With Donald Trump pulling even or ahead of Hillary Clinton in a series of recent national polls, the once unthinkable has become at least plausible. But if he is to be elected the 45th president, he must compete on a political map that, for now, looks forbidding.
In the Republican primaries, he proved a master of nationalizing the political debate, appealing to voters across regional lines with jeremiads about immigration and crime that captivated a mostly white primary electorate. At the outset of the general election, Trump has dominated the day-to-day political combat on national television and social media.
In the general election, however, his fate will be determined not by his Twitter followers or a relatively homogeneous Republican electorate, but by a set of interlocking and increasingly diverse regions, home to some 90 million Americans, that hold many of the 270 electoral votes he needs to win.
Republicans enter the general election at a hefty disadvantage: Since the 1992 campaign, 18 states have voted consistently for Democrats in presidential elections, giving their party a firm foundation of 242 electoral votes to build upon.
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And in the four regions likely to decide the presidency – Florida, the upper Southeast, the Rust Belt and the interior West – Trump faces daunting obstacles, according to interviews last week with elected officials, political strategists and voters.
Of course, months remain before voting begins, and this political year has defied many predictions. But if Clinton clinches the Democratic nomination as expected, she may find an electoral bulwark in these coveted swing-state voters.
The Times reports from four battleground regions:
Upper Southeast: N.C. can tilt in either direction, often simultaneously
North Carolina has a split political personality. Consider Debbie Holt.
A staunch supporter of abortion rights, Holt, 56, who owns a barbecue restaurant in downtown Raleigh, makes clear where she stands on other fronts in the culture wars with signs in her storefront window: “Stop profiling Muslims,” says one. Another: “Go To The Bathroom Where You Feel Best.”
Yet Holt is also an outspoken supporter of Donald Trump.
“He don’t take any stuff, just like me,” she drawled in between ringing up lunch-rush customers, using a more piquant word for stuff.
Shannon White is as confused about her presidential preference as Holt is confident. A Mormon and Arizona transplant who usually votes for Republicans, White said she had no regard for the probable Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, but doubted Trump’s adherence to any principles and was uneasy about his “abusive” language.
“I’m actually thinking more that I am going to go Libertarian,” White, 42, said after wrestling with a mannequin at the apparel store she and her husband recently opened.
For decades, this state has embodied contradictory impulses, simultaneously electing a racial hard-liner like Jesse Helms and New South Democrats like Terry Sanford and Jim Hunt. But, as its demographics shift, discerning which way the state will tilt in November seems harder than ever.
North Carolina may be the most evenly divided presidential battleground in the country.
Its two biggest population centers, Charlotte and the Research Triangle of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill, have been transformed by an influx of political centrists from other states. The fastest-growing party registration preference is not Republican nor Democrat, but unaffiliated.
The rural white “Jessecrats,” conservative Democrats who reliably cast ballots for Helms, are dying off. Elections are now won in the fast-growing edge towns like Cary, outside Raleigh, which natives joke stands for Containment Area for Relocated Yankees.
Neither Trump, with his hard-edge nationalism, nor Clinton, with a swirl of scandal surrounding her candidacy, are natural fits for a state that hungers for political moderation but is increasingly disenchanted with the political class.
“They don’t like either party, and they don’t like either candidate,” said Carter Wrenn, a veteran Republican strategist here. “It will just depend on which one they dislike less on Election Day.”
Polls show Trump and Clinton begin the general election close to evenly matched. The surest sign of a jump ball: Democrats believe Trump starts with a narrow advantage, while Republicans believe Clinton does.
What they agree on is that, as at the national level, Republicans are largely coalescing around Trump and ruling out the possibility that Clinton could run away with North Carolina.
Then again, Trump needs the state much more than Clinton does.
With his difficulties among Hispanic voters pushing typical swing states such as Colorado, Nevada and Florida toward the Democrats, Trump will probably need to carry the combined 28 electoral votes from North Carolina and Virginia to capture the White House.
But Virginia, demographically and politically, is a step to North Carolina’s left, increasing the pressure on Trump to win here. While Barack Obama twice carried Virginia, by 6 percentage points in 2008 and by less than four in 2012, he won North Carolina by less than one percentage point in 2008 and then, in a more closely contested election, lost North Carolina in 2012 by about two points.
Some Republicans worry that the backlash to the bathroom bill, aimed at transgender people, which Gov. Pat McCrory signed into law in March, could lead moderates to cast their ballots for Democrats in November.
But Democrats fret that the deep unpopularity of both Trump and Clinton, and the scorched-earth campaign to come, could depress turnout among the state’s centrists and progressives.
Finishing breakfast with her 4-year-old daughter at a Raleigh diner, Adrian Blackwell, 37, who works in medical sales and voted for Obama twice, said she would sit out the election.
“I really can’t in good conscience give my vote to Hillary or Trump,” she said, citing Clinton’s establishment ties and Trump’s policies. “I feel worried for our country.”
