Nate Cohn | June 9, 2016

One of the biggest reasons Donald Trump is considered to be a long shot to win the presidency is the diversity of the country. 

As Joe Scarborough of MSNBC put it, “There are not enough white voters in America for Donald Trump to win while getting routed among minorities.”

But a growing body of evidence suggests that there is still a path, albeit a narrow one, for Mr. Trump to win without gains among nonwhite voters.

New analysis shows that millions more white, older working-class voters went to the polls in 2012 than was found by exit polls on Election Day. This raises the prospect that Mr. Trump has a larger pool of potential voters than generally believed.

The wider path may help explain why Mr. Trump is competitive in early general election surveys against Hillary Clinton. And it calls into question the prevailing demographic explanation of recent elections, which held that Barack Obama did very poorly among whites and won only because young and minority voters turned out in record numbers. This story line led Republicans to conclude that they had maximized their support from white voters and needed to reach out to Hispanics to win in 2016.

Those previous conclusions emerged from exit polls released on election night. The new data from the census, voter registration files, polls and the finalized results tells a subtly different story with potential consequences for the 2016 election.

The data implies that Mr. Obama was not as weak among white voters as typically believed. He fared better than his predecessors among white voters outside the South. Demographic shifts weren’t so important: He would have been re-elected even with an electorate as old and white as it was in 2004. Latino voters did not put Mr. Obama over the top, as many argued in the days after Mr. Obama’s re-election. He would have won even if he had done as poorly among Latino voters as John Kerry. 

This is all good news for Mr. Trump. There’s more room for him to make gains among white working-class voters than many assumed — enough to win without making gains among nonwhite or college-educated white voters.

But Mr. Trump’s narrow path could close if he loses ground among well-educated voters and alienates even more nonwhite voters than Mitt Romney did four years ago. His ratings among these groups remain poor, and he continues to draw fresh criticism, most recently for saying the judge overseeing a lawsuit against Trump University is biased because of his Mexican heritage.

An Older, Whiter, Less-Educated Electorate

When you hear about the demographic challenges facing the Republican Party, almost all of the data comes from exit polls: surveys conducted with tens of thousands of voters at precincts across the country on Election Day, along with a supplemental telephone survey with early voters.

The exit polls are excellent surveys. But like any survey, they’re imperfect. The problem is that analysts, including me, have treated the exit polls like a precise account of the electorate.

“There are campaigns and journalists who take the exit polls as the word of God about the shape of the electorate and their voting propensities,” said Michael McDonald, a political scientist at the University of Florida who researches voter turnout. “They’re meant to tell us why people voted. They’re not designed to tell us much about the demographic profile of the electorate.”

The exit polls have a series of subtle biases that depict a younger, better-educated and more diverse electorate. Mr. McDonald tentatively reached this conclusion in 2005, and the pattern has been seen in a broader set of data.

The evidence for a whiter, less-educated and older electorate comes from two main sources.

The first — and longest-standing — source of alternative data is the Current Population Survey, known as the C.P.S. Conducted by the Census Bureau, it is the same monthly survey that yields the unemployment report. After elections, it includes a question about whether people voted.

A second source is the so-called voter file: a compilation of local records on every American who has registered to vote, including address, age and whether the person voted in a given election. The voter file data used for analysis here comes from Catalist, a Democratic data firm that offers an academic subscription. Researchers have found that the data is unbiased and more accurate than public voting records.

Visualization by The Upshot

These sources show a 2012 electorate that was far whiter, older and less educated than the exit polls indicated.

Over all, the exit polls suggest that 23 percent of voters in 2012 were white, over age 45 and without a college degree. Catalist puts this group at 29 percent, and the census at 30 percent — implying 10 million more voters than the 23 percent figure.

What’s the best estimate? That’s a matter for debate.

“The truth, if you could ever get to it, is probably somewhere between the three measures,” said Joe Lenski, the vice president at Edison Research, who runs the exit poll, “because they all have their faults.”

They do have their faults. Just about every year, the census reports more people voted than actually did — especially in Southern states with a large black population. The census also has a challenge with people who decline to say whether they voted.

Things can go wrong with the voter file, too, if, say, the state erred in data entry or updates. The models are imperfect as well.

But for many experts in the field, these issues pale next to those facing the exit polls. For Bernard Fraga, a professor of political science at Indiana University, there is “no question that the exit poll is not as accurate.” He added, “It’s clearly much more reliable to look at the C.P.S. or even better to look at the voter file-based work.” Today, virtually all major campaign polling, voter targeting and election law litigation is conducted using voter file data.

