By Hastings Wyman –
Leading Republicans, including Mitt Romney, John McCain and a host of other officeholders and conservative activists, are in panic mode, fearing – among other fears – that if Donald Trump wins the Republican nomination, as now seems likely, he will lead the GOP to a catastrophic defeat much like Barry Goldwater’s 1964 landslide loss.
That could happen, but it’s hardly a sure thing.
If Trump is paired off against Hillary Clinton, whether he can win the General Election may hinge on three Southern states – Florida, North Carolina and Virginia – plus Ohio. Here’s how a number of experienced observers in the three Southern swing states size up the November possibilities at this point.
In Florida, which holds its primary on March 15 and where Trump is currently holding a lead over home-boy Rubio, a long-time Republican operative says, “It’s too early to tell” whether Trump could carry the state in November. “I don’t know what his General Election campaign will look like. But clearly something is going on.” noting early voting trends that favor the GOP.
The ballots returned so far are 52% Republican, 44% Democratic and 4% other (no party or minor parties). Of some 457,000 Republicans who have returned an early voting ballot (compared to 388,000 Democrats and 35,000 other), some 30% had never voted in a presidential primary before.
Barney Bishop, a Tallahassee-based political analyst, says that “Some Republicans will hold their nose and vote for Donald Trump.” Noting that he is not himself a Trump fan, he adds that he “will support Trump over Hillary, which would be a third term for Obama.” He also points to concerns about Benghazi and emails and notes the increased turnout on the GOP side compared with the lower turnout for the Democrats. “The Republican leadership has to look at whether [Trump]’s bringing in new voters.”
“If you look at the percentages [Trump]’s getting, you can never say never,” says political scientist Susan MacManus, professor at the University of South Florida. “It’s so volatile, so difficult to call Florida,” pointing out that the last three presidential elections in the state were won by less than 1%. “There’s a lot of ifs.”
On the downside for Trump, she says that “if he uses the same tactics against [Clinton] that he’s used in the Republican debates, it will hurt him in Florida,” noting that women make up 53% of the state’s electorate. She also says that “Trump’s lack of civility may hurt him with older voters, even Republicans.”
Could Trump carry North Carolina? “I don’t know at this point,” says a long-time Tar Heel journalist. “That’s my honest opinion… This is a very blue collar state that has been
hit pretty badly by plant shut-downs. So Trump’s basic appeal would have some resonance here.” He also points out, “Hillary Clinton is not a beloved figure here. It’s not an easy state for her,” noting that Bill Clinton never carried the state, nor did Hillary in the 2008 primary.
He adds, however, that North Carolina “is a moderate state, not as rightwing as a lot of Deep South states.”
Ken Fernandez, Director of the Elon University Poll, says that when they polled 1,530 likely voters in mid-February of this year, Clinton led Trump 47% to 41%, with 9% “someone else” and 4% undecided. “Some Republicans could go to Clinton,” he says, but adds, “When the primary is over, a lot of people rally around” their party’s nominee. Nevertheless, he concludes that “Clinton would probably want to face Trump, looking at the data.”
Ferrel Guillory, director of the Program on Public Life at the University of North Carolina, points out that if party loyalty alone determines how people vote, the outcome here would be close. In the last election for lieutenant governor, the type of contest where voters often don’t know much about the candidates, the Republican candidate led the Democratic nominee by 2.187 million votes to 2.181 million, a difference of only 7,000. “In this kind of atmosphere, Clinton or Trump could win,” he says.
Guillory adds, “Trump would destabilize the Republican Party in the South… it would make it uneasy for Republicans, especially in Florida, North Carolina and Virginia… There would be a lot of pressure on Republican officials and candidates to figure out whether to show up with Trump or not.”
“Trump starts off as the underdog in Virginia,” says Larry Sabato, Director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, “but after the last eight months, who can say?”
In Clinton’s favor, she easily won Virginia’s Democratic Primary while Trump edged out a narrow victory over Rubio. Moreover, the state has been trending Democratic in the last few years.
On the other hand, Republican turnout on Super Tuesday in Virginia was twice as large as in 2008 and four times as large as in 2012, while Democratic turnout was down from 2008, the last contested presidential primary.
“Right now Trump’s support pattern in Virginia is more that of a loser than a winner,” Sabato concludes, “but there’s plenty of time left.”
Morton Blackwell, Virginia’s Republican National Committeeman for the past 28 years, has endorsed Cruz, but believes that Trump will carry upcoming primaries in Florida and Ohio “with a plurality.” As for the General Election, he says, “I think at this point it’s
beyond my power of prediction… Both Trump and Clinton have high negatives. How do you predict that?”
The polling data is mixed. According to the latest Realclearpolitics.com average of recent nationwide polls, in November matchups, Clinton has 45.4%, Trump 42%. That’s a lead for Clinton, but hardly an insurmountable one.
In the swing states, some recent polls cited by Realclearpolitics.com have shown Trump leading Clinton. In Florida, Trump led 46% to 42% (Public Policy Polling [D]); in North Carolina, he led 45% to 43% (SurveyUSA); and in Ohio by 44% to 42% (Quinnipiac). In Virginia, however, a January poll by Roanoke College showed Clinton leading Trump 52% to 35%.
The positive-negative ratios for the two frontrunners are comparable. The rating for Trump is 57.6% unfavorable to 36.1% favorable, according to the Huffpost Pollster, which averaged 103 polls from 18 pollsters. For Clinton, the unfavorable rating was 53.6% to 40% favorable, in an average of 369 polls from 40 pollsters.
However, in Clinton’s favor, Republicans who don’t like Trump are more likely to stay home or even support Clinton. But Democrats who don’t like Clinton – mostly supporters of Bernie Sanders – are much less likely to vote for Trump, or even to stay home.
In sum, both friends and foes of The Donald had better prepare for a competitive race and, if the primaries are any indication, a rough one.