So far, the scenarios that professional pollsters have envisioned in which Donald Trump becomes president of the United States still seem a tad far-fetched. The flaxen-headed race-baiter may be the Republican primary favorite—betting market analyzer PredictWise gives him a 47 percent shot of winning, while runners-up Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz are stuck at 30 percent and 11 percent respectively—but clinching the White House would require such extraordinary political feats as somehow capping his losses among Hispanic voters after demagoguing on immigration for the better part of a year.
If Trump does have a path to victory, however, I’m guessing it can be found in the map below, which you should think of as a rough guide to which parts of the U.S. have lost the most to globalization in recent years.
The image is from a recent paper by economists David Autor, David Dorn, and Gordon Hanson, and shows how badly different regions of the country were exposed to economic competition from China during its rise to manufacturing dominance (the darker the area, the more import competition local industry would have faced compared to other regions). As you might expect, some of the worst-hit pockets are dotted along Rust Belt blue states that a Republican nominee would very much like to pick off, like Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Others can be found in electoral targets like Colorado, New Hampshire, and Virginia.
Trump has, of course, campaigned hard on the idea that he’s the one man canny, tough, and independent enough to reverse the ravages of globalization and … deep sigh … make America great again. And while his stated positions on trade with China in particular aren’t all that different from Mitt Romney’s in 2012—like Romney, Trump’s biggest promise is that he’d label China a currency manipulator—he’s sold them a lot more compellingly. His hard-line immigration stance and protectionist rhetoric have already won over lots of alienated white voters in the primary. It’s not completely outside the realm of imagination that he could do something similar in the general by targeting all those brown spots on the map, especially if he’s facing off against Hillary Clinton, who has been squishy on trade herself, and whose husband helped give us NAFTA while normalizing trade relations with China. It’s not clear any other leading Republican would be able to pull off a similar act—certainly not a free-trade advocate like Marco Rubio.
Which, in a way, might mean that at this point Trump really is the Republican party’s best bet. By abandoning immigration reform and largely tolerating Trump’s most vicious rhetoric, the GOP has practically bet that it can win the presidency by turning out mass numbers of the so-called missing white voters who stayed home during the 2012 campaign. That bloc is largely made up of less-educated Northern and rural whites and overall looks a lot like Ross Perot’s old constituency, which thrilled to Perot’s anti-NAFTA message. Trump is, in many ways, echoing Perot’s playbook, but posing as a sort of populist third-party candidate within the Republican fold (leave aside the fact that, again, his actual policy platform, insofar as he’s described it, isn’t all that populist). Could that actually win him the general election? I personally doubt it. But this election, what do the pundits know?
Read more of Slate’s coverage of the 2016 presidential campaign.