A Haystack of Needles

The Briefing, Vol. IV, Issue 20

This week:

  • Trump-Clinton: Ugliest campaign in American history?
  • Trump evinces little concern for down-ballot GOP
  • How disunified a party can he afford in November?

Ugly Already 2016: As much as voters complain about it, negative campaigning works. To a point.

It also depresses turnout. And when it goes beyond its point of effectiveness, it can really depress turnout all around.

That reality, the unprecedented share of Republicans unhappy with Trump’s nomination, and the lack of Barack Obama on the ballot all hint at a very low-turnout 2016 election. Maybe the lowest in some time.

The Trump-Clinton smackdown may not end up resulting in a very close election (Nate Silver gives Trump only a 25 percent chance of victory), but it will be epic for the new levels of negativity it will bring. And this ugly campaign has already begun.

Trump has gone after Clinton as an enabler of her husband’s abusive behavior toward women. Days later, someone (perhaps team Clinton) put a bug someone’s ear at the New York Times to write about Trump “unnerving” women in his personal dealings with them.

The additional story from last week about Trump pretending to be his own spokesman while talking to reporters — which he immediately lied about when asked, despite having previously admitted to it — has been described by the Clinton operation as “the tip of the iceberg” for the kind of opposition research they have queued up and ready to go against Trump. Oh, and don’t forget Trump’s butler and his threats against a sitting president, which for some reason suddenly came to Mother Jones’ attention.

Expect to hear a lot more such things, and expect to hear more counter-offerings, such the new anti-Clinton story about the Clinton Foundation covering up cash flow since 1997. Trump will have his own fraud allegations to answer for when Trump University goes on trial in New York.

It’s just going to be more and more and more of this, ad nauseam, until November. America’s race to the bottom.

Party unity again: Trump isn’t just acting like he doesn’t need a united party — he’s saying it.

“Look, I’m going to get millions and millions of votes more than the Republicans would have gotten” without me, Trump has said. “I don’t think (the party) actually has to be unified.”

Of course, this might have some truth to it in a purely solipsistic run for office. If Trump has no concern about how other Republican candidates fare down-ballot, then sure, it might not matter at all.

But this isn’t an easy question for most of the congressmen, senators, and even lower-level officials who face re-election. It is to be expected that most of them will offer at least tepid support for Trump — as Marco Rubio already has. The phrase “I support the nominee” will likely be common, as many avoid saying even his name for the cameras.

What do you do if you find yourself in this situation? To openly refuse to back him — as a few brave souls have — is to invite retaliation or at least lose votes from his hard core. But to support Trump is to become responsible for every new episode of his very frequent diarrhea of the mouth. As a Republican candidate, you don’t look forward to Democrats running campaign ads tying every crazy new thing that Trump says to you personally, along with your affirmation that you support him.

Add to this the fact that fundraising for the party committee — upon whom candidates at every level depend for infrastructure and basic things like good, current voter data — is sure to suffer, even if Trump already has his own billionaire SuperPAC backer in Sheldon Adelson.

When Trump talks about party unity being an unnecessary luxury, he hints that he is a man who is willing to win alone. Many Republicans doubt that he can even do that. It’s a sign of how troubled the party is now, with less than six months until election day.

Trump’s case: Now, assuming that none of this matters at all — and to Trump, it may not — it’s worth looking at the argument just as it pertains to him.

By Trump’s account, he brings his own set of voters to the table, and so he needn’t lean quite as heavily on the GOP’s traditional voter base. This is certainly counter to the prevailing wisdom, but it is not self-evidently false. So how plausible is it? Or to put it another way, how disunified a party can Trump afford?

The best case study would be a November swing state where Trump performed particularly well in the primary amid high turnout. Obviously, that has to be Florida, which has the benefit of being a must-win state for Trump in November.

Here are a few of the key numbers from the March 15 primary to keep in mind.

Votes for Trump: 1,077,221
Votes for other Republicans: 1,277,962
Total GOP primary votes: 2,355,183

Now, let’s call the minimum number of votes needed to win Florida “V.” What is V? Here are some figures from 2012 that help provide a better sense of what the general election might look like in Florida:

Votes for Romney: 4,163,447
Votes for Obama: 4,237,756
Total two-party vote: 8,401,203

Romney received 772,000 votes in a primary in which 1.67 million Republicans cast ballots. He thus proved that there were at least (lower bound) 2.5 million votes beyond the universe of that year’s primary voters that a Republican candidate could win. (He had to win more than that, to whatever extent he didn’t keep all GOP primary voters unified.)

