In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, political insiders talked about a permanent realignment of the political map. After years in the blue column, the Rust Belt and Upper Midwest were now going to move toward Republicans, we were told. Older white, working-class voters were easy pickings for President Trump’s brand of politics — built on resentment and aimed at retaliation against urban elites, immigrants and globalization itself. Well, it worked once — with a seriously flawed Democratic presidential nominee — and only barely (a shift of fewer than 80,000 votes in three states would have spared us from the entire Trumpian ordeal).
The 2016 results nevertheless prompted Democrats to agonize over their failure to represent the interests of white, working-class voters, especially men. Should they dump cultural issues? Maybe they, too, should start talking about putting the brakes on immigration?
It seems that the freakout was unnecessary and overwrought, and the GOP’s grip on formerly blue states was illusory. “Democratic Senate incumbents in Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan — all states won by Trump — now appear solid favorites for re-election,” Ronald Brownstein writes. “The party is favored for the governorships in Michigan and Pennsylvania and locked in close races in Wisconsin, Ohio and Iowa — the fifth Midwestern state key to Trump’s 2016 victory. And it could pick up as many as four House seats combined in Iowa and Michigan.” He surmises that Trump “appears to have suffered genuine erosion among working-class white women, largely because of his attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and a sense among many that the improved national economy hasn’t provided them appreciably more security. If that crack in Trump’s armor persists to 2020, it would arguably provide the single most important advance for Democrats in the midterm election.”
Several other factors are likely at play.
First, we cannot stress enough that Hillary Clinton simply was not an option for many voters. It’s why Trump keeps bringing her up almost two years after she lost. The Republicans’ supposed inroads in the Midwest were in fact just as much a rejection of Clinton, personally and as a representative of the Washington status quo. The voters who switched from President Barack Obama to Trump in the Midwest might have been misguided in their expectations for Trump, but their votes had an internal consistency: They hate professional politicians and feel that the global economy has left them behind. Remove Clinton and find some solid candidates, especially first-time candidates, and Democrats are back in the game.
Second, Trump’s populism was a canard from the get-go, and now it’s obvious even to those who supported him in 2016. When you pass tax cuts for the rich, propose cutting Medicaid, support repeal of the ACA that would hit rural communities hardest, inflict tariffs and defend an administration rife with corruption, good luck trying to convince working-class voters that you are “on their side.” Democrats’ bread-and-butter economic appeal — which works for white, working-class voters as well as for suburbanites and urbanites — worked for Obama and still can resonate with many voters.
Third, Trump’s misogyny and male grievance crusade come with a cost. Republicans face a problem not just from Democratic and independent women who have been energized, but also from women who are no longer Republican. E.J. Graff writes:
Fewer and fewer American women identify as Republicans, and that slow migration is speeding up under Trump. … Trump’s election put this gender shift “on steroids,” [Democratic pollster Anna] Greenberg says. According to Pew, the share of American women voters who identify with or lean toward the Republican Party has dropped 3 percentage points since 2015—from 40 percent to 37 percent—after having been essentially unchanged from 2010 through 2014. By 2017, just 25 percent of American women fully identified as Republicans. That means that when, say, 84 percent of Republican women say they approve of Trump and his actions, or 69 percent of Republican women say they support Kavanaugh, or 64 percent say they, like Trump, don’t find Ford very “credible,” those percentages represent a small and shrinking slice of American women.
In short, without adopting spurious positions (e.g. limiting legal immigration) or abandoning support for its traditional issues (e.g. gun safety, women’s rights), Democrats seem poised to win back what they lost in the Midwest in 2016. The lesson they should take away is simple: Get good candidates and articulate an effective economic message. This really isn’t rocket science.
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