Trump has won over the GOP. Now can he win over the US?
If Billionaire Donald Trump to is take over the White House the reality-TV star faces a big challenge: winning over record numbers of white voters
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump addresses delegates at the end of the last day of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio. Photograph: Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images
Standing on a noisy Republican convention floor, Thomas Mendenhall, a 67-year-old from Missouri, is wearing a Trump 2016 scarf with the slogan Make America Great Again, two Trump 2016 badges and a Make America Great Again baseball cap with an American flag tucked into it.
A more formal badge, hanging from his neck, shows that he is a delegate. He is one of Donald Trump’s men, the people who cast 1,725 votes for the New York property magnate this week. They put him across the line by almost 500 votes, to make him the first presidential nominee for a major political party since Gen Dwight D Eisenhower, 64 years ago, never to have held elective office before.
It is the most remarkable takeover of a party in generations.
Mendenhall is unsurprised. He has been around and seen it all. The Cleveland gathering this week was his sixth national party convention. He was the youngest delegate from Missouri to support Ronald Reagan at the 1976 event, which was the last contentious convention before this week.
“I’ve been on the Trump train for three or four years,” he says. “I have seen people come out of the woodwork to vote for Trump that I have not seen for years. They are sick of the establishment and the status quo, and tired of crime and everything else.”
The Trump circus arrived at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland with the billionaire ringmaster promising to unite the party and introduce his presidential ticket – him, a political outsider, and the governor of Indiana, Mike Pence, a career politician and a favourite of the conservative wing – in the hope of winning over tens of millions of Americans watching at home who are wondering which way they should cast their votes in the November election.
Apart from Melania Trump, the would-be first lady, plagiarising Michelle Obama; the New Jersey governor, Chris Christie, prosecuting a mock show trial of Hillary Clinton, who will be Trump’s Democratic rival; the former Republican contender Ted Cruz refusing to back Trump and then being booed off the stage in the angriest convention reception in 52 years – plus a cocktail of preposterous untruths, ugly chants and chaotic scenes over procedural matters – the show went pretty smoothly.
“It’s not like a circus. Circuses are lively and full of activity,” says the political commentator David Frum, a former speechwriter for President George W Bush. “This is the most forlorn convention that I can recall, and I have been going to conventions, both Democratic and Republican, since the 1980s.”
But Trump will leave Cleveland thinking he is the victor in an extraordinary race crowned with great pageantry. On the ground he will be hoping that Mendenhall and more like him are spotting the same trends across the country: the businessman milking his celebrity and national profile to turn out more voters. This week’s events may have made good TV, but it’s not clear that he has expanded his base.
“Did anything happen here that anyone watching on TV would say, ‘Now I have to give this guy a second look?’ I don’t think so,” says Frum.
For his greatest act this week Trump should have been walking a tightrope, not just between the 14 million Republican voters who backed him in the party’s primaries and the 16 million voters who did not but also towards the non-Republicans whom he must win over in sufficient numbers if he is to have any chance against Clinton on November 8th.
Instead Trump performed a far more daring high-wire act: he decided he could do without Cruz after the Texas senator brought chaos with an unprecedented nonendorsement from a convention speaker.
Cruz’s act of rebellion may have helped Trump rather than hurt him with conservatives, given that picking Pence as his running mate has built bridges and that grassroots Republicans reacted angrily to Cruz breaking a pledge to back the ultimate nominee in such an act of betrayal.
Trump clearly believes that he can manage without minority voters – he continued to rip up the political playbook by choosing not to present a softer side in his acceptance speech but to double down on his plan to build a border wall with Mexico, to suspend immigration from any nation “compromised by terrorism” and to rip up international trade and military agreements.
In his long Thursday-night address he painted a grim portrait of a terrorised and lawless United States, riven by racial tensions and fears of foreigners and outsiders, with himself as the “law and order” outsider, the only one who can fix everything.
The speech recalled Richard Nixon’s 1968 address, delivered at a time of great civil and racial unrest – far worse than now – and the former president’s invocation of the “silent majority” and a promise that “the long dark night for America is about to end”.
“Our convention occurs at a moment of crisis for our nation,” Trump said in Cleveland. The billionaire’s generous references to Bernie Sanders, first a rival to Clinton and now a supporter – and another upstart in an establishment race – reflects his belief that he can take the White House by appealing to more blue-collar voters. These are the economically frustrated people of Appalachia and the Rust Belt states who backed him so strongly in his primary campaign.
He is trying to tap populist anger with Washington and job-stealing free-trade deals, and to woo Democrats and independents, putting states such as Ohio and even Pennsylvania, last won by a Republican in 1988, in play.
“It has a little bit of a Brexit feel about it,” says Peter Roskam, a Republican congressman from Illinois. “There is a level of concern and frustration that is being manifested by Trump and his success.”
The dominant colour of the people attending Trump’s convention this week illustrates his plan of action. Clinton leads Trump in most recent polls, by mid-single digits. Based on his poor ratings among blacks and Hispanics, the billionaire would need to win over white voters by a majority not seen since Reagan and hope that Clinton’s equally negative rating might encourage voters to sit out this election.
Trump would need to improve on the 56 per cent of white voters whom Mitt Romney won in 2012 and exceed the 66 per cent whom Reagan won in 1984, one of only two years since 1976 that a Republican has won more than 60 per cent of the white vote. (The other year was 1988.)
The problem for the New Yorker is that the US has become less white. Between Reagan and Romney, the white male share of the total electorate has fallen from 45 per cent to 35 per cent, as the Hispanic share of the national vote has increased fivefold and the number of women voting has jumped, representing a majority of people now at the ballot.
“Virtually every Republican believes that demographic trends will require a successful Republican presidential candidate to do much better among nonwhite voters in the future,” says Whit Ayres, author of 2016 and Beyond: How Republicans can Elect a President in the New America, and a Republican strategist who backed the Florida senator Marco Rubio in the primary elections.
“But there is a segment of the party that thinks Republicans might squeeze out one more presidential victory in 2016 by winning a larger share of the shrinking pool of white voters. The November election will test that proposition.”
Complicating matters this year is the effect of having two of the most unpopular presidential candidates in modern history. The last election, in 2012, marked the lowest level of split-ticket voting in 90 years. In split-ticket voting, Republicans or Democrats cast their votes as they would typically in down-ticket, congressional or state elections and the other way for president at the top of the ticket.
Deep Root Analytics estimates that there are 16.2 million “reluctant Republicans” and 14 million “disaffected Democrats”, or about 17 per cent of all voters (9 per cent Republican, 8 per cent Democrat).
Brent McGoldick, chief executive of Deep Root, says that this election has realigned the post-second World War era party institutions and that the Republican Party is undergoing the greater change. So Trump might win Ohio or Pennsylvania with help from disaffected Democrats but could be in trouble in a traditionally Republican state such as Georgia.
“What we are witnessing is a political manifestation of economic dislocation that has been brewing for 40 years, and you see that witnessed in today’s Republican Party that is no longer a pro-free trade, pro-interventionist party,” McGoldrick says.
This is the dislocation that Thomas Mendenhall, the veteran of Reagan conventions, has seen mobilise people he has not spotted on the political circuit for years.
“It is the ‘bubba’ factor – Joe Six Pack and the good ole boys,” he says over the din of convention speeches to a packed arena. “These are real people. This is a movement.”
But the movement is between both parties – and it appears to be hurting Donald Trump more than it’s hurting Hillary Clinton.