Trump's All About The Base, But He Likely Needs More Than That — Here's Why

Sep 5, 2019
Originally published on September 5, 2019 12:20 pm

Many heads got scratched this week when President Trump doubled down on his erroneous claim that Alabama had been in the path of Hurricane Dorian.

Apparently relying on a map that warned of high winds, or another showing hypothetical paths for the storm, the president over the weekend insisted Alabama was "in the crosshairs." At midweek, sitting in the Oval Office, he held up a map on which someone using a marking pen had ballooned the area of actual hurricane threat to include Alabama.

The question had to be asked: Wouldn't it be enough to be worried about Florida, Georgia and the rest of the Southeastern coast without dragging in Alabama — a state outside the current danger zone?

Perhaps. But in seeking to understand the moment it was tempting to observe that Alabama is arguably the cornerstone of the president's base of support in seeking a second term.

While 17 states have consistently shown the president at 50% job approval or better, according to Gallup, Alabama is one of just three states where Trump's approval has often topped 60% since Inauguration Day. According to the Morning Consult tracking poll, Trump's approval is 18 points positive in West Virginia and 21 in Wyoming. In Alabama, it is 26, and Alabama has more votes in the Electoral College than those two other states combined.

Do such things matter to a president seeking reelection? They just might, especially when that president is struggling to raise his public approval nationwide.

The president is setting his course on issues, from guns and trade to immigration and abortion, and his stances on those make it clear he is playing to his base. All politicians want as many voters as they can get, and all begin their calculations by relying on a core of support. But in American presidential politics, the ultimate question is not just how many voters one has but where they live, because in American presidential politics, the Electoral College rules.

While much time and attention is devoted to tracking the president's approval rating nationwide, and his supporters can be found in any part of the country, all that matters in the end is the president's standing state by state. Examining trends in individual states offers a clearer picture of Trump's reelection prospects a little more than a year from now — and a rationale for his strategy. It also highlights the degree to which the country's issue conflicts and partisan rivalries are defined by differences in population density.

Where the urban- and inner-suburban metro areas are politically dominant, Democrats prevail; otherwise, the president and the Republican Party hold sway. And where the city-country balance is closer to even, we have a swing state.

That sets the landscape for 2020 — with President Trump hoping to again win the 30 states he won in 2016 with 306 votes in the Electoral College. That gives him a margin of 36 Electoral College votes, because it takes 270 to win for a majority 538 electors who make up the Electoral College.

So how's he faring in the effort to do it again?

When being "popular" isn't the answer

It's nice to win the popular vote, and the popular vote usually underscores the final decision. Not always, though. See 2000 and 2016. In reality, the national popular vote has no role in the choice of the president.

That choice is determined by the Electoral College, guided by the popular vote in each state. (Note: If no one gets a majority in the Electoral College, the choice is made in the House of Representatives, where, for just this one decision, each state gets one vote.)

With this in mind, defining Trump's base requires both defining his voters and counting the states where they will cast at least a plurality of the 2020 vote.

In 2016, Trump won those 30 states with 306 electoral votes, though there were two "faithless electors" in Texas who voted for Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, leaving Trump, technically, with 304.

Looking ahead to 2020, though, Trump looks to only be able to count on a little more than half of those states to continue backing him, come what may. Trump's approval rating averaged just 40% nationwide in 2018, according to Gallup, and his approval rating was above 50% in 17 states — all of which he had carried in 2016.

The Trump 17 are: Tennessee, Missouri, South Carolina, Alabama, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Utah, Arkansas, Mississippi, Kansas, West Virginia, Idaho, Montana, South Dakota, North Dakota, Alaska and Wyoming.

These numbers are based on the Gallup tracking poll that takes soundings 350 times a year. It is generally corroborated by the readings done by Morning Consult. Although Morning Consult had sub-50 readings for Trump in Utah at several points in the first two years, it was above 50% this summer, as are Texas and Missouri.

In the first weeks of 2019, during the government shutdown, both Gallup and Morning Consult found Trump dipping below 50% by a point or two in some of the larger states in this core. But in each, the rating quickly snapped back above 50% when the shutdown ended and has remained there since.

These 17 states then would have to be regarded as the purest definition of Trump's geographic base, the firmest foundation for his reelection. Beyond that, they easily provide most of the senators who make Republican Mitch McConnell the Senate majority leader. The current Senate has 53 Republican members, 31 of whom hail from those same 17 states.

As a measure of how American politics has changed, consider that there were 15 Democrats from these states when Bill Clinton became president. One Democrat from that era, Richard Shelby of Alabama, is still around, but he switched to the GOP in 1994 right after that party became the Senate majority. He symbolizes how populists from largely rural states in the South and West have migrated from one party to the other and become the hard base for Trump.

