Can Trump Win a General Election? A Cold Look at the Numbers

By Dr. Michael Coulter

The Center For Vision & Values
The Center For Vision & Values

Grove City, PA -( This is not an argument for what should happen or what I’d like to happen in the November presidential election, but about what would likely happen in a Donald Trump versus Hillary Clinton race: Clinton would win, and probably by a wide margin.

I obviously can’t say what will happen with certainty because there are some events that cannot be determined. If Clinton is indicted or there’s a significant terrorist attack, the election dynamics change greatly.

But assuming Clinton is the Democratic candidate and there is no significant terrorist attack before election day, can Trump win in November?

I caution Trump supporters: You can’t just say that Trump will win. That claim must be based on evidence and recognized patterns of political behavior. Crowds at rallies and winning primary elections, especially with only a plurality of the vote, is not evidence that a candidate can win in a general election.

Even if you add up everyone who has attended a Trump rally, that’s only a tiny fraction of total voters in a presidential general election. In both 2008 and 2012, there were about 130 million voters in those presidential elections. And the difference between a turnout in a primary and general election is great. For example, Trump won both the South Carolina and Michigan primaries, but in the general election in those states there will likely be twice as many voters as the number that voted in the primary (counting both Republican and Democratic primary voters).

You could look at head-to-head polls to predict an outcome. Real Clear Politics has nearly 50 polls going back several months which polls a Trump v. Clinton race, and Trump has small leads in only five of those polls over that period. (Rubio and Cruz lead Clinton in far more of those polls.) In the last month, Clinton’s advantage has been just over six percentage points.

But months remain until the election, and there will be barrages of ads trashing candidates. George H. W. Bush trailed Michael Dukakis during 1988, but he then surged ahead late in the campaign. Early polls are not a lock on what will happen after a campaign begins.

So how do people choose whom they are voting for?

For those people who identify with a political party, party identification is the most important factor determining a vote. This view is known by political scientists as the American Voter model, and there’s much evidence to support it. For example, in the 2012 race, 92 percent of Democrats supported Obama and 93 percent of Republicans supported Romney. And in 2008 it was similar with 93 percent of Democrats supporting Obama and 93 percent of Republicans supporting McCain. Obama and Romney in 2012 and Obama and McCain in 2008 came very close to splitting the independents in both of those elections. So what was the difference in both of those elections?  There were more people who identified as a Democrat than as a Republican (according to Gallup).

Right now, according to Gallup, Democrats have only a slight advantage when it comes to party identification, so that’s good news for the eventual Republican nominee.

So if party identification is a very important predictor of voter choice, then the way to victory is to get your party to vote for you, win half or more of the independents, and try to peel away some voters from the other party.

But can Trump get nearly all of those who identify as a Republican? Trump is far from universally liked in his chosen party. I can’t think of any candidate in recent history who generates such strong dislike from some members of his party. The “#NeverTrump” campaign is not the work of Democrats or independents. A poll of likely voters in the Ohio Republican primary indicates that 48 percent of those voters approve of Trump and 44 percent disapprove of him. Trump and his supporters can claim that nearly all of the party will come around to support him in the fall, but that seems implausible. Still, assume that most Republicans would come around to support Trump or at least opposing Clinton. Even getting 80 percent of Republicans would put him in a difficult position to win in the fall.

But Trump claims—and Rush Limbaugh affirms—that he’s drawing independents and Democrats. He’s getting some of those voters, but the polling data suggest that it’s going to be very hard for him get enough  independents and Democrats to win in the fall. A January poll from Gallup indicated that Trump had the worst favorability ratings among any Republican candidates among independents and Democrats. Trump was net -27 among independents (that is, his unfavorability rating was 27 points higher than his favorability rating) and -70 among Democrats. No other Republican was so far underwater with non-Republicans (Trump’s -97 combined was far worse than Huckabee, Cruz, and Bush, who were around -40). It’s not enough to get some independents and Democrats. For Trump to win, he gets a majority of independents and at least 20 percent of Democrats.

Trump, the businessman, should understand you need a plan for winning. When an entrepreneur seeks support for a new venture, he or she has to show how the business idea will attract enough customers. In presidential politics you need a plan for winning a majority of electoral votes because there’s only one winner. Attracting a dedicated minority of voters wins no prize.

