Donald Trump is going to be the next president of the United States, and he will have the Democratic National Committee to thank for it. Much has been made of the “math” of the Democratic nomination, and how it favors Hillary Clinton—in large part due to her huge lead in unpledged “superdelegates” (whose decision will determine the election, given that neither candidate is likely to reach the requisite number of delegates to win outright). But for a moment, let’s set aside the math of the Democratic primary, and look at the big picture: What matters for the general election is who can win swing states and ensure high voter turnout and enthusiasm in solidly blue states. In this regard, Bernie Sanders is clearly the more electable candidate.
Swing States, Blue States
The 10 closest races in 2012 were in Nevada, Colorado, Minnesota, Iowa, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Florida, Ohio, Virginia and North Carolina. Six of these have voted so far in primary contests. Of these, Sanders decisively won 3 (New Hampshire, Colorado, Minnesota), and they virtually tied in 2 others (Sanders narrowly losing Nevada and Iowa). So in terms of swing states, the edge appears to be with Sanders.
As for solidly-blue states, only a handful have voted so far, but the outcome is clear: Bernie Sanders decisively won Vermont and Maine, pulled a huge upset in Michigan, and virtually tied Hillary Clinton in Massachusetts. Clinton has not decisively won even one single solidly-blue state. Instead, virtually all of her pledged delegate lead comes from handily winning in solidly red states which she (or any Democrat) would be highly-unlikely to win in a general election.
Nonetheless, the constant presentation of these numbers (superdelegate votes almost always included in media analyses of the race) reinforces the notion that Clinton is the more electable candidate, and pushes many into her camp as the best choice against the Republicans; this further expands her lead and reifies the perceived electability disparity, ad nauseam. Hence the narrative that Bernie Sanders is the ideological candidate who inspires, and Hillary the pragmatist who can win. In reality, Bernie is both. However, barring a major grassroots revolt, Hillary Clinton will seize the nomination. And she will lose to Donald Trump.
Polling Doesn’t Matter (yet)
I know, here people are going to say “Look at the polls! They show Hillary winning against Trump!” But there are three big issues here:
First, polling several months prior to a race is not terribly predictive in general.
Second, Trump has consistently confounded polls and projections that predicted he could never win (ditto for Sanders, for that matter). Ceteris paribus, there is no reason to believe these dynamics would fundamentally change in the general election: Trump has been antifragile—rising ever-higher despite (in many respects because of) scandals and gaffes that would have ruined most campaigns. The ridiculous amounts of money being spent on negative ads against him in critical states seem to be totally wasted.
Third, there are currently six candidates in the race, and the hope that another candidate may ultimately win the nomination affects how people perceive theoretical head-to-head matchups. When the only possible candidates are Trump v. Clinton, the public is going to break towards Trump.
Delegate Map, Clinton v. Trump
Again, what matters in a general election is who wins swing states and who turns out their base. So let’s see how things look in a head-to-head between Clinton and Trump:
Remember the five out of six swing states that Hillary has either decisively lost or tied in? Four of these have voted on the Republican side, and Trump handily won half of them (New Hampshire, Nevada). Trump also carried all of the swing states that Clinton won. As for the solidly-red southern states that comprise most of Clinton’s pledged delegate lead–guess who carried all of these rather decisively on the Republican side, and often with record turnout? That’s right, Donald Trump.
That is, Trump is likely to decisively beat Clinton in virtually all of the states that she has performed strongly in so far, and seems poised to win many of the states she lost as well. This leaves her relying heavily on the solidly blue states, which overwhelmingly voted against her in the primaries, suggesting that enthusiasm will not be high with her base. Forget national polling. When one takes a sober look at the electoral map—at who can turn out their base in solidly partisan states and appeal in swing states, based on how the primaries have turned out thus far, the edge is cleanly with Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton.
But it gets worse:
Trump has a large and passionate base. And while many Republicans are not comfortable with Trump, they passionately hate Hillary Clinton–and faced with such a stark choice, most would vote for Trump if only to deny Clinton the White House. Reports of Republican elites who say they’d vote for Hillary over Trump are more-or-less meaningless in terms of indicating how most voters will perform: the entire Trump phenomena is a testament to how far out of touch these party elites are with their voting base (meanwhile, endorsements of Hillary Clinton by prominent neocons would only further alienate her from the Democratic base). Make no mistake: Republicans will rally around Trump (or against Clinton), and they will turn out in large numbers to do so.
The same cannot be said on the other side:
A large number of Democrats cannot bring themselves to vote for Hillary Clinton under any circumstances—and while many of these are unlikely to vote for Trump, they may well stay home on Election Day. Already, in the primaries so far, Republican turnout has been far outstripping that of Democrats. If this holds up in the general (or gets worse), it would be damning for Clinton’s candidacy: Democrats rely heavily on uncharacteristically-large left-leaning turnout in presidential election years to win national races. Absent this, they stand no chance–particularly in light of the advantage Trump already seems to have in swing states and with his base.
