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OPINION | ERIC FEHRNSTROM

Turnout, terror, and tactics favor Trump against Clinton

Donald Trump.
Donald Trump.EVAN VUCCI/AP

After adding to his delegate lead in Tuesday’s GOP contests, Donald Trump remains on track to be the Republican nominee for president. The question is, can he beat Hillary Clinton? The answer is, yes. Clinton is threatened by factors that are unexpected, unusual, and unique.

The Brussels terror attack is a reminder of the uniquely terrifying age in which we live. Clinton’s response promising to stand with our allies without proposing any specific answers was unsatisfying. Trump’s call to seal the borders and bring back waterboarding was clear-cut and definitive. It may not appeal to our better angels, but they tend to take flight in times of national peril.

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Before the latest wave of terror attacks, The Washington Post quoted a senior Clinton adviser saying she plans to counter Trump with “high-road substance, policy, and issues.” That sounds like Jeb Bush, who was felled by Trump despite having an overwhelming advantage in money, political pedigree, and organization.

Most observers think current polling showing Clinton beating Trump in the fall is conclusive. What no one expects is how a Trump candidacy potentially changes the general election map with an economic message aimed at blue-collar white voters.

Democratic states with high concentrations of white voters situated in the aging rust belt — states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Ohio — will become new battlegrounds, as they hearken to Trump’s message that unfair trade and cheap immigrant labor is hurting American jobs.

What about the minority vote? Trump can’t do much worse than Governor Mitt Romney did in 2012, getting only 6 percent of African-American voters. Hispanics turned off by Trump’s talk of a border wall may vote in greater numbers against him, but their biggest effect will be in states already in the Democratic column: New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, and California.

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What is unusual about this year’s election is that, without President Obama on the ballot, the historic coalition that swept him into office in 2008 and kept him there in 2012 seems to have lost its enthusiasm for politics.

Through the first half of the 2016 presidential cycle, Republicans have seen record turnout, while Democrats have experienced a startling drop-off. Here in Massachusetts, GOP turnout was up 50 percent over 2012, while Democratic turnout declined 14 percent from 2008, the last time they had a contested primary. The story of a shrinking Democratic vote is the same everywhere: Virginia, down 20 percent; South Carolina, 30 percent; Nevada, 28 percent; New Hampshire, 12 percent; and Iowa, 27 percent.

Overall, Democratic primary turnout is down by roughly one-third, while Republican numbers have increased by more than two-thirds.

An analysis by the FiveThirtyEight blog says there is no correlation between primary and general election turnout, but it is premature to say it won’t make a difference in November. There was only one other time since 1976, in years when both parties had competitive primaries, that GOP turnout exceeded the Democrats, and that was in 2000, when George W. Bush won. It’s also unusual for turnout to exceed previous years by as much as it does this year for Republicans. The only recent precedent for that is 2008 when Democratic primary turnout vastly exceeded the previous competitive race.

Anti-Trump forces are still counting on various convention scenarios to deny Trump the nomination, but they remain divided over the presence in the race of two alternatives: Governor John Kasich of Ohio, and Senator Ted Cruz. In 2012, Romney didn’t win a majority of delegates until the end of May. Trump will take as long, maybe right up to the last primary day in June, but the odds favor him.

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Pundits who say Trump cannot win against Clinton are ignoring the factors that make this an unconventional political year.


Eric Fehrnstrom is a Republican political analyst and media strategist, and was a senior adviser to Governor Mitt Romney.