It has long been noted that Trump, a former Manhattan socialite and billionaire, makes an odd champion for these voters and these regions of the country. But his willingness to take up their causes has largely won them over. And in 2016, his emergence from a field of 17 candidates to win the Republican Party nomination installed him atop a party that now commands the loyalty of rural America as never before.

The more rural, the more pro-Trump

Within the states, and across the national map, party loyalties can be perceived as a function of population density.

"All the social changes that have pulled cities and rural areas apart since the 1930s have come to be expressed in the party system," writes Jonathan Rodden, a political scientist at Stanford University. "American geographic polarization has emerged in large part because our political institutions have created a strict two-party system that has gradually come to reflect a set of social cleavages that are highly correlated with population density."

And Will Wilkinson, vice president for research at the Niskanen Center, a Washington think tank, has added: "The filtering/sorting dynamic of urbanization has produced a lower-density, mainly white [rural] population that is increasingly uniform in socially conservative personality, aversion to diversity, relative disinclination to migrate and seek higher education, and Republican Party loyalty."

Trump's most loyal 17 states have in common a relatively low population. The two largest, Tennessee and Missouri, rank just 16th and 18th among all states in the Census Bureau estimates for 2018. Each has two major cities that vote Democratic, but the urban characteristics of Nashville and Memphis, and St. Louis and Kansas City, are not enough to counterbalance the exurban and rural characteristics of those states overall.

More typical of the group in population is Kansas. With a little under 3 million residents last year, and ranking 35th nationally, Kansas is still more populous than half the rest of the 17 states. Next in size is West Virginia with 1.8 million. Five states among the 17 qualify for only a single seat in the U.S. House: Montana, South Dakota, North Dakota, Alaska and Wyoming.

A glance at these 17 pro-Trump states on a map makes them appear to dominate the landscape, and indeed they do in a strictly geographic sense. They comprise some of the largest expanses of sparsely inhabited land America has to offer. That impression only strengthens when you add Texas, a megastate where Trump has not always been above 50% approval in the Gallup but has never been far from it. While the state is becoming more competitive, few doubt it will be in the president's column again in 2020.

Tacking on Texas also greatly expands the footprint of Trump's hardcore states in the Electoral College. Without Texas, their collective contribution is only 102 electoral votes. With Texas they reach 140, just over half of what Trump will need to secure a second term.

On the contrary

The other side of the coin in the Gallup approval map is the group of 16 (plus the District of Columbia) states where Trump's approval was below 40% in his first two years in office. Here again, the Morning Consult tracking data generally corroborate these findings and extend them into 2019.

Not surprisingly, these 16 have a lot more people than the core Trump 17, as the below-40 states include three of the nation's most populous five (California, New York and Illinois) and nine of the top 22. That translates to 201 electoral votes, or nearly three-fourths of what a Democrat might need to win.

It is tempting to say this is the built-in base of Trump's opponent, whoever that may be.

But that still leaves a whopping 235 electoral votes in the 17 states that are not distinctly pro-Trump or con, the states where he has been at 40% to 49% approval (again, relying primarily on the Gallup tracking).

In 2016, Trump was able to pick off just enough states in the Great Lakes region — starting with pivotal Ohio — to win despite losing the popular vote by 2.9 million votes. He could win again, even losing by millions in the popular vote, if he can reassemble the same bloc of states — or close to it.

There seems little point in campaigning at all in the deeper blue states such as California, New York and Illinois. While millions of voters live there, the president has little or no chance of translating their votes into the electoral votes he needs to supplement his base in the rest of the country.

The president will campaign in the states where he has been polling in the 40s, including previously reliable blue states he shocked the world by winning in 2016 (Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin). He won those three by fractions of a percentage point each (just under 78,000 votes aggregate total).

All three states elected Democratic governors in 2018. But the president maintains a loyal Republican base in each and will again appeal to non-Republicans who found him the better choice in 2016. He hopes they hold and lift him again next year.

Needless to say, the president will emphasize that strategic handful of "purple states" that have swung back and forth in recent presidential cycles. Most important are the ones he captured last time: Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Arizona and Iowa. But he will also be looking to compete in swing states he lost to Hillary Clinton: Virginia, Colorado, Nevada and New Hampshire.

With all this predictable effort, however, Trump will not neglect the 17 base states that have stood by him most loyally so far. And he should find it natural enough to enlarge this group with the states that have at least kept him near 50% approval through his first 32 months in office.

These include the megastates of Texas and Georgia (No. 2 and No. 8), plus Louisiana and Indiana. He has held rallies in these states and stressed their issues and concerns from Inauguration Day forward. And he knows that without all these states on board, all other strategies and outreach will not be enough to ensure a second inauguration.

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