Brad Crone, a Democratic strategist, acknowledged that “Trump is doing better than folks think,” saying that anti-incumbency and “Hillary’s high negatives” had created a difficult environment for her.
What could tip the scales for Trump here is if he can improve his negative image, as voters’ opinions of him appear less fixed than they are of Clinton.
“I’m not a fan of his antics,” said Rick Peele, 57, who works for an architecture firm, leans Republican and was meeting a friend for lunch in downtown Raleigh last week. “But I haven’t been impressed with Hillary, either,” he added quickly.
Asked when he had faced such a choice for president, he shot back: “Never.”
Florida: Latinos may deliver overwhelming losses in state’s south
Had Republicans nominated Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush for president, Tomás Regalado would have hurled himself into the task of electing their candidate.
“I would have been all in,” Regalado, the Republican mayor of Miami, said in his office overlooking Biscayne Bay.
Instead, Regalado, a former broadcast journalist, intends to sit out the presidential race.
He considers Hillary Clinton untrustworthy, but views Donald Trump as a poisonous candidate who has aggravated racial divisions. In Miami, Regalado said, Trump is seen as “a bully, as a person who despises people that don’t look like him.”
Regalado, 69, said he had been inundated with angry email, some of it mentioning Trump by name. “Sometimes they say, ‘Yeah, Trump is right, you guys have to all go back to your country,’” said Regalado, who was born in Havana and emigrated when he was a teenager.
“This is my country,” he added. “I can’t go back to Cuba.”
Since Trump became the presumptive Republican nominee, he has consolidated support from national party leaders and from many in the rank and file. He has pulled nearly even with Clinton in many polls, including in Florida.
But the southern tip of the nation’s most populous swing state has been a blazing exception to the trend – most of all in Miami-Dade County, a densely populated bastion of diversity that cast about a tenth of the statewide vote in 2012.
If Trump has effectively staked his campaign nationwide on strong support from whites, Florida may present the most punishing test of his strategy, as Hispanics here, including conservative-leaning Cuban-Americans who twice helped George W. Bush carry the state, turn away from his candidacy en masse.
Trump has trampled local sensibilities in myriad ways, from his belittling treatment of Rubio and Bush to his personal coarseness, slashing comments on immigration and endorsement of open relations with the Castro government.
In addition to Regalado, two Republican members of Congress from Florida, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Carlos Curbelo, have said they will not back Trump in November, as has Carlos A. Gimenez, the Republican mayor of Miami-Dade County. All four are Cuban-American.
Early polls show voters in the area resoundingly rejecting Trump: A Quinnipiac University poll this month found Trump about even with Clinton statewide, but losing a band of southeastern counties, including Miami-Dade and Broward, by 38 percentage points.
Roxana M. Leon, 63, an independent voter raised in Chile, said she wanted major change in Washington but found Trump too objectionable to support.
“He’s not the right person,” said Leon, who works as a secretary. “I am sick and tired of the old establishment, but I will vote for Clinton.”
Should Trump get trounced in South Florida, he might be hard-pressed to make up the difference elsewhere.
Trump supporters believe he can improve upon Mitt Romney’s performance in North Florida, in the conservative panhandle region and in the Jacksonville area. But Romney found it difficult in 2012 to overcome a catastrophic defeat in Miami.
He cut into President Barack Obama’s support across most of Florida, but the president held steady in Tampa and Orlando, two other diverse cities, and expanded his margin of victory in Miami-Dade by about 69,000 votes over his 2008 lead.
Obama ultimately captured Florida by about 74,000 votes.
Rust Belt: Challenge to appeal to voters on each end of the economic scale
Donald Trump’s best play for the White House is to cut a swath through the Rust Belt, flipping states traditionally won by Democrats that harbor large numbers of the white working-class voters who have welcomed his hard line on immigration and trade.
A handful of victories in the Rust Belt states stretching from Pennsylvania to Wisconsin could allow Trump to lose Florida and still become president. But all Rust Belt states are not equal: Ohio, which President Barack Obama won by just 2 percentage points four years ago, is the most likely Republican pickup. Michigan, which Obama won by about 10 points, is the biggest stretch.
Pennsylvania – the second-closest battleground in 2012 after Ohio – perennially tempts Republicans to pour in resources in hopes of expanding the electoral map. To win the Rust Belt, a region that has generally gone Democratic in six straight presidential elections, Trump will have to win here.
The challenge for him in Pennsylvania is to expand his appeal to blue-collar voters without alienating white-collar Republicans, including women repelled by his free-floating insults and businesspeople who doubt his conservatism.
“I support the Republican Party, but I’m not personally on the Trump train,” said Melissa Wilson, a preschool teacher in Chester County. “I might not vote for president. I don’t think that he’s going to be able to speak to other nations and not cause us problems.”
If enough college-educated Republicans like Wilson reject Trump, his Rust Belt dreams will probably be thwarted.
