Focus groups can be self-fulfilling Rorschach tests, with practitioners cherry-picking the parts that fit their preconceived narrative. But it’s nonetheless useful to pay close attention to Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg’s findings from a group of Macomb County, Michigan supporters of President Trump, all independents and Democrats. The fine print of these swing voters’ reactions is as significant as Greenberg’s conclusion that Democrats can win back some Trump voters by pivoting leftward on economic issues.
The full report should be read by any Democrat interested in forging a path back to power with Trump in office. For all the anti-Trump sentiment coursing through the country, many will find Greenberg’s findings sobering. Yes, Democrats could win a small slice of Trump voters by adopting a more economically populist message geared towards the Midwestern states. But the cultural disconnect between Trump’s voters and the opposition is so wide that it’s hard to see Democrats making compromises with this sizable, disaffected constituency.
Greenberg has extensive experience in Macomb County, where he conducted a series of seminal studies of Reagan Democrats in the 1980s. Barack Obama comfortably won the county twice—by a 4-point margin in 2012—leading Greenberg to conclude that the county’s legacy as a working-class bellwether was outdated. But its legacy returned with a vengeance last year, giving Trump a whopping 12-point victory, and providing him his margin of victory in a traditionally Democratic state.
Here are some of Greenberg’s most consequential findings:
Trump’s base is extraordinarily loyal. Not a single one of the 35 Trump voters surveyed said they had any regrets about their vote for Trump, despite the swirl of controversies consuming the White House. They agreed that Trump “gives them hope” when he speaks. “They accept Trump’s version of the news and facts, and their reactions to videos of his press conferences and interviews reinforced that point,” Greenberg writes. Trump’s authenticity—the idea that he is “blunt,” “outspoken,” and “not afraid to speak out”—is a huge selling point to his base. They view Republican congressional leaders as shifty and catering to the wealthy, but view Trump’s motives as heartfelt.
This loyalty has consequences for the GOP’s legislative agenda: The Washington Post featured a front-page story this week about a Tennessee woman who believed Trump, with some divine interference, helped her afford health insurance thanks to a generous subsidy. The reality was that the subsidy was a part of President Obama’s original law, and would likely be rolled back as a result of Republican reforms.
To take a page from James Carville, “It’s the culture, stupid.” Read between the lines of Greenberg’s report, and it’s clear he recognizes his prescription that Democrats emulate Bernie Sanders on economic issues has limited pull with most Trump supporters. He quotes extensively from voters whose economic interests may align with Democrats, but who also express a panoply of anxieties over a changing American culture. Worries about terrorism, concerns that immigrants aren’t integrating into American society, and complaints about worsening race relations all dominate the focus-group conversations—including among people who backed Obama in the past.
Obamacare is still widely disliked, even among working-class voters who stood to benefit. There’s been a rising chorus of Democrats who believe that President Obama’s health care law is growing in popularity, including among working-class Trump supporters. A Democratic survey (which I cited in my last column) showed a sizable majority of Obama-Trump voters supporting Obamacare. But the reactions from these Trump-backing swing voters should pour some cold water on that belief.
Many participants in the focus group shared some horror story about their health insurance as a consequence of Obama’s health care law, citing concrete examples of how the law was a net negative for them. “Nearly every person in our groups was struggling with how to afford their plans, co-pays, and medications,” Greenberg wrote. He added that these voters don’t have an alternative in mind, but they’re convinced the law needs to be changed—and have enough faith in Trump that he’s up to the task.
No one expressed much receptivity to supporting Democrats. The focus group was commissioned by the Roosevelt Institute, a progressive think tank, so it’s not surprising that Greenberg’s prescription jibed with their policy preferences. But what was surprising was how little anyone mentioned support for specific Democrats even though their preferred economic policies aren’t all that different from what liberals generally advocate.
Greenberg elided this contradiction by arguing that two-thirds of the focus group found a generic, populist Democratic profile “more appealing than a moderate one focused on helping businesses be more competitive globally.” He then suggested that progressive icons like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren fit the profile. But there was little organic enthusiasm for Sanders, Warren, or any other nationally known progressive figures on the Left. And he frequently sprinkled analysis with optimistic pronouncements that Trump’s luster would eventually wear off with these voters, even though their reactions suggested otherwise.
1. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is ending his tenure with rock-bottom approval ratings, among the lowest of any elected official in recent memory. A new Quinnipiac poll shows the outgoing governor at 19 percent approval, with 76 percent of New Jersey voters disapproving of his job performance. A 48 percent plurality of Republicans view him unfavorably. For context, a Morning Consult online survey conducted last year found that even the least popular governor in America (Kansas’s Sam Brownback) hit an approval rating above the 20 percent mark.
If history is any guide, Democrats should be a near-lock to win back the governorship this year. The same poll shows Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno—the expected GOP standard-bearer—trailing Democratic front runner Phil Murphy by 22 points, 47 to 25 percent. That’s a remarkable early spread, particularly given that Guadagno has a higher profile as the second-in-command in the state.
2. Republicans are increasingly convinced that Florida Gov. Rick Scott will jump into the state’s Senate race against Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, which would make it one of the most compelling and expensive contests next year. One telltale sign? Scott, even though he can’t run for reelection, is featured prominently in a new ad from his political committee to promote economic-development legislation. It’s an awfully expensive—and timely—personal pitch as he nears a decision about running for the upper chamber.
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