The Trump campaign is like one of those outlandish business ideas, like personal travel to the moon, that has some potential customers, but it doesn’t have a winning business plan.

About the Author:

Dr. Michael Coulter is a professor of humanities and political science at Grove City College and a contributor to The Center for Vision & Values.

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Trump will never be POTUS,no matter how much money is put in to his campaign, DEMS will take back the senate,the house will be a close call. by 2018 the DEMS will have the house too.


Trol, trol, trol your boat gently down the stream.

Wild Bill

@wgtrole, Unless you tell us all the facts and reasons why, your prognostication takes no skill, insight, miraculous powers. Even if it ended up true, it would not mean that you are a contemplative, penetrating, or astute person. If you do not come back here with the required facts and logic, then tomcat has correctly identified you as a mere troll, wasting our time.


The only possible person who can beat Trump Is Cruz PERIOD Be that as it may, Cruz will no way beat Hillary PERIOD So for those Republicans who will say that they will rather vote for Hillary instead of Trump GOOD LUCK. Good luck to your second amendment because she wanted the US to become a gun free Australia, to ISIS, because Hillary is going to open the gates for immigrants, to placing the US military to the dump because she is not going to do anything to improve the military, to the economy because all she will do is… Read more »

Michael Riley

Trump will crush Hillary.
Your article is more of the loser elite BS spew. Trump appeals to the everyday American who is sick and tired of the BS streaming from DC and media on both sides. Both parties have failed in their responsibilities to the citizens of this once great country. They are one and the same making deals that benefit their moneyed masters. They, and if the shoe fits wear it, fear Trump will upset the golden goose and their corruption will be exposed.


Trump’s debate performance hasn’t impressed me. Clinton is pretty slick.


The problem is that the author uses as his premise ” recognized patterns of political behavior”. The problem is that Trump has shown NOT to follow those patterns! Everything about his campaign has confused all the prognosticators because the “usual wisdom” just isn’t working. They still haven’t figured out that this is NOT like every other political campaign and election cycle.


#1; Trump in not my choice!
#2; If he has the most delegates at the end of the primaries and the RNC pulls a stunt and puts someone else in his place……………..(as sent in a letter to the RNC), I will write in his name (Live in the country with paper ballots), leave the Republican party (I’m 80 and been in the party since the first ability to vote) and join whatever offshoot of the Republican party that will surely split off!!!!!!


I like the way you say Trump can’t win but no other Republican came close to winning Trump so who do you think can do better and why this people not come out to see if this Republican has any chance against Trump? This is all guesses. Trump has won all the polls that at the beginning had him on the bottom. Everyone called him a joke, a clown, and look at were he is now! Hillary will have a hard time with Trump in the debates.


Trump is not a debater. Hillary has the experience to spew the statistics as seen from her point of view and it would take a computer brain to instantly point out the misstatements and down right lies on the spot. The other aspect not yet considered is how many Candy Crowley moderators are already in the bag for the Clinton MACHINE.


You are a big dreamer for crooked lying criminal Hillary and the liberal socialist. This will not happen. But keep dreaming.


If the “system” was not co-opted by criminals Trump would win. Any question?


co-opted by criminals? Surely not.

Josh B.

This article talks about how the primaries are only a small portion of the voter population and therefore cannot be taken as evidence he will win. Then it changes course an claims a series of polls tells us he has barely any leads over Hillary. You realize those polls encompass the opinion of even fewer people than the primaries right? Most polls are 2000 or less people and are only taken from registered voters. Additionally many polls are via phone calls which are notorious for being different than what people actually put on paper because many people on call have… Read more »

Ronald Suszek

If the GOP gets behind trump instead of raising money to defeat him you will see republicans like me become proud of our party again. Two strong well established party’s have gotten nothing done for the middle class. In fact they get nothing done . Do your jobs or get fired. Trump is the start to cleaning house.


The author fails to take into account that 20% of Democrats say they are 100% sure they will vote for Trump if Hillary is the Democrat nominee. The contest will be at least a jump ball if not one with the edge to Trump given the extent to which he will spread the defense against Hillary.


I believe the people are on to the pollsters. I have been polled three times and my lie gets better with each poll. If I were to analyze my results I would fall to the left of Bernie.