“He has to pull away the marginal Obama voters, which tends to be lower socioeconomic whites,” said Henry Olsen, an electoral analyst at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center. “The question for Trump is whether his persona and issue stance will alienate classic Romney voters in the managerial class. The margin for error is very small.”
Two counties in eastern Pennsylvania may best illustrate the give and take: Luzerne, where working-class white Democrats are flocking to Trump, and Chester, the state’s wealthiest.
In Luzerne County, registered Democrats far outnumber Republicans, but Trump won more votes in his April primary than Hillary Clinton did in hers. Before the vote, 4,647 Democrats and independents in Luzerne switched their registration to Republican – nearly four times the number of Republicans and independents who re-registered as Democrats.
Clinton’s allies say she would need to hold on only to Obama’s coalition of young people, women and minorities to carry Pennsylvania. But Republicans say Trump is making his own new math, and some Democrats acknowledge worries.
“I know families who’ve been lifelong Democrats who switched to Republican to vote for Trump,” said Mike DeCosmo, chairman of the Luzerne County Democratic Party. “Pretty much the same thing happened when Reagan ran.”
DeCosmo mentioned a family who owns a gutter-installation business in Hazle Township, a father and four adult sons, active Democrats who left the party. “All blue-collar workers,” he said. “It’s really tough.”
Elaine Bernardo, who works in customer service for Nabisco – the Oreos maker Trump assails for moving production to Mexico – said she was a Democrat, “but a Republican at heart,” and would vote for Trump.
Interior West: Backlash is brewing over immigration down by the border
Héctor Salinas, 21, was born in Phoenix but grew up in Mexico. Nancy Herrera, 31, was born in Mexico but entered the United States illegally when she was 3 and gained legal status only when she married an American citizen 10 years ago.
They are co-workers at Mi Familia Vota, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group that helps Latinos become citizens and register to vote. They are barred from discussing specific candidates, but this year they have not had to.
“The moment we talk about immigrant rights, immigration reform, people stop us and say, ‘Where do I sign? I’m going to vote this year because I don’t want Donald Trump to be my president,’” Salinas said.
Arizona is both a flashpoint in the nation’s immigration battles and a microcosm of a changing United States. One in three residents is Latino, and one in four Latinos is old enough to vote. And while the white population is aging – its median age is 43 – the median age of Latinos is 26.
Hispanics are a majority of public school students. “The voters of tomorrow,” said Joseph Garcia, director of the Morrison Institute Latino Public Policy Center at Arizona State University.
But will Hispanics vote this year?
The November election presents a unique enticement. Not only is Trump on the ballot, but so is one of his most outspoken supporters: Joe Arpaio, the swaggering Maricopa County sheriff who is seeking re-election and was found in contempt of court this month for defying a federal judge’s order to stop profiling Latinos.
“The Democrats have the best chance of winning Arizona since Bill Clinton won Arizona in 1996,” said Jaime Molera, a Republican strategist and former state schools superintendent who worked for former Sen. Jon Kyl, one of the most conservative voices in Congress.
The 2012 election offered a good window into how ethnicity and age play out here in politics. Mitt Romney carried the state by about 9 points, winning two-thirds of the white vote and 71 percent of voters 65 and older. President Barack Obama was favored by 63 percent of voters younger than 30 and gathered almost three-quarters of the Latino vote.
Latinos might well help turn Arizona blue. But if the left and right here agree on anything, it is that Latinos alone may not be able to do so just yet. They will need help from moderate Republicans and independents, who together form the state’s most potent voting bloc.
With Hillary Clinton showing weakness on the Democratic side, peeling off those middle-of-the-road and right-of-center voters will not be an easy job – but it is being done by going door to door, by grass-roots groups and lower-level Democratic candidates.
All are seeking to capitalize on animus toward Trump and Arpaio, particularly among younger voters, who have grown up hearing stories about the sheriff’s harsh treatment of Latinos. (Maricopa County, whose seat is Phoenix, is home to about 60 percent of Arizona’s population.)
Canvassers and candidates alike are highlighting the financial costs and reputational harm to Arizona brought on by Arpaio’s crusades against undocumented immigrants. And they are portraying Trump’s and Arpaio’s stances as indistinguishable.
“Arpaio is the original Trump,” said Stacy Pearson, campaign manager for Paul Penzone, a former Phoenix police sergeant making his second run for sheriff as a Democrat, after nearly defeating Arpaio in 2012.
“Trump’s my-way-or-the-highway approach could have been a slogan for Arpaio’s entire career,” Pearson added.
In an interview, Arpaio welcomed the association, saying the November elections would not be decided by party affiliation or ethnicity. “Personalities count more than ever this time around,” he said.
Republicans, he added, “have nothing to worry about.”
But Molera, the Republican strategist, said that “if Republicans say they’re not concerned, they don’t want to admit it or they just don’t get it.”