The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion People are overestimating the power of Trump’s white supporters

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. (Jim Urquhart/Reuters)

There is a strain of reporting on Donald Trump’s strengths and Hillary Clinton’s weaknesses that is becoming rather irritating. The presumptive Republican nominee’s popularity with white voters is seen as a red flag for his all-but-certain Democratic opponent. Meanwhile, her overwhelming support among African American and Latino voters is practically dismissed.

Neither Clinton nor Trump will win without a coalition of voters. And right now, the former secretary of state running to succeed the nation’s first black president has the upper hand. But that advantage in theory will evaporate in reality if those constituencies don’t show up at the ballot box in November.

I got to thinking about this after seeing the latest NBC News/SurveyMonkey Weekly Election Tracking poll. If the election were held today Trump would win 53 percent of the white vote compared to 39 percent for Clinton. That’s a 14 percentage point gap. Black voters would pull the lever for Clinton over Trump, 84 percent to 9 percent. And Hispanic voters would go for the former senator from New York over the Manhattan real estate mogul, 65 percent to 28 percent. That’s a 75-point spread among African American voters and a 37-point gap among Hispanic voters.

As similar poll results are released during the general election campaign, there are some things you must keep in mind when looking at white, black and Latino survey results. Let’s start with the white vote since that’s where the focus (always) is. In op-eds for The Post and the Wall Street Journal, Republican pollster and strategist Whit Ayres laid out the dismal demographics facing the GOP.

Ayres pointed out in the WSJ that Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, “won 59% of white voters, the highest percentage of any Republican challenging an incumbent president in the history of exit polling.” In The Post, Ayres wrote that current demographic trends mean that in order for the GOP to win in November, its nominee must now win 65 percent of the white vote. That’s six percentage points higher than four years ago. Trump’s white support right now is six percentage points below what Romney got and 12 percentage points below the Ayres projection for 2016.

Here are six times Republican presidential contender Donald Trump has insulted women, from Rosie O'Donnell to Ted Cruz's wife, Heidi. (Video: Sarah Parnass and Nicki DeMarco/The Washington Post)

[One of the big reasons why Clinton and Sanders talk the way they do]

In his book “Brown is the new White: How the Demographic Revolution has Created a New American Majority,” Steve Phillips writes that President Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 election was the last time a Democrat won a majority of the white vote (58 percent). Since then, the average has been 39.91 percent. President Obama was reelected in 2012 with 39 percent of the white vote. And, according to Phillips, he did it with “5 million fewer White votes than he received in his initial election in 2008.”

That’s because white voters are a shrinking part of the electorate. “Whites accounted for 72 percent of the national electorate in 2012, down from 83 percent in 1992 and 88 percent in 1976,” Ayres wrote in the WSJ last year. “If this pattern continues—with an average decline since 1996 of 2.75 percentage points each presidential election—the 2016 electorate will be about 69 percent white and 31 percent nonwhite.” On the other hand, 50,000 U.S.-born Hispanics will become eligible to vote every month for the next 20 years.

The celebrated and instantly ignored Republican autopsy of its 2012 election loss said comprehensive immigration reform was the way to attract Latino votes. President George W. Bush earned 44 percent of the Latino vote in his 2004 reelection, an all-time high for the GOP. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the 2008 GOP nominee, mustered 31 percent. And Romney, who called on undocumented immigrants to “self deport,” got 27 percent. All told, Romney only earned support from 17 percent of nonwhite voters. So, an already difficult task might have been made impossible due to Trump’s racist and xenophobic campaign for the nomination.

Because of this downward demographic trend, Ayres wrote in The Post that the Republican nominee would need to win 30 percent of the nonwhite vote or 65 percent of the white vote to win the White House. Meanwhile, Phillips citing voting and census data argues in his book that a progressive victory in November would require “securing the support of 81 percent of people of color and 39 percent of Whites.”

[50,000 shades of dismay for the GOP]

If the election were held today, as the NBC/Survey Monkey survey posits, Trump wouldn’t hit either of the necessary benchmarks. The same survey results show Clinton in much better shape. Her standing among white voters is on par with the Democratic average. No doubt Obama will be a big help energizing African Americans. And Trump may be Clinton’s greatest gift when it comes to motivating Latinos to vote. Turnout among black and brown voters is essential. Without them, Clinton is toast. She knows this. It’s time the media recognized it, too.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj