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Konrad Yakabuski

Can Trump tap a hidden white wave? Add to ...

I got to see a U.S. presidential election up close once, taking the measure of the candidates and the mood of the country during a nearly year-long campaign that took me to more than a dozen primary and swing states. Unfortunately for me, the 2012 race between President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney proved to be the kind of bland and respectful democratic exercise you’d expect to find in Canada rather than the fiery Tocquevillian republic to the south.

If the 2012 race will barely get mentioned in the history books, tied with 1996 in boredom, it drove home for Republicans the demographic shift threatening to make the party a permanent White House loser. Mr. Romney captured the support of 59 per cent of white voters – more than George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004 – and still lost the popular vote and electoral college. There was no longer a Republican path to victory that did not rely on growing minority support.

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The result prompted the Republican National Committee to call for an urgent repositioning of the party by championing issues important to minorities, starting with immigration reform. Mostly, it urged the party to simply show minority voters it cared. “If Hispanic-Americans perceive that a GOP nominee or candidate does not want them in the United States … they will not pay attention to our next sentence,” the RNC said in an election postmortem.

Whether or not Donald Trump read the report, it’s pretty clear he did not think much of its contents. From the moment he began to lay the groundwork for his own presidential run with his 2011 birther crusade against Mr. Obama, to his attack on Mexican-Americans at his 2015 GOP campaign launch, Mr. Trump demonstrated that he believed victory could still be had in exploiting white anxiety. Rather than reaching out to ethnic and religious minorities, he depicted their rising numbers as an existential threat to the country he vowed to make great again.

This made the Republican nominee attractive to the one block of white voters who had largely eluded the GOP since the era of Ronald Reagan. Working-class whites in hollowed-out Midwestern industrial suburbs, feeling ignored by elites on both coasts and in Washington who gushed about clean energy and Obamacare, saw in Mr. Trump the vehicle for revenge they had been waiting for. This time, it was the left-behind white voters chanting Yes We Can – or rather, its 2016 equivalents, Build the Wall, Lock Her Up and Take Our Country Back.

The world will find out Tuesday night whether Mr. Trump’s instincts were right. The latest national opinion polls have shown him with a lead of as much as 28 percentage points over Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton among non-college-educated whites. In a few battleground states, his advance among this cohort is even wider.

This leaves him poised to win Ohio, a bellwether state without which no Republican has ever won the White House.

Still, conquering Ohio would more likely prove to be a Pyrrhic victory for Mr. Trump than the prelude to victory in other swing states. His vulgar rhetoric has sent college-educated white voters, a group every Republican nominee has won since at least 1956, into the arms of Ms. Clinton. It has made him more toxic among Hispanics and African-Americans than even Mr. Romney, who sealed his fate by urging illegal immigrants to “self-deport” and dismissing the “47 per cent” of voters “who are dependent on government” as forgettable Obama supporters.

The Clinton campaign is confident Hispanic voters will enable its candidate to prevail in North Carolina and Florida, two toss-up states Mr. Trump must win to take the White House.

Ms. Clinton even campaigned last week in Arizona, making a long-shot bet that record Hispanic turnout could move this red state into the Democratic column. That’s unlikely – this time.

The main unknown going into Tuesday’s vote is just how many discreet Trump voters are out there. A phenomenon known as social desirability bias may have led some Trump supporters, conscious of being judged by their peers, to refrain from revealing their true intentions to pollsters.

The data-driven Clinton campaign, with its more sophisticated interview techniques, likely has a better handle on the phenomenon than public polling firms. And it’s not worried.

It might be very different had Mr. Trump taken the RNC report’s advice to heart.

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Follow on Twitter: @konradyakabuski

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