Scene at the Police Headquarters memorial for officers killed in the recent sniper attack in Dallas on July 10, 2016.
LAURA BUCKMAN/AFP/Getty Images

The political climate had already incubated into the most racially flammable presidential election cycle in recent memory (perhaps more so than when the first black president ran). Throw a lit match of tragic police assassinations by a heavily armed vengeful black man onto it, and it may have just exploded into a summer-surprise inflection point that determines who goes to the White House.

It all depends on white voters.

Dallas is where that tense, volatile combination of race and politics might reach a nightmarish electoral critical mass. Many white voters were already increasingly frantic over the fast-action demographic changes before them as their share of the population declined 2 full percentage points, down to 64.6 percent, since 2012. Look no further than this past Republican presidential primary for proof. Witness the ease with which white Republicans and independents embrace the colorful racist demagoguery of one orange-haired lunatic.

Advertisement

What’s worrisome is how that translates electorally post-Dallas. What will a white voter do?

That’s a mystery until we see new data in the coming weeks. Up until last week, election watchers placed enormous chunks of faith in a general-election white electorate restrained enough not to pull the same visceral populist stunt in full view during the GOP primary. “If Donald Trump reaches 63 or 64 percent white voter support, then, yeah, it’s time for Democrats to worry,” Lincoln Park Strategies’ Stefan Hankin told The Root during a conversation back in June. Hankin was pretty confident that it wouldn’t get to that. As he pointed out, the sheer force of so many anticipated black and brown voters vastly dilutes white-voter impact; Mitt Romney in 2012 obviously couldn’t pull it off with a 59 percent white-voter share.

But with 25-year-old Micah Xavier Johnson arming up for a Nat Turner resurrection, there are bits of data to suggest a tectonic-political-plate crack in the offing. Could some white voters, essentially, overreact? Baseless finger-pointing and told-you-so blame-gaming are already jumping from a number of white conservatives and influential Tea Party mouthpieces eager to blast Black Lives Matter as the mastermind. It’s not just deleted Twitter threats, either; it’s coming from a growing chorus of conservative thought leaders scapegoating every black body from President Barack Obama to BLM.

Advertisement

While some might dismiss that as simply a fringe viewpoint, it could metastasize into just the right amount of constant rhetorical exploitation and fearmongering to increase white-voter support for Trump. As FiveThirtyEight’s David Wasserman suggests, Trump can “offset” non-white-voter gains with just “a 1 percentage point increase in the GOP share of the vote among non-Hispanic whites versus 2012 [and] a 3-point increase of non-Hispanic white turnout, from 64 percent in 2012 to 67 percent in 2016.”

If that’s the case, there’s not a lot of work for Trump to do. And it gets easier for him, should white-voter insecurity in the wake of Dallas trigger a fragile grab for what they believe makes them safe. Northwestern University researchers Maureen Craig and Jennifer Richeson call that a “perceived status threat” in which “exposure to the majority-minority [demographic] shift increases whites’ endorsement of conservative political ideology and policy positions.”

If that’s typically occurring just off a “perceived” threat to political status, then what’s the reaction when there’s an armed threat against their first line of defense, law enforcement?

Advertisement

We’ll see the answer to that question soon. What we do know is that white voters clearly never liked Black Lives Matter or what it stood for in the first place. Dallas just threw up an excuse for white folks to hate it even more.

A Pew Research poll on race relations (released weeks before Dallas) already showed white voters feeling foul about Black Lives Matter. Only 12 percent of whites claimed to understand its goals, and just 14 percent strongly supported it.

Those findings matched the results in an earlier April YouGov poll showing that a solid 61 percent of white voters asked disliked BLM—compared with the 68 percent of black voters who viewed it favorably.

Advertisement

And in a revealing September 2015 PBS NewsHour and Marist College Institute for Public Opinion poll, 41 percent of whites were convinced that BLM “advocated violence”—when clearly it didn’t.

Going back to Trump: He’s still formidable. Despite the casual arrogance of mainstream pundits who assume “Nah, Americans won’t go that far,” this race is still too close for anyone to call early. For someone who’s not spending money on ads, is constantly clowned by media and who can’t articulate a policy position, Trump was still putting numbers on the board five months out. He didn’t ask for money in June, and yet he managed to raise $52 million of mostly small under-$200 contributions, shutting up critics who lampooned him for the $1.3 million cash on hand the month before.

Hillary Clinton holds a lead, but she can’t slip: The RealClearPolitics polling average places Trump just less than 5 percentage points behind Clinton. And even with a Reuters/Ipsos poll here that put her ahead by 11 points and a Pew Research poll there (pdf) that gave her a 9-point spread, the number of surveys suggesting a tight race in November far outnumber the ones that don’t.

Advertisement

Advertisement

Trump's continued political appeal among a disturbingly high number of white voters polled is one big reason.

If the election were held today, 50 percent of white respondents surveyed in a recent Economist/YouGov poll (pdf) suggested that they would vote for Trump in a two-way race, nowhere close to the performance he’d need in November (but still high). Yet it also shows a narrow majority of white voters, at 58 percent, who say that they’re voting mostly for Trump (rather than against Clinton), over the 57 percent who say they’re mostly voting for Clinton.

Post-Dallas, we could see an inflammation of that. The country was already in a foul mood over its direction, with an average 66.5 percent of Americans believing that it’s on the wrong track, a number that scarily matches our national demographic makeup of whites. And the YouGov poll, which shows a staggering 71 percent of whites feeling downright miserable about where the nation’s headed, just made it worse. As the nation gets black and browner, white nervousness rises.

Advertisement

Could Dallas morph into a Brexit-like scenario in which a rising wave of irrational white voters act out and elect Trump on Nov. 8? It’s possible: A sudden, unanticipated spike in white-voter turnout, mixed with much lower and uninspired black- and Latino-voter turnout, could swing it. Only the next five months can tell; but on a political scale, what happened in Dallas certainly didn’t stay there. Micah Johnson’s rifle shots heard around the world made sure of that.

Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.