The actual results also tend to imply that the census and Catalist figures make a lot more sense in many of the cases where the disagreements are greatest.

Take Ohio, where the exit polls show that the black share of the electorate increased by four percentage points to more than 15 percent of voters in 2012. If these figures are taken as precise, it would imply that nearly 250,000 more black voters turned out than in 2008, with the turnout reaching 88 percent of adult black citizens. There is no trace of this kind of surge in turnout in the actual result. The black turnout in Cleveland actually dropped — to 55 percent of adult citizens.

This type of story repeats itself across the battlegrounds. It also plays out with age, where the exit polls imply that youth turnout was higher than turnout among seniors; with education, where the exit polls show that more college graduates voted than actually live in America; or Hispanics, where the exit polls show that white and Hispanic turnout was nearly equal, despite decades of evidence to the contrary. You can see more of this data here.

The Democratic Dependence on White Working-Class Voters

The larger number of white working-class voters implies that Democrats are far more dependent on winning white working-class voters, and therefore more vulnerable to a populist candidate like Mr. Trump.

Over all, 34 percent of Mr. Obama’s supporters were white voters without a college degree, compared with 25 percent in the exit polls, according to an Upshot statistical model that integrated census data, actual results and 15,000 interviews from various pre-election surveys. The model yields a full alternative to the exit polls that assume an older, whiter electorate like the one depicted by the census. (For those interested in the details about our estimates, we’ve written a technical sidebar.)

“This is a great way to deal with the limits of traditional surveys,” said Andrew Gelman, a professor at Columbia who popularized the statistical technique known as multilevel regression and post-stratification. “It smooths out noise, reduces bias and arrives at better estimates for smaller groups.”

Mr. Obama’s dependence among white voters might seem surprising in light of the 2012 postelection consensus. But it won’t be surprising if you think just a little further back — to the pre-election story line. Mr. Obama’s advantage heading into the election was thought to be a “Midwestern Firewall” — a big edge in Midwestern battlegrounds where white working-class voters supported the auto bailout and were skeptical of Mr. Romney, who was criticized for his time at Bain Capital.

The pre-election story line was tossed aside when the national exit polls showed an electorate that was even more diverse than it was in 2008, while showing Mr. Obama faring worse among white voters than any Democrat since Walter Mondale in 1984.

But the Upshot analysis shows that all of Mr. Obama’s weaknesses were in the South — defined as the former Confederacy plus Oklahoma, Missouri, Kentucky and West Virginia — where he won just 26 percent.

Visualization by The Upshot

Outside the South, he won 46 percent of white voters, even running ahead of Mr. Kerry and Al Gore in earlier elections.

Many of the regions where Mr. Obama lost ground in white areas outside the South — like the energy-producing areas of North Dakota or Appalachia, Mormon Utah, culturally Southern stretches of Southern Illinois, or Mr. Kerry and Mr. Romney’s home state of Massachusetts — were exceptions that proved the rule.

Visualization by The Upshot

The Upshot obtained similar estimates for 2012 from Dr. Yair Ghitza, who matched polling data to the Catalist voter registration file, in his dissertation on the use of big data in politics. Mr. Ghitza found similar figures as The Upshot’s estimates using different data sets and different models.

Visualiztion by The Upshot

Demographics Overrated. The data implies that demographic shifts played a somewhat smaller role in Mr. Obama’s re-election than the postelection narrative suggested. Even if the electorate were as old and as white as it was in 2004, Mr. Obama would have won, because of the gains he made among white voters in states like New Mexico, Colorado and Iowa.

Hispanic voters played only a modest role in Mr. Romney’s defeat. They cost him Florida — a must-win state for Republicans, but also the closest contest. Elsewhere, Mr. Obama would have easily survived even if Mr. Romney had equaled George W. Bush’s 2004 share of Hispanic voters.

All of this is good news for a Republican who intends to win with greater strength among white working-class voters, like Mr. Trump.

There is a downside for him. The lower turnout among Hispanic and young voters implies that it’s possible — even easy — to imagine a huge increase in Hispanic and youth turnout in 2016. And Mr. Obama’s strength among Northern white voters raises doubts about whether the Republicans, including Mr. Trump, can assume that white working-class voters are receptive to conservative candidates.

The best case for Mr. Trump is that white Northerners reluctantly backed Mr. Obama because Mr. Romney was successfully caricatured as a rapacious plutocrat.

