This post was originally published at smerconish.com
Surprisingly, I am not going to discuss politics at all. If you’re reading this, it means you’re probably highly engaged in political discussions and already debating the impact of everything that could happen in the next 14+ months. And while all that pundit analysis is fascinating, I quote Academy Award winning screenwriter William Goldman, who wrote so eloquently in his book Adventures in the Screen Trade, “Nobody knows anything.
Instead, this will be about math and real numbers that matter, rather than numbers whose intent is to make you comfortable or worried, depending upon their agenda and point of view. Many of those numbers are a result of the media’s fixation on sharing national head to head polling numbers for Trump versus any of the 2020 Democrats, and by 2020 I’m referring to both the year and the number of candidates running.
If we’ve learned anything from 2016, it should be that we don’t elect presidents nationally. Favorability, job approval, and any number generated nationally is meaningless, and that includes polling on specific issues such as abortion, health care and immigration as those numbers are already baked into the cake.
Instead, let’s take a look at the numbers that impact who will be elected, starting with who will actually be determining the winner in 2020. The population of the United States is approximately 327 million of which 238 million were actually eligible to vote and in 2016. In a year with a supposedly high turnout, only 138 million actually decided to take part in our little experiment we call Democracy. So, when you hear some talking head say that 55% of Americans feel such-and-such, remember that almost 190 million Americans either have no say or don’t care.
Now we need factor in the partisan factor, those who are already wearing their team’s jersey and won’t take it off no matter what, including the proverbial shooting someone on 5thAvenue.
It’s long been my assumption that you could put Mother Teresa and Darth Vader on the ballot and regardless of which party they represented, they each would each get the majority of the party vote. According to Pew Research Center, “Voter choice and party affiliation were nearly synonymous. Republican validated voters reported choosing Trump by a margin of 92% to 4%, while Democrats supported Clinton by 94% to 5%.” If these statistics ring true in 2020 we can assume that at least 80% of the electorate is voting party line, so eliminating them means that less than 27 million people will determine the fate of the country.
Except not really, because again we need to remember that not all voters are equal. If you’re truly someone who isn’t a partisan, studies all the issues and candidates, and then votes for who you actually think would be the best president, but you live in California or New York, or Kentucky, Tennessee or most of the Great Plains or the South, your vote doesn’t have that large of an impact, as your states electoral votes have already counted.
In 2016 there were ten states where the margin of victory was less than 2%, and those ten carried a combined 125 electoral votes and 35 million votes. Once again, we remove that 80%, and we’re at just over 7 million who get to determine the winner and even those voters aren’t all equal. You see, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin with their combined 46 electoral votes gave the 2016 election to Trump. Flip those three states and instead of winning 306-232, Trump loses 278-260. In those three states alone, almost 10 million votes were cast, and Trump won by a grand total 77,744 across all three. He threaded a tiny needle in the midst of a perfect storm. Extremely hard to do once, to repeat, infinitesimally harder. And remember, Hillary didn’t need 77,745 more votes, she needed just 38,873 Trump voters to change their vote. In a country of 327 million people we’ve gotten down to putting our future in the hands of less than 50,000 citizen spread across 1,000 miles.
In Michigan, Clinton needed just 5,353 Trump voters to have cast their ballost for her in order to have capture it’s 16 electoral votes, and that doesn’t factor in the 51,463 votes that Jill Stein received. In Wisconsin those numbers are 11,375 and 31,072 and in Pennsylvania, 22,147 and 49,541. And we haven’t even touched on the reality of what was going on with many voters. How many Bernie supporters didn’t believe Hillary was pure enough and decided to vote for Gary Johnson, who got 425,000 votes in those three states, or Stein or Trump, or just stayed home? How many Democratic voters figured that Hillary winning was a done deal and also stayed home?
So why can’t Trump thread that needle again? The numbers and the smell test suggest otherwise. While there have been a significant number of Trump voters who have said that if they had to do it over again, they’d either vote for Clinton or not vote at all, the number of Clinton voters claiming their voting for Trump in 2020 is far and few between. Yes, I’m sure everyone has heard some anecdotal example of a Clinton voter claiming to now be a Trumper, but as Chico Marx said in the classic movie “Duck Soup”, “Who ya gonna believe me or your own eyes?”
From there we move to the numbers from the 2018 elections which showed Republican support in the suburbs, especially among college educated white women, who have always been an important part of their base, being turned off by Trump and the Republican party support for him and voted Democratic. Remember, for the Democratic candidate to win those states, they won’t need tens of thousands of those women to vote for them. Between those women, first time voters, 56% who voted for Clinton in 2016, and fewer of the 65 years or older voters, who unfortunately for them, won’t be around in 2020, were talking about a few thousand voters overall, only hundreds when you get down to the local level.
The battle for 2020 isn’t going to be won in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, it’s going to be won in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Detroit and Milwaukee. It’s going to be won in North Carolina whose population is becoming younger, more educated, more urban, more diverse and with each passing election, more Democratic. It’s going to be won in Florida where 30,000 to 50,000 Puerto Ricans moved in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, most of whom weren’t able to catch a roll of paper towels thrown in their direction. A state where 1.5 million ex-felons have had their right to vote restored, and while they might not be Democrats, they certainly aren’t happy with the latest attempt by the Republican led government there to institute rules in order to try and stop them from exercising that right to vote.
And yes, Trump’s base is as, if not more, engaged as in 2016 and they’ll be casting their votes for him, but the math shows that merely keeping his voters won’t be enough. In order to counter the expanding Democratic base and the defections in the suburbs, he needs to expand his own base rather than just energize it. Unfortunately for him, much of what he is doing to energize his supporters is turning off those voters he needs the most in order to thread that needle again. Can he still win despite the math? Sure, math also says that it’s nearly impossible to win the lottery, but people do so every week, and against even greater odds, there are some who have won more than once. So yes, there is always the possibility and come November 2020, we might be looking at our televisions with the same reaction we had in 2016. After all, as musician Paul Shaffer said, “Life is nutty; anything can happen,” which makes the words of British writer Ian McEwan even more important, “When anything can happen, everything matters.”