Donald Trump is up against what seems like tremendous odds to capture the presidency this fall. After romping through the primaries and discarding his rivals one by one, he is now poised to go mano a mano with Hillary Clinton, and most polls point towards a Clinton rout.
But Democrats shouldn’t be too confident, and Donald Trump fans should not feel like there’s no hope. By tweaking the electoral strategy used by Republican candidates for the past four election cycles, Trump has a legitimate chance at transforming the electoral map and catapulting himself into the White House. Put simply, Trump will need to zero in on the Rust Belt and parts of the Midwest. To pull that off, he’ll need to turn several historically blue presidential election states red.
Since 2000, five states have been critical to Republican presidential strategy: Florida, Ohio, Nevada, Colorado, and New Mexico. The first four have voted twice for Republicans and twice for Democrats. New Mexico went for the Democratic candidate in every presidential election since 2000 except 2004.
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But when the GOP did well in those five states, they won the presidential race. It put George W. Bush in the White House for two terms. Those states are important to Democratic candidates, too. President Obama won all five of those states, twice. And if Mitt Romney had won those five states, he would have unseated Obama.
To win these crucial states, Republicans have historically tried to appeal to the Hispanic community and young voters. It’s been an uphill battle for most Republicans, and it certainly wouldn’t be an easy feat for Trump. He is mostly loathed by Hispanic voters, and he will face a challenge getting through to young voters outside of his key demographic of lower-income, less educated white people.
To win, Trump will need to put the previous GOP strategy aside. Instead, he may look to keep Ohio in the mix and then set his gaze on the remainder of the Rust Belt and the Midwest: Michigan, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Missouri, and Wisconsin.
In the Midwest, “you have this grouping of blue collar, middle income households,” says John Brabender, a Republican strategist who has been viewed as the architect of Pennsylvanian Republican Rick Santorum’s career. Brabender notes that in Ohio specifically, a large number of conservative voters didn’t show up to the polls for Mitt Romney in 2012.
Turning those states—almost all of which have voted for Democrats in every presidential election since 1992 (except for Iowa, which went for Bush in 2004, and classic bellwether Missouri)—into Republican wins won’t be easy. But primary election exit polls from those states this election cycle suggest that it’s not out of the question.
Michigan (16 Electoral Votes)
With its strong base of working class and union workers, Michigan has been a Democratic presidential election stronghold since the 1990s. But the exit polls from both parties’ primary races this year suggest that Trump has a shot at turning the state red. In the exit poll after the Democratic Primary, which was won by Bernie Sanders, 57% said that trade deals take away jobs from Americans. In the Republican Primary, 55% of those polled felt the same way.
Hillary Clinton is painted as a pro-NAFTA free-trader, largely because of the policies of her husband’s administration. Trump, meanwhile, has based most of his Midwest campaign on being against trade agreements like NAFTA.
Then there is the fact that, among Democratic voters in Michigan, 69% of those polled said they were either “dissatisfied” or “angry” with the federal government. And 34% said they would not be satisfied if Clinton won the nomination. Brabender says Trump may be able to pick up Bernie Sanders voters — not the young progressive part of his coalition, but the populist part that allowed him to win the Michigan primary.
Ohio (18 Electoral Votes)
Trump’s strong stance against free trade could help him make his case to Ohio voters. Democratic primary exit polls found 53% of people believed that free trade deals killed American jobs. Polls found 54% of Republican primary voters believed the same thing.
Pennsylvania (20 Electoral Votes)
Pennsylvania could be Trump’s most difficult target. Though it has a large rural population in the middle of the state, the urban Democratic strongholds in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia have kept the state blue during presidential elections over the past two decades.
In exit polls, only 42% of polled Democratic primary voters said that free trade costs American jobs, compared with 44% who believe it creates job. In exit polls on the Republican side, 53% believe trade takes away jobs.
Wisconsin (10 Electoral Votes)
Wisconsin has fewer electoral votes than the others we have discussed, but it could still prove critical to the 2016 election. Again, the Democratic numbers aren’t encouraging, with just 42% of those polled believing trade takes away jobs. Exit polling data wasn’t available for the Republican primary in the Badger State.
Another problem for Trump in Wisconsin: he lost the primary to Ted Cruz. During the primary, Republican Governor Scott Walker actively supported Cruz’s candidacy. Trump does not need to worry about Walker breaking for Clinton.
Missouri, with 10 electoral votes, and Iowa with 6, are both more traditional swing states. Trump will have to appeal to the religious voters in both, something he didn’t have much of a struggle with in the primaries.
So, here is how the map could look for Trump if he turns the Midwest and the Rust Belt for the GOP:
This leaves three swing states: Virginia, North Carolina, and New Hampshire. And Brabender says that Trump might have a shot in Florida — it is a heterogeneous state and it does have a lot of former New Yorkers who could be drawn to Trump. If Trump manages to win in the Rust Belt and the Midwest, he’ll only need to win one of the in-play Southern states mentioned above to take the White House.