Fall Election Looks Tough for Trump

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks in New York on May 3, 2016, following the primary in Indiana.

By NEIL KING JR. – – – –

Indiana has all but sealed it: The general election will feature a face off between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

So with six months to go before Election Day, what are the rough outlines of the race? Can Mr. Trump win? If so, what would his path to victory be?

The debate over Mr. Trump’s viability in November has been underway for months, with his rivals—Sen. Ted Cruz, who suspended his campaign after the Indiana primary, and Gov. John Kasich—both portraying him as too unpopular and divisive to win. That’s a view widely held by many establishment Republicans and even more on the left.

First, let’s start with the map itself, which is unforgiving from the outset for any Republican candidate.

Since 1992, every Democratic nominee has won a solid chunk of 18 states and the District of Columbia, which together add up to 242 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win. Republicans, meanwhile, have held a solid chunk of 13 states with just 102 electoral votes.

The Cook Political Report offers a more charitable tally for where things lean right now, saying the Democrats likely have 217 safe votes to start, while the Republicans have 191.  (But it’s worth noting here that George W. Bush won his two elections, in 2000 and 2004, by an average of just 20 electoral votes—absolute squeakers by any measure—while Barack Obama won his by an average of 159 electoral votes.)

So to triumph, Mr. Trump will have to alter the electoral map in historically dramatic ways. He will have to wrest away not just a few states—like Colorado, Virginia, Nevada or New Mexico—that went with Mr. Obama in both 2008 and 2012 and appear to be turning reliably blue. He will also almost certainly have to grab a couple of states—like Michigan, Pennsylvania or Wisconsin—that haven’t fallen into the R column since the 1980s.

Is there any sign at the moment that Mr. Trump may have the momentum to pull off such a feat?

Let’s look at the big picture first.

The overall horserace numbers don’t mean much as this point, but nor are they auspicious for the likely GOP nominee. In early May 2008, Mr. Obama was tied with John McCain in the Real Clear Politics running average of national polls. Four years ago, Mr. Obama was up on Mr. Romney by just 3 percentage points. In the same tally, by comparison, Mrs. Clinton now leads Mr. Trump by over 6 points.

At the same time, both candidates will be entering the general-election fight with unusual baggage, but for Mr. Trump the load is heavier. Mrs. Clinton, for instance, is seen negatively by 56% of registered voters, according to the most recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll. By comparison, just under a third of voters see her in a positive light.

For Mr. Trump, an astonishing 65% of voters hold a negative view of him, a number that has ticked up steadily since he entered the race in July. Less than a quarter have a positive view. No presumptive nominee in the modern era has entered a campaign with such high negatives.

Mr. Trump has built his success so far on winning outsize support from white, working-class voters, particularly men, while struggling to win majority support from the higher-educated women and minorities. That strength has led many observers to posit a victorious Trump path that leads through the Industrial Midwest, picking up multiple wins in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan or Wisconsin.

Still, the numbers suggest that is a very tall order. One poll in Pennsylvania, leading up to last week’s primary there, showed Mr. Trump lagging Mrs. Clinton by 15 points among registered voters. Winning the Keystone State would also require eradicating a 310,000 Democratic vote advantage statewide in 2012. In Philadelphia County alone–not likely to be ripe Trump territory in November–Mr. Obama enjoyed a nearly 500,000 vote edge in 2012.

Meanwhile, recent polls in Michigan and Wisconsin also showed Mrs. Clinton up by comfortable margins over Mr. Trump. At the same time, a poll this week shows Mr. Trump lagging badly in must-win Florida.

So could there be a victorious Trump path through the Midwest, even if Mrs. Clinton won all the other swing states that Mr. Obama controlled in both 2008 and 2012? Yes, and it would look like this: If Mr. Trump managed to sweep Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin, he would secure exactly 270 electoral votes. The last time a Republican made that sweep was in 1984, when Ronald Reagan won every state but one.

What do the prediction markets make of the race? One metric–PredictWise’s amalgam of betting markets, polls and other measures–puts the odds right now of the Democrat winning in November at 70%.

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