AGAINST THE GRAIN

Why It’s So Hard for Democrats to Pick Off Trump Supporters

A cultural disconnect with the Democratic Party helped create a bond with him, and they trust him to protect their economic interests.

President Trump at a rally on Feb. 18 in Melbourne, Fla.
AP Photo/Chris O'Meara
Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
March 19, 2017, 6 a.m.

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.

TRAIL MIX:

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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