Yet it’s hard to argue that the attacks on Bain Capital were responsible for Mr. Obama’s gains among young and college-educated white voters. These voters moved decisively in Mr. Obama’s direction, perhaps in part because of cultural issues. If that’s right, Mr. Trump will be hard pressed to reverse Mr. Obama’s gains — and there’s plenty of evidence he could slip further.

The Missing-White-Voter Theory. There has long been a notion that Mr. Romney was hurt by “missing white voters,” those who voted in 2008 but skipped the 2012 presidential election. And the G.O.P.’s hope is that Mr. Trump could benefit with a surge of those Republican-leaning voters. But that view of 2012 is largely unsupported by the data.

The decline in white turnout in 2012 was particularly marked among registered Democrats, according to data from Catalist. Republican turnout dropped a bit as well, but it was less than the drop among Democrats across every age cohort. And among voters over age 60, Republican turnout increased.

Visualization by The Upshot

According to data from L2, a nonpartisan voter file vendor, the missing white voters were far more likely to be registered Democrats, or to have participated in Democratic primaries, than the white voters who actually did turn out.

Is it possible that some of these Democrats are actually ready to vote for Mr. Trump? Yes. But it’s a stretch to argue that a huge share of them would have voted for Mr. Romney or would vote for Mr. Trump, especially considering how young they are. (Mr. Trump’s support is weaker among the young). They could just as easily be supporters of Bernie Sanders.

Visualization by The Upshot

Even if the missing white voters were disproportionately Republican, a return to previous turnout levels wouldn’t have been anywhere near enough to get Mr. Romney over the top. There were far fewer missing white voters in the battleground states than there were nationally. There weren’t close to enough of them to flip the outcome in key states.

The real pool of missing white voters are those who haven’t participated in any recent election, or aren’t even registered to vote. There are millions of these missing white voters — but they will be much harder to mobilize. Many are young, and might not be especially favorable to Mr. Trump. The older ones are true bystanders in American politics.

Visualization by The Upshot

Can Trump Pull It Off?

To win, Mr. Trump will need to make gains among white working-class voters. The earliest evidence, and polling this early can be quite inaccurate, suggests that he is doing that handily.

So far, Mr. Trump leads Mrs. Clinton by 27 points among white voters without a degree, 58 percent to 31 percent, in the last six national surveys from major news organizations. In the final 2012 polls, Mr. Romney led by just 19 points among such voters, 58 percent to 39 percent, over Mr. Obama.

Visualization by The Upshot

One of the big questions for Mr. Trump is whether his polling gains among that group, should they hold, will manifest themselves in battleground states. Mr. Romney’s national gains over Mr. Bush did him relatively little good: They were concentrated in the South and Appalachia, where they had little influence on the Electoral College. For now, it’s an open question whether Mr. Trump will make outsize gains in important states like Iowa, Ohio or Wisconsin, where he struggled in the primary season.

Visualization by The Upshot

Mr. Trump’s big advantage among white working-class voters hasn’t translated to a much stronger position in national polls. That’s because he is underperforming Mr. Romney’s 2012 results among white voters with a college degree and nonwhite voters, often by a far greater amount than he’s gaining among working-class whites.

The same polls show Mrs. Clinton leading among college-educated white voters by 47 percent to 42 percent. It’s a reversal from 2012, when Mr. Romney led that group by six points, 52 percent to 46 percent in the final polls.

Even modest additional gains for Mrs. Clinton among well-educated white voters or nonwhite voters would quickly start to make things very challenging for Mr. Trump.

If Mr. Trump lost five points among well-educated white voters and Hispanics, which is how he’s doing in current polls, his target for white working-class voters would quickly skyrocket. In a battleground state like Colorado, for example, he would need to gain 15 percentage points more of the white working class.

Whether Mr. Trump can suppress his losses among well-educated voters and Latinos will be decided by a lot more than demographics. Usually, the so-called fundamentals — including the current president’s approval rating and the pace of economic growth — play a big role in determining whether voters will support the incumbent’s party. This year, there are other big questions: whether Mr. Trump’s penchant to offend goes too far, and whether Mrs. Clinton has an advantage with women and faces a penalty among men (and which is bigger).

So far, the polls suggest he will lose too much ground among well-educated and nonwhite voters to win. But the diversity of the country in itself does not rule out a victory for Mr. Trump.

Click here to read the full article on NYT’s The Upshot >