Don't laugh. Donald Trump could actually win this thing. Not just the Republican nomination -- the presidency.
It would be very nice if a brand of politics built on fear, intimidation, racism and sheer meanness could not succeed in 21st-century America. Most political pundits have spent the past year wishing it to be so, refusing to contemplate the horror of a Trump presidency. And the business mogul may very well end up getting trounced in the general election if he does secure the GOP nomination.
But Trump has a perfectly plausible path to the presidency as a Republican. If he makes it to the White House, he'll get there by taking the Upper Midwest back from the Democratic Party.
When President Barack Obama was re-elected in 2012, he ran up the score in the Electoral College, winning 25 states, good for 332 total electoral votes. His victory was thorough. He only needed 270 electoral votes to win, and President George W. Bush had taken just 286 in his 2004 re-election.
To secure the presidency, Democrats only have to win the Northeast, the West Coast, and the Upper Midwest, including Iowa. Obama did far better, carrying every swing state in the country, including Florida and Virginia in the South, and Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada in the West.
But even with that massive margin, Obama could have been undone by victories for Republican rival Mitt Romney in just four states: Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. Together, those four Rust Belt states account for 64 electoral votes. Even if Floridians, Iowans, Coloradans and all of the other swing states had gone to Obama, his failure to capture the Upper Midwest would have been enough to hand the White House over to Romney.
Beyond demographics, Obama was able to capitalize on his rescue of the auto industry, a major issue in the 2012 race, as well as his opponent's weakness: The Bain Capital 47-percenter made the worst possible candidate for that region.
Trump is no Romney. He is running an unsubtle, racist campaign that has particularly targeted Latinos. His chances of winning swing states with significant Latino populations -- Florida, Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico -- are extremely low.
But he doesn't need them to win. All he has to do is carry the Rust Belt -- a region perfectly attuned to Trump's fiery denunciations of American trade policy and his angry condemnation of Washington corruption. While Romney hailed free trade, globalization and "creative destruction," Trump rails against the North American Free Trade Agreement and promises to bring jobs back home.
Who signed NAFTA into law? That would be former President Bill Clinton. Hillary Clinton can't be held responsible for everything her husband did in office. But don't think you won't hear it on repeat this fall anyway.
Hillary Clinton's inconsistency on trade has, thus far, only proven to be a liability for her among progressives. Republican leaders have broadly supported the trade policies that began under her husband -- NAFTA, the creation of the World Trade Organization and the establishment of permanent normal trade relations with China. If Trump wins the GOP nomination, he will be the first Republican in decades to challenge a Democratic candidate on trade.
And he will. His constant tirades against China and Mexico will go into overdrive, and he will constantly attack Clinton's back-and-forth record. Clinton currently opposes Obama's Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact with a host of Asian nations, but she helped negotiate it when she served as secretary of state, and top corporate lobbyists doubt the strength of her opposition.
Another fact to consider: The Rust Belt is disproportionately white. While there are pockets of color -- in Philadelphia, Flint, Detroit, Milwaukee -- the states are much whiter than the national average. America is 62 percent white, according to census data. Michigan, by contrast, is over 75 percent white, and Pennsylvania's population is more than 77 percent white. More than 80 percent of Ohio is white, as is over 82 percent of Wisconsin.
This doesn't mean that white people in these states will all flock to Trump. Many of them are die-hard Democrats and appalled by his bigoted campaign. But it does mean there are relatively fewer people of color in the Upper Midwest who will feel personally targeted by his message of intolerance, and plenty of white people who feel personally targeted by the last 30 years of U.S. economic policy. Visit a Trump rally or check out the photos and videos of Trump gatherings, and you'll get the idea.
Republicans lost Ohio in the last two elections and haven't won any of the other Upper Midwest states since the election of George H. W. Bush in 1988, and they haven't taken Wisconsin since Ronald Reagan's re-election. But in recent years, the GOP has nevertheless secured gubernatorial contests in all four states. The current governors of Ohio, Wisconsin and Michigan are all Republicans, and Pennsylvania had a GOP governor until last year. It won't be easy for Trump to run that table, but it's not insane to think that he could do so.
Obama won in 2012 by turning out huge numbers of people of color. For clearly different reasons, Trump's candidacy might inspire similar turnout for Democrats in 2016. Clinton maintains a tremendous lead over Democratic rival Bernie Sanders among black voters, and she has consistently carried union households -- a major constituency in the Upper Midwest.
But thus far in the primary contest, Clinton and Sanders are not turning out voters to the degree that Obama did in 2008. Democratic turnout in the Nevada caucuses was down by one-third relative to 2008, and turnout numbers in Iowa dropped as well. Despite a crowded Republican field, Trump took more voters in New Hampshire than Clinton did in a two-way race. The combined Granite State turnout for Trump and fellow GOP hopefuls John Kasich, Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Chris Christie was bigger than the collective vote total for Clinton and Sanders. Add in supporters of Republican candidates Carly Fiorina, Ben Carson and Rand Paul, and the numbers look even better for the GOP.
That wouldn't be troubling news for Democrats in a state like Alabama, where the party will never be able to pull off a victory. But at the presidential level, New Hampshire is barely considered a swing state anymore. Obama carried the state twice, and former Democratic hopeful John Kerry won it in 2004. (Had former Vice President Al Gore won the Granite State in 2000, Florida wouldn't have mattered.)
A study of voters from Cleveland and Pittsburgh conducted by Working America, an offshoot of the AFL-CIO labor federation, should compound those concerns. The union group surveyed working-class households making less than $75,000 a year, 90 percent of which had voted in the 2012 election. Although 53 percent of voters in the December-to-January survey had not decided on a general election candidate, Trump was crushing the competition among those who had. Trump's 38 percent support was stronger than support for both Clinton and Sanders combined. And his backing wasn't simply from hard-line conservatives. One in four Democrats who had settled on a candidate had decided on Trump.
Minds change, campaigns change, and times change. Maybe having Trump on the ticket will motivate Democrats to turn out in high numbers just to vote against him. At the moment, Clinton holds a narrow lead over Trump in head-to-head polling, and Trump's numbers may collapse amid a Democratic ad blitz.
Republicans have been curiously reluctant to attack their front-runner, but Trump has also spent next to nothing attacking his competitors, relying on media attention that is unlikely to fade in a general election contest. And given Trump's ability to maintain his lead after making comments that would have sunk other candidates, it's not obvious how much attack ads will actually help. Jeb Bush's Super PAC, after all, managed to burn through over $100 million to generate … well, nothing.
Seasoned Republicans have spent the past six months with their heads in the sand, hoping Trump would just go away. Democrats can't afford to make the same mistake.
Editor's Note: Donald Trump is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist, birther and bully who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims -- 1.6 billion members of an entire religion -- from entering the U.S.