But the reality of the matter is that many Sanders supporters will not only abstain, they will actually vote for Trump if Hillary wins the nomination. For some, it would be a vote to punish the DNC for its coronation of Hillary. For others, it’d be a nihilistic act: an attempt to burn down the establishment, or to give America “the candidate it deserves.”
But from exit polling we know that many others, particularly in swing states with open primaries, were legitimately torn between Sanders and Trump as the best candidate to direct their anti-establishment sentiment. And if Sanders loses the Democratic nomination, those who voted for him for this reason would not turn around and vote for someone like Hillary Clinton in a general election—they would vote for Trump. Then there are a number of other Democrats who staunchly support the Donald over all the other candidates regardless; in fact, they are an important component of his support base. Already there have been an extraordinary number of voters in key swing states who have defected from the Democratic Party to cast their ballots as Republicans in this cycle.
All of this bodes ill for Hillary Clinton in a general election.
Why Clinton Can’t Win
Sanders is dominating the blue states and swing states. Trump is dominating the red states and swing states. The takeaway should be clear: the American people in general, and particularly the states that will decide this election, do not want an establishment candidate. A Trump v. Clinton race could play out much like Ronald Reagan v. Bush Sr., Carter and Mondale (and very nearly, Ford): races where people with the “right” resumes failed to connect with the public–losing handily to a contender who seemed far less qualified or competent, and perhaps even dangerous, but who really “got” the times and what people are looking for in that moment.
Bernie Sanders can beat Donald Trump, possibly taking the House and Senate with him. Hillary Clinton can do none of these things. Polls be damned: if Hillary Clinton wins the Democratic nomination, Donald Trump will win the presidency. Count on it.
For those unconvinced by my arguments here, there’s another well-known model with a strong predictive track record that forecasts a 97% chance of Hillary losing to Trump. Again, Clinton has been under-performing and Trump over-performing relative to most polls and projections, so there is no reason to believe that Clinton would pull a major upset there. While Norpath’s model projects Sanders would also lose, there would be greater reason for skepticism on this prediction if Sanders actually won the nomination because so many dynamics would be thrown out of their usual balance. Again, Sanders, like Trump, has been defying models and predictions in a good way.
This article was originally published in anticipation of the 3/15 primaries. And thus far, my model seems to be holding well. Looking at the results of the contests of March 15, 22, 26 and April 5:
Clinton continues to perform well in southern states that she would likely lose in a general election to Trump (who dominates those same states)–most recently Florida, North Carolina and Arizona. With the exception of Illinois (which Clinton narrowly won), Sanders continues to crush Clinton in solidly-blue states, winning by huge margins in Hawaii, Washington and in the Democrats abroad primary (garnering roughly 70% of the vote in each of these), and pulling off a decisive upset in Wisconsin.
The single apparent aberration to my model was Ohio: a swing state which Clinton won but Trump did not. But in this case it is important to note that Trump was competing against a sitting governor with an active campaign infrastructure still intact from his recent re-election. And despite this advantage, Trump was polling ahead of Kasich until the 11th hour, when Rubio instructed his voters to endorse the governor instead. If anything, the fact that such highly-unusual maneuvers were needed for a popular sitting (and recently re-elected) governor to prevail over Trump is a testament to Trump’s strength: on the Republican side, Ohio should not have been competitive in the first place.
I would bet strongly that Trump will take Ohio. Of the other close states I mentioned that have already voted, I expect that Trump will also win Florida, Arizona, Iowa and North Carolina (all of which the Democrats believe to be “in play”). The primaries so far also show a weakness for Clinton in “rust belt” states like Michigan and Wisconsin. Trump performed especially well in the former on the Republican side. Pennsylvania will be a state to keep one’s eye on, to determine just how vulnerable Clinton seems to be with these voters…and how much Trump might appeal to them instead.
I will say that although Clinton struggled in New Hampshire and Nevada while Trump won both of those states, it seems ambiguous to me how the general election will turn out there. I think New Hampshire was close last year because the Republican candidate was former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. I just don’t see New Hampshire going for Trump. Maybe I’m wrong.
Similarly, I think Nevada is a toss up. Clinton barely won, Trump won by more. But it is Harry Reid’s home state–and again, I think part of the closeness from last year had to do with Romney, whose candidacy likely amped up participation of Nevada’s large Mormon community–a community which has been ambivalent (and at times, outright hostile) towards Trump. So Clinton may even have an edge there. I imagine the same will prove true in Colorado. Although Clinton lost that state, Trump looks like he will also have a tough time of it, likely in part because of the high numbers of Mormon voters. In the general, Clinton may win.
Virginia is probably a toss-up: both Clinton and Trump performed strongly there.
But we can already see an electoral path to victory for Trump: Florida, Arizona, Iowa, North Carolina and perhaps flipping a couple of the “rust belt” states (Michigan looks particularly promising). Or, that failing, maybe taking Virginia or Nevada. Either way, Clinton seems to have a much narrower path to victory than most seem to be acknowledging.