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Four Questions That Could Decide Who Wins 2016 Election

With a grueling primary season almost in the rear-view mirror and the presumptive nominees in place, the campaign's attention shifts fully toward the general election. And that means a renewed focus on large, influential groups and the issues that motivate those voters both nationally and in the battleground states where presidential elections are decided.

Elections in the end are about stitching together coalitions to get to 270 electoral votes and the teams for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are now pouring through maps and voter files trying to find winning combinations.

With that in mind, here are four questions that could help determine who wins in November:

Can Trump Do Better in the Suburbs?

In the last few presidential elections the suburbs have not been great turf for Republican presidential candidates. That needs to change if Trump is going to win.

In 2004, dense Urban Suburb counties voted Democratic, but not by a lot. Sen. John Kerry beat President George W. Bush there only by about 7.7 percentage points, according to data for the American Communities Project. And, of course, Bush won the election.

In 2008, Barack Obama won the Urban Suburb counties by 18 points against Sen. John McCain. In 2012, Obama beat former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney by 16 points in the Urban Suburbs. And Obama is finishing up eight years in the White House largely because of those figures.

About 22 percent of the 2012 presidential electorate came from those Urban Suburb counties. That's a lot of votes.

For Trump to win he's probably going to need the Urban Suburb vote to look a lot more like Bush's 2004 figure. And the numbers suggest he has work to do. In the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, Clinton leads Trump 57 percent to 32 percent in a head-to-head vote. That's a 25-point margin.

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How Many White Voters Are There?

Race and ethnicity will be big points of discussion in this campaign, witness the Trump comments about Judge Gonzalo Curiel and his problems with Hispanics in polls. But polls and analysts have also noted Trump's strength with white voters as a possible point in his favor.

As a group, "white voters" are difficult to pin down. They are the least homogeneous of any demographic segment and there are big splits between urban and rural whites and those with and without a college education.

But in the broadest sense, the latest NBC/WSJ poll shows Trump with a sizeable lead among whites - 52 percent to 36 percent over Clinton. That 16-point edge, however, is still not as large as Mitt Romney's 20-point edge with white voters against Obama in 2012, according to exit polls. And Romney still did not win.

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What's more, even if Trump bumped up his margin with white voters to 24 points - 62 percent to 38 percent - he still would not win the popular vote if the rest of the electorate voted the way it did in 2012.

If Trump is going to ride white voters to the White House, he's probably going to need to increase the percentage of the vote coming from whites. That would be a challenge in a country that is diversifying the way the United States is.

Whites made up 77 percent of the electorate in 2004, according to exit polls. They made up 74 percent in 2008. They made up 72 percent in 2012.

If the white vote declined to about 70 percent of the electorate in 2016, and it could easily dip below that, Trump would likely need to win white voters by around 26 points to essentially tie Clinton.

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Of course, the popular vote does not decide the winner of the election. You have to win states to get the necessary 270 electoral votes to win. By the measure Trump's strength with white voters could help him in some close states, such as Ohio, but hurt him in more diverse battlegrounds, such as Florida.

Whither Evangelical Voters?

Cultural and religious conservatives are a key part of the Republican coalition. In 2012, Republican voters from places with strong religious convictions, Faith Driven counties, gave Romney a 37-point edge over Obama - 68 percent to 31 percent.

Currently Trump is having a harder time bringing those voters together. In the latest NBC/WSJ poll he's winning those places, but by much smaller margins, 52 percent to 31 percent. The problem Trump is facing among those voters likely has two sources.

First, evangelical voters, particularly those from upper incomes, were supporters of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in the GOP primaries and caucuses. There still may be hard feelings among some of them. Second, some Republicans are not sure that Trump, the New York businessman who has been married three times and who once considered himself pro-choice in the abortion debate, is a true cultural conservative.

Evangelical voters are very unlikely to support Clinton, but some could decide to stay home and not vote in the fall if their choices are Trump or Clinton. Trump needs to bring these voters more solidly into the fold. Evangelical Christians make up big parts of the population in swing states such as Virginia and North Carolina.

Will Young People Show Up?

For Democrats, young people are a key constituency. In 2012 Obama won 18- to 29-year-old voters by 23 points, according to exit polls. And the college town vote in battleground states such as Virginia, Ohio and Wisconsin were a big part of his victories in those places.

But in the Democratic primaries, those younger voters were strongly behind Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. According to primary and caucus exit polls he won 72 percent of voters between the ages of 17 and 29 (voters who will be 18 by Election Day are allowed to vote in most states).

As with cultural conservatives and Republicans, these younger voters aren't likely to cross the partisan aisle to vote for Trump. But the question is whether they will come out to support Clinton. Right now feelings are raw on the Democratic side, with many younger Sanders supporters saying they will not vote for the Clinton in November.

In the latest NBC/WSJ poll Clinton leads Trump among 18- to 29-year-olds 55% to 32%. But in the same poll Sanders leads Trump 69 percent to 26 percent in that age group. Again, there is time for Clinton to act, but she has work to do with young people. Clinton or other campaign surrogates may be spending some time on college campuses this fall.

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