Talking heads will point to the recent polls as signs that the expected 2016 race is getting tighter. We don’t know such things: too many things can change, after all. However, the polls are indicating a few things that I’d been pointing about before.
According to Washington Post/ABC poll, 85% of the Republicans are now lining up behind Trump–comparable to the Democrats consolidating behind Clinton (86%). This was very much expected: the educated, affluent, and partisan votes are the hardest to convert. If the Democrats expected that the allegedly uncouth, anti-conservative inclinations of Trump would alienated many Republicans to make up for any gains he’d make among the “missing white voters,” it seems that, at least so far, the strategy is not working out.
I’d been pointing out for some time that the key component of the Bernie Sanders coalition is not the young and the hyper-liberal who make up the majority of his voters: come November, they will either be voting for the Democrat or not be voting at all. The votes that can potentially shift are the oldish, independent, working class voters who make up about 1/4 to 1/3 of his coalition–and a lot more in some states, such as West Virginia. While enough of them may be sufficiently liberal that they would not vote for Trump, perhaps upwards of 1/2 of them might. Roughly, that’d make up about 3-5% of the national electorate, normalizing for various potential changes in turnout (e.g. likely drop in African-American turnout, for example). Without a significant loss of normally Republican voters by Trump, which now seems increasingly unlikely, Trump could conceivably end up with 50-52% majority in popular votes and a much larger electoral college victory given the concentration of the missing white voters in strategic states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. While Trump may not enjoy much appeal to the average minority voters, no Republican in recent years does anyways–witness the dismal performance of Mitt Romney in 2012, and this is a man who could credibly have claimed to be a Mexican-American, which he technically is! A decent sized minority of Hispanics, moreover, is and has always been Republican–those who are not recent immigrants and are reasonably affluent, especially small business owners–and Trump offers them no good reason to change their worldview. While a 52% majority is probably quite improbable, a narrow majority seems increasingly likely.
The triangulating instincts of the Clintons are making this outcome more probable, not less. The missing white voters don’t care much for the conventionally defined liberal-conservative continuum anyways. If, as the polls seem to indicate, these voters find both pro-business conventional conservatism and identity-politics-oriented conventional liberalism of today’s mainstream politics distasteful, pivoting towards the “center” by embracing both, as the Clinton campaign seems to be trying to do, would almost certainly ensure that these voters will either stay missing or vote for Trump. At least in terms of rhetoric, Trump (and Sanders) have been appealing to this concurrent hostility to both conventional conservatism and liberalism. For now, it appears that the party/ideological blinders of the conventional Republican voters are keeping them from reacting negatively to these appeals, rendering ineffective Clintonian triangulation (and casting aside the sacred idols of modern political science–good riddance!).
There really is one thing that Clinton can do to fight this: go full redneck, or at least, go full working class, if not in substance, at least in style. Bill Clinton used to be able to do this instinctively, although even he seems to have gotten too gentrified to pull this off now. Hillary never could. Her campaign manager supposedly quipped, “Sanders will run like a Brooklynite, while Hillary will run like a senator.” Too bad people don’t trust a senator the way they would a Brooklynite these days.