Theoretically, the vicious, comedic and often embarrassing Republican presidential nomination contest could come to an end on March 15 if Donald Trump wins the Ohio and Florida winner-take-all primaries. (At this writing, RCP poll averages have him ahead in both.)
A Trump victory in these two mega-swing states means that he will be virtually unstoppable in his quest to win the nomination. That is when the tongues of the chattering class will be wagging with non-stop speculation about the key question of the 2016 race: Can Donald Trump win 270 Electoral College votes? And, if not Trump, then which of the remaining candidates can reach that magic number?
However, before we discuss the answers to those questions, a history lesson is instructive.
In November, 2014, shortly after the triumphant midterm election when Republicans were giddy after winning control of Capitol Hill, I wrote a “reality check” piece headlined, "Breaking the Blue Barrier." The “barrier” is the 270 Electoral College votes needed to win the White House as illustrated by my simple equation:
“1992 + 1988 + Florida = 270 and a Democrat in the White House.”
Briefly, here is the equation decoded. The first number, 1992, represents ten states with a total of 152 electoral votes won by every Democratic presidential nominee since 1992.
The second number, 1988 represents nine states with a total of 90 electoral votes won by every Democratic presidential nominee since 1988.
Together the 1992 and 1988 states total 242 electoral votes, only 28 votes shy of the 270 needed to win the presidency. The “+ Florida” part of the equation, are the Sunshine State’s 29 electoral votes, adding up to one vote over 270. (Obviously, the correct addition is 1992 + 1988 + Florida = 271, but reaching 270 is all that matters.)
Then in April, 2015, an American Thinker piece headlined the equation as “The Only Election 2016 Prediction Tool You Will Need.” Although flattered that the popular article referenced my analysis, I fear this equation because it represents how difficult it is for any Republican presidential candidate to ‘break the blue barrier” comprised of 19 states for either 28 or 24 years.
Of course in 2000, George W. Bush won in spite of the blue barrier. This was with the help of a Supreme Court victory that awarded him Florida’s 25 electoral votes (now increased to 29). Then in 2004, Bush won reelection by narrowly winning Ohio’s 20 electoral votes (now decreased to 18).
There is no denying that these last two Republican presidential wins were really close calls and both times Bush skirted the blue barrier.
In 2008, Barack Obama won the election with a 365 electoral vote blow-out, and in 2012 won reelection with “only” 332.
Now in 2016, the blue barrier makes the GOP path to victory very narrow and reduced to the equivalent of electoral cage-match fighting over such “purple” battleground states as Virginia, Florida, Ohio and Colorado.
But could Donald Trump’s unique candidacy potentially widen the path to 270 by cracking the blue barrier?
First, let’s assume Donald Trump is the Republican nominee. Second, for the sake of argument, let’s award Trump all the reliable “red states” that Mitt Romney won in 2012. This gives Trump an electoral base of 206 votes. Now what traditional “blue states” does Trump target to reach 270?
Lately there are been numerous articles and analysis about how Trump’s most likely and obvious path to a White House victory is through the Rust Belt states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan and, of course, Ohio.
These states are home to millions of disenchanted white voters without college degrees. They are angry at the government, think the nation is on the decline, and in many cases have lost once higher-paying manufacturing jobs. In general they have seen their wages stagnate and along with that, their current and future dreams of financial security.
Trump has tapped into their angst and they have responded enthusiastically to his simple message of “Make America Great Again.”
However, the harsh reality for Trump and the GOP is the difficulty of winning back a “1988” state like Wisconsin, with its 10 electoral votes, in addition to the “1992” states of Pennsylvania with 20 electoral votes and Michigan with 16. Old presidential voting habits die hard.
Thus, if Trump were to defy historic precedent and win these three “blue barrier” states totaling 46 electoral votes, it would be a banner day in Republican presidential election history.
Then, if Ohio governor John Kasich helped Trump win Ohio’s 18 electoral votes, that would give Trump 64 new electoral votes. When these 64 are added to Romney’s 206 electoral vote total from 2012, the magic number of 270 is reached.
Surely, this Rust Belt math is highly speculative, but given Trump’s appeal to working class whites, he might be the only candidate positioned to win the nomination who could break through the blue barrier.
Kasich is another candidate who might accomplish this feat. If he were to win today’s Michigan primary and Ohio’s primary on March 15, he would easily become a “Rust Belt” buster and a real challenger to Trump.
Regarding Texas senator Ted Cruz and Florida senator Marco Rubio, their chances of breaking the blue barrier are slim because unlike Trump, they have not caught fire with working class whites.
I am of the belief that if Cruz somehow manages to win the GOP nomination he would stand a good chance of being the 2016’s version of Senator Barry Goldwater circa 1964. Goldwater, you may remember, was also a brilliant, highly principled conservative who lost in a landslide to President Lyndon Johnson.
Then there is Marco Rubio who, in order to be viable, must first prove that he can win in his home state of Florida on March 15, in what would be a tremendous upset. After that, he must garner a sizable number of delegates in all the remaining primaries. Not out of the realm of possibility, but a tough slog.
Taking into account the five reasons I spelled out back in August, I still believe that a Kasich/Rubio ticket has the potential to reach 270, but as of now, that ticket is highly unlikely.
So it’s back to Donald Trump, who if nominated has a tremendous uphill battle to reach 270. To do so he must win at least 64 percent of the white vote spread across just the right combination of electoral states. This is a nearly impossible feat and not achieved since 1984 when Ronald Reagan won 66 percent of the white vote -- when the white vote was 86 percent of the electorate!
By comparison, Romney in 2012 won 59 percent of the white vote, which comprised 72 percent of the electorate. (Obama won only 39 percent of the white vote.)
Moreover, if Trump did manage to garner a record white vote, a turn-out calculator indicates that he must still win 30 percent of the total non-white vote in order to win 270 electoral votes and the White House.
In a general election, Republicans face a real conundrum of demographic and electoral math no matter who is the nominee. But in politics anything is possible and in 2016, that is truer than ever!