Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks to supporters after winning the Indiana primary on Tuesday. Trump begins the general election phase with more than 60 percent of Americans holding an unfavorable opinion of him, the highest number ever recorded for a presidential nominee in history of modern presidential polling. Photo by John Angelillo/UPI | License Photo
WASHINGTON, May 4 (UPI) -- With his remaining rivals exiting the race and the specter of the Republican nomination easily within his grasp, Wednesday is, for all intents and purposes, the beginning of the general election for Donald Trump.
Unlike the Republican primary, which Trump dominated almost from the moment he announced his candidacy, Trump faces a wall of skepticism from the wider national electorate -- a wall so large there is no equivalent in modern polling.
Surveys conducted over the last week show the wide gap between how Trump is viewed by his passionate conservative supporters versus more moderate general election voters.
The average of horse-race polls pitting Hillary Clinton against Trump at this early stage of the general election show her with a 10-point lead. There is precedent for a candidate to overcome a double-digit deficit, but it has not happened often, mostly because a lead that large is uncommon in presidential elections.
Horse-race numbers six months before the election aren't worth much, but voters' perceptions of the candidates at the outset of an election can be instructive. It is in this area that Trump's potential difficulties in the general election are perhaps most evident.
Routinely in polls, more than 60 percent of Americans say they hold an unfavorable opinion of Trump, a fact The New York Times points out is without precedent for a nominee of either party in the history of modern presidential polling. Making matters worse for Trump, more than half of Americans describe themselves as either "scared" at the possibility he will become president, or say they view him "very unfavorably" -- the category of voters whose minds it will be most difficult for Trump to change.
The good news for Trump? Clinton has many of the same problems in a hypothetical general election, though not to the same degree. She is viewed unfavorably by a majority of Americans, about 54 percent -- still a startlingly high percentage for any candidate at this early stage of the race.
There is a strong possibility the two most widely disliked major party nominees in recent history will appear opposite one another on the same ballot, meaning how voters view the candidates personally -- especially if the campaign takes an overtly negative turn through the summer and fall -- may be irrelevant.
Voters may not like their options, but they will still have to choose. The basis on which they do that will be where the general election is won or lost.
The most logical place to start when answering that question, comparing 2016 to four years ago, does not bode well for Trump, either.
The winning coalition of voters Barack Obama assembled in his two successful general election campaigns does not appear to be going anywhere. A combination of young voters, women, minorities and those with college degrees went overwhelmingly for Obama, twice lifting him to comfortable victories in both the popular vote and the electoral college.
It is precisely these groups Trump failed to win over during the primary, and the general electorate has far more of them than the smaller subset of Republican primary voters, making the problem far more serious for Trump.
If those voters continue to spurn him, Trump will need to win a huge majority of white voters to make up the difference. Here, Trump faces the same problem that ultimately doomed previous Republican nominees John McCain and Mitt Romney. There simply have not been enough white voters to overcome the rising tide of minorities in crucial swing states.
Since Ronald Reagan won a 49-state Republican landslide in 1984 -- which he accomplished by peeling away the working-class white voters Trump has made a mainstay of his primary coalition -- the percentage of minorities as a share of general election has jumped from 14 percent that year to 30 percent in 2012. Conversely, the influence white voters, particularly white male voters, exert in presidential elections has decreased significantly.
The demographic shift is most acute for Trump in a handful of Southern states, where Clinton holds significant leads in several places where Republicans have traditionally competed well. Early state-by-state polling shows Clinton with a double-digit lead over Trump in the crucial swing state of Florida.
Not only does the demographic shift in the South make it more difficult for Trump to flip states that went for the Democrats, it also could require Trump to play defense in states Romney won four years ago -- when he was on his way to a significant electoral college defeat.
Clinton will begin the general election phase of the campaign playing with a lead in North Carolina and Arizona, two states Romney won in 2012.
But race is not the only barrier Trump faces. He starts his general election bid trailing in deeply conservative Utah, the state with the highest percentage of residents who hold a college degree. Race is not an issue in overwhelmingly white Utah but the combination of highly educated voters and Mormons who disliked Trump's brash persona through the primary is enough for him to consider whether to spend resources in its defense, or rely on the deep skepticism Republicans have of Clinton to eventually lead them home to their party roots.
Trump may be the most widely disliked major party nominee in modern American history -- and Clinton might be second -- but ultimately the candidates' personal identities may pale in importance to those of a more diverse electorate in the dozen or so swing states that will decide the election.