It is hard to gauge, but anywhere from 4.3 million to 4.6 million voters might be needed to win Florida this November. (The highest possible number would be around 6.6 million, or half of all registered voters in the state as of April 1, but many people just don’t vote.) If Trump could count on keeping most GOP primary voters together and find a similar number of additional votes as Romney, he would carry the state easily.

Two problems with that: First, the problem of double-counting. Larger turnout in the primary implies that there are fewer “additional” November voters out there who haven’t already been counted in the primary.

Second, of course, is the bigger question of whether this year’s non-Trump GOP primary voters are all that into Trump.

Primary voters are important to November for only one reason: They are the most likely to turn out and vote. Primaries are relatively small affairs compared to general elections, and most people don’t vote in them. A candidate’s success in primaries therefore cannot be extrapolated to say much about general election performance.

But a candidate really does need as many primary voters as possible to show up in both contests, because primary voters represent the core of super-reliable voters, to whom all others must be added in order to achieve victory in November.

The question of how Trump gets from his personal support base of nearly 1.1 million to a vote total roughly four times that size must go right through the nearly 1.3 million voters who opposed him in the primary. This has been done before, but it might be more of a challenge for Trump than it is for the average candidate if any significant percentage refuse to vote for him — or worse, vote for Clinton.

Let’s tease out the math on this. On election day in Florida, 39 percent of GOP primary voters told exit pollsters that they would “seriously consider a third party” if Trump were the nominee. Let’s call this a very high upper bound, and imagine arguendo they all did actually vote third party. In that event, Trump would go into the general election with the support of no more than 1.5 million of these high-propensity GOP primary voters, or about 400,000 better than he got on March 15. He would need to find somewhere on the order of 3 million additional votes to have a shot at winning the state. So he would have to find more additional voters than Romney did, despite drawing from a total voter pool smaller about 1 million smaller than the one Romney faced (that is, the 2016 GOP primary voters we are assuming will refuse to back him).

Is that impossible? No. But it’s quite a bit harder than it would be if Trump could count on a relatively unified GOP primary electorate. Trump can assert that he “brings in” new voters, and this was clearly the case in some states — Massachusetts, for example. But in some GOP primaries, he brought in just as many or more new primary voters to try to stop him. Florida is a good example of this — Trump beat Romney’s vote total by almost exactly 300,000 votes, but Trump’s opponents beat Romney’s opponents by a bit under 400,000.

Let’s say Trump can keep 75 percent of the primary voters on the reservation — in line with the same exit poll finding that 25 percent say they simply “will not vote for him” in the general. In that case, he starts off a bit ahead of where Romney did with the total number of primary voters, but again draws from a smaller (by at least 600,000) pool of potential November votes that are among the more likely ones a Republican in the state can win. Note that

But let’s say a fifth of these “no way” types relent and Trump can count on 80 percent of the primary voters, he starts off at least 220,000 votes ahead of where Romney was, but loses just under 500,000 of the more Republican part of the voting pool.

And so on, and so on.

None of these scenarios is impossible for Trump. But the argument here is a very limited one: Trump benefits from party unity. He is hurt by intra-party doubts about his candidacy, and will have to work harder for notional new votes that may not materialize for every unit of party disunity that he adds.

There’s no saying exactly how much weight the opinion of party leaders affects the rank-and-file in this regard. Will Florida voters care much if Paul Ryan seems a bit reluctant? Will they take a cue from Marco Rubio’s obviously half-hearted support — especially, perhaps, among the 16 percent of Hispanic GOP primary voters in Florida?

Maybe it doesn’t matter at all. Then again, if like most politicians you’d rather have these votes than not have them, you do everything you can to lock them down. Trump can perhaps afford to ignore or aggravate party leaders. But even if they have influence over just a relatively small segment of the potential Republican electorate, a lack of unity leaves Trump depending on a lot more “new” voters showing up than anyone.

As for Democrats crossing over, a number do in Florida in every election. But they’re already baked into these equations. Among those who self-identify as Democrats, he polls quite poorly, and probably can’t count on large additional numbers backing him.

In that context, it seems a bit cavalier for Trump to say that party unity isn’t such a big deal.