Conventional wisdom, which once laughed off Donald Trump’s chances of winning the GOP nomination, now maintains he’ll undermine down-ballot candidates.
The scenario is simple and seems supported by history: Turned off by Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, Latino voters will turnout in record numbers and vote for a straight Democratic ticket.
In 2012, roughly one-in-ten voters split their ticket, according to the American National Election Study.
But things may not be as one-dimensional this year. Trump may be walling himself off from important general election voters, but there’s reason to believe he alone can’t sink down-ballot GOP candidates. As a political pollster, here’s my thinking on it:
The 2016 Democratic nominee can’t match President Obama’s performance among African Americans in 2008 and 2012.
Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy gave African American voters an historic motivation to go to the polls. African Americans not only voted in record numbers – but uniformly for the Democratic nominee. Consider California as an example.
From 2004 to 2008, African Americans leapt from 6 percent of the California electorate to 10 percent. In 2008, Obama garnered 94 percent of African-American voters in California, according to NY Times exit poll data. That number rose to 96 percent in 2012. Those are remarkable numbers.
When you combine turnout with margin of victory, Obama improved upon John Kerry’s performance with California’s African-American voters by 93 percent. This shift continued in 2012, when for the first time, African-American turnout nationwide exceeded that of white voters.
It’s hard to believe that Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders will match the enthusiasm Obama generated among African-American voters.
Age trumps race and gender in 2016.
With all eyes focused on the ethnic divisions created by Trump, Democrats appear blind to a major generational divide within their electoral coalition. Sanders has found a way to connect with Obama’s young voters. Hillary – not so much.
In California, Sanders leads Clinton among 18-29 year olds: 77 percent to 18 percent. Every ethnic group splits between Clinton and Sanders by age: If you’re over 40, you like Hillary. Under 40, you’re feeling the Bern. This holds true even for female voters. According to the most recent Field Poll, 59 percent of California women under 40 support Sanders to 32 percent for Hillary.
If Clinton clinches the nomination with the help of super delegates, it’s likely to alienate these young Sanders’ voters, who in 2012, made up 27 percent of the California electorate. Clinton – she would be the second oldest president in history at her inauguration — will almost certainly underperform Obama’s 76 percent with 18-29 year olds in 2008, a year when nationwide youth turnout reached a record 48.5 percent.
Latino voters aren’t of one mind.
Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric isn’t unprecedented. In fact, California heard more virulent, anti-immigrant talk in 1994, when Proposition 187 proposed the elimination of public benefits to illegal immigrants.
Many will point to Prop. 187 as the beginning of the California Republican Party’s decline with Latino voters. What’s forgotten is the extent to which California Democrats campaigned as tough on illegal immigration.
Amid her competitive reelection campaign, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein sent a letter to then-Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari “asking for his help in curbing illegal immigration.” In her ballot statement she campaigned on hiring "1,300 new border patrol agents" as part of her plan to “stop illegal immigration.” Her opponent, GOP Michael Huffington, didn’t mention immigration once in his ballot statement.
She wasn’t alone. “On the heels of a Clinton Administration plan to clamp down on illegal immigration,” the Los Angeles Times reported in July 1994, Sen. Barbara Boxer called “for the use of National Guard troops to supplement federal agents along the Mexican border.”
A Latino voter backlash never materialized. Latino voters, which then consisted of 15 percent of eligible voters, made up just 7 percent of the 1994 electorate. Of Latino voters, 71 percent voted for Democratic gubernatorial nominee Kathleen Brown and 63 percent voted for Feinstein, according to the Field Poll’s exit survey. More astounding: 27 percent of Latinos backed Prop. 187.
Down-ballot race dynamics are more powerful factors.
Although the top-of-ticket will certainly affect races that are decided by razor-thin margins, individual down-ballot races are more likely to be still be decided by traditional factors, such as fundraising, voter registration (not to be confused with census numbers), incumbency and candidate gaffes.
With Trump at the top-of-the-ticket, House Democrats have expanded their map to 31 GOP-held House seats. Yet Democrats failed to recruit top-tier candidates for many of these seats.
We’re unlikely to see the same success that was achieved in 2012, when California Democrats gained four congressional seats and super-majorities in both houses of the State Legislature. That down-ticket success was as much the byproduct of the 2011 redistricting and the California Democratic Party’s substantial state fundraising advantage as it was Obama’s turnout wave.
Other state-by-state factors could have a greater impact on down-ballot races. Under California’s Top-two primary system, two Democratic women — Attorney General Kamala Harris and Rep. Loretta Sanchez – could be the only candidates on the November ballot for Senate. Harris, who is officially endorsed by the California Democratic Party, is unlikely to invest heavily in turning out Latino voters, who are more inclined to support Sanchez.
There’s no doubt that the top of the ticket will have an effect – whether it has the exponential effect of galvanizing near-total “blocs” of demographics to vote in sync isn’t as clear. And remember, you don’t have to win 100 percent of every group to get over the finish line.
Justin Wallin is COO of Probolsky Research, a California-based full service public opinion research and strategy firm.