Would Another Republican Have Won?
Townhall recently published a piece entitled “It’s Time for Conservatives to Celebrate This President” (ie, Donald Trump). The piece itself is utterly ridiculous and advances a number of silly claims that should not be taken seriously by any respectable person. One of the most ludicrous arguments for why conservatives should celebrate Trump is because only he could have beaten Hillary Clinton. That’s simply not true. Here’s why.
Politics is cyclical – since 1952, a party has only held the White House for three consecutive terms one time (Reagan-Reagan-Bush from 1980-1992). Couple natural “party fatigue” (as it’s called) with relatively slow economic growth (more on that later), and Republicans should have had an easy 2016 election.
Econometric models, which have historically had a low error rate of error (though they also struggle with open races, as was the case in 2016, tending to overestimate the incumbent party), estimated a generic Republican would receive 51.4% of the major-party vote to a generic Democrat’s 48.6%.
In reality, Donald Trump won 48.9% of the two-party vote (46.1% overall) and Clinton 51.1% (48.2% overall). Trump actually under-performed a generic Republican’s expected result by 2.5 percentage points (put another way, President Obama won reelection in 2012 with 51.1% of the popular vote and 332 electoral votes. A generic Republican in 2016 likely would have done at least as well).
Trump substantially underperformed a generic Republican because of his deep unpopularity – he was the least popular presidential candidate ever, with Clinton coming in at number. Someone like Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, Scott Walker, or even Ted Cruz would likely have had a popularity advantage over Clinton, allowing that candidate to perform in-line with expectations.
The Trump Coalition
It could be argued that Trump’s unique coalition – winning a substantial share the white working class and driving them out in strong numbers – made his win possible and that of another Republican impossible. I find that unlikely for two reasons: One, Republican senators running in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania both took “traditional” paths to statewide victory a generic Republican would have emulated; and two, a regular Republican would have maintained the favor of college-educated whites (Trump likely became the first Republican nominee to lose the college white vote) and likely would have improved on Mitt Romney’s 2012 showing among Latinos and African Americans by a greater amount than did Trump.
To the first point, incumbent senators Ron Johnson (R-WI) and Pat Toomey (R-PA) both won their states through suburbs, the homes of college-educated whites who traditionally vote Republican but broke for Clinton in 2016. Wisconsin has always been swing state that Democrats took for granted – President Bush only won by 0.6 percentage points in 2004 – and it had been trending away from the party for a while (see: Scott Walker winning three statewide races in just four years). Reince Priebus, then RNC chairman, had built a strong party infrastructure ready to turnout votes for any Republican nominee. Pennsylvania, too, has trended red with Republicans outpacing Democratic voter registration throughout the state, but especially outside of Philadelphia. In both states, then, a strong nominee – whether with a particular coalition or simply popular – had an understated/estimated chance to break the so-called blue wall.
With regards to the second point, a Republican candidate with moderate views on immigration (and, to an extent, race) would have fared better with Latinos and African Americans than did Trump. While neither electoral group resides heavily in swing states as a whole, the propensity of Latinos in Nevada and Florida likely would have tipped both states to a moderate Republican candidate and a respectable showing among African Americans would have kept the Rust Belt competitive. A moderate candidate also would have kept college-educated whites whose suburban votes have long propelled Republican candidates in swing states. Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Marco Rubio, or Scott Walker all would have done better with this group than did Trump.
For those reasons, I do not buy the argument that only Trump could beat Clinton. Most Republicans would have been able to do so, and likely with more electoral votes.