatorial candidate in 2014, was crushed by her Republican opponent by 20 percentage points.
If Clinton were to flip any traditionally Republican states, Arizona and Georgia appear more likely. Obama’s campaign eyed Arizona, with its rapidly growing Hispanic population, in 2012 but ultimately decided against pouring resources into the state. In Georgia, Democrats also made an aggressive bid to win Senate and gubernatorial races in 2014 but were thwarted.
Yet Chip Lake, a Republican strategist in Georgia, takes a dim view of Trump’s bravado, arguing he should concentrate on shoring up Republicans and conservative independents.
“The Electoral College already doesn’t work in Republicans’ favor,” Lake said. “And he’s just heightened the issue. Mitt Romney won independents by 5 points and still lost. Do we really think Donald Trump is going to do better?”
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