Hillary Clinton spent much of last summer arguing that Ronald Reagan would never vote for Donald Trump. At the Democratic National Convention, a series of speakers — including Barack Obama — argued that the patron saint of the conservative movement would recoil at Trump’s authoritarian ethos. At a September press conference, the Democratic nominee suggested that the Gipper would be incensed to see the Republican nominee praise Vladimir Putin while disparaging the American president. One of her super-PACs’ final campaign ads cast Reagan’s ghost as a Clinton surrogate.
The point of all this nostalgia for the man who killed off the New Deal consensus was to isolate the Republican nominee from his party’s upscale wing — and, thus, to engineer a landslide, bipartisan rebuke of the demagogue.
This same strategic logic shaped Clinton’s “alt-right” speech, which cast Trump as the champion of a reactionary online movement that defined itself in opposition to the mainstream conservatism. By the end of that address, Clinton had contrasted the hatefulness of Trump’s meme-savvy minions with the principled tolerance of such statesman as Bob Dole, George W. Bush, John McCain, and House Speaker Paul Ryan.
At the time, it wasn’t hard to make a case for this gambit. After the DNC, polls showed Clinton with a solid grasp on the Democratic base and a comfortable lead in the states she’d need to win on November 8. Why not try to expand her coalition across the aisle, by assuring suburban Republicans that the vulgarian who’d commandeered their party wasn’t really one of them?
But that question was never as rhetorical as the Clinton campaign may have hoped. There was always a risk that in distancing Trump from the GOP, she would be doing him a service.
After all, throughout the Republican primary, Trump had branded himself as a nationalist unconstrained by fealty to conservative dogma. At various points, he feigned openness to raising taxes on plutocrats and increasing the minimum wage — a heresy he explained by declaring, “I’m very different from most Republicans.”
A considerable amount of Clinton’s paid media was devoted to affirming this claim.
And a growing body of evidence suggests this was a bad mistake.
Just before Election Day, a survey from Politico and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health raised some eyebrows among advocates of reproductive rights: 48 percent of those planning to vote for Trump wanted the federal government to continue funding Planned Parenthood.
After the tragic events of November 8, Planned Parenthood organized a series of focus groups, to figure out why so many people who support their organization voted for a man who had promised to defund it. Slate’s Michelle Goldberg offers this analysis of what they found:
For opponents of Trump, the recordings make for excruciating viewing. They show how myths about Hillary Clinton’s corruption proved more influential than facts about Trump’s. “I really didn’t trust Hillary at all, and that’s why I went with Trump,” said a new mother in Harrisburg who’d been undecided until the last moment … But if they’re maddening, the focus groups are also revelatory. They suggest that the Clinton campaign made a fatal mistake in depicting Trump as outside the bounds of normal conservatism. Clinton’s camp had hoped that doing so would lead Republicans to defect. Instead, it helped some people who distrust conservatism to reconcile themselves to Trump.
… In several focus groups, the moderator asked if people expected Trump to veto a defunding bill, and most hands went up. The new mother in Harrisburg pointed out that Trump avoided social issues in the campaign: “That was never Donald Trump’s platform.” Said a Phoenix man in his 30s: “I think this is coming from the bible-thumper mentality. I don’t see Trump having that mentality, but [Mike] Pence, Paul Ryan, those guys, it’s like they call up God from their cellphone. They’re so out of touch with reality.”
This notion — that Donald Trump does not share Paul Ryan’s ideology — was indispensable to the former’s victory: Trump simply could not have won without the support of white Democrats who have little affection for GOP orthodoxy.
Synthesizing data from voting returns, exit polls, the census, and preelection polling, the Upshot’s Nate Cohn concludes that Clinton did not lose because Rust Belt Democrats stayed at home, but rather, because they voted for Trump in large numbers.
Cohn does find that Clinton’s attempt to make inroads with affluent, historically Republican constituencies succeeded on its own terms: By his estimates, Clinton improved on Obama’s 2012 performance among whites with postgraduate degrees by 17 points, while besting him among those with bachelor’s degrees by 4.
And among white, college-educated voters who earn above $250,000 a year, Clinton gained a whopping 24 points.
But those gains failed to make up for her losses among downscale whites. Among white voters who make less than $30,000 a year, Trump bested Mitt Romney by 24 points, according to exit polls — a finding consistent with pre–Election Day surveys.
Many of these voters were Obama supporters in 2008 and 2012 — in fact, 19 percent of white working-class Trump voters said they approved of Obama’s performance on November 8 of 2016. Ten percent of these voters told exit pollsters that they wanted Trump to continue Obama’s policies, while 38 percent said they hoped he would pursue policies that were “more liberal” than Obama’s.
Examining Pew data from 2014 on the political attitudes of white non-college-educated Democrats, Cohn found little support for the GOP’s platform on abortion, gay rights, the environment, health care, and Social Security — but a great deal of support for scaling back free trade and limiting immigration.
In other words, normal Republicans have little to offer these voters. But there had long been evidence that a right-wing populist who emphasized trade protection and immigration restrictionism — and who didn’t talk too loudly about the Bible or supply-side economics — could find some sympathy with this group.
Polls gave the Clinton campaign fair warning that Trump was, in fact, making inroads with them. But so long as she remained ahead, her party seemed comfortable trading working-class whites for country-club ones: As Chuck Schumer infamously reasoned, “For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia, and you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin.”
This trade did not work for two reasons. One, Clinton picked up far more votes in the suburbs of Manhattan, Seattle, Chicago, and Boston than she did in the swing states of the Midwest.
Second, and most critically, there were a lot more white working-class Democrats who could be lost than well-educated moderates who could be won. As Cohn explains:
Campaign lore has it that President Obama won thanks to a young, diverse, well-educated and metropolitan “coalition of the ascendant” — an emerging Democratic majority anchored in the new economy. Hispanic voters, in particular, were credited with Mr. Obama’s victory.
But Mr. Obama would have won re-election even if he hadn’t won the Hispanic vote at all. He would have won even if the electorate had been as old and as white as it had been in 2004.
Largely overlooked, his key support often came in the places where you would least expect it. He did better than John Kerry and Al Gore among white voters across the Northern United States, despite exit poll results to the contrary. Over all, 34 percent of Mr. Obama’s voters were whites without a college degree — larger in number than black voters, Hispanic voters or well-educated whites.
In other words: Working-class whites were Obama’s base. They were the bricks in his party’s Electoral College firewall.
Now, it’s entirely possible that Trump would have scattered those bricks, no matter how Clinton chose to attack him. As already mentioned, Trump’s message had built-in appeal with the demographic. Add in the tailwinds provided by the Kremlin, James Comey, and entrenched sexism and racism, and perhaps he would have outpaced Clinton, even if she’d decried the “Trump-Ryan” agenda in every campaign ad.
But the fact remains: Clinton lost the White House because a bunch of white Democrats who despise most of the GOP agenda — but like the cut of Trump’s jib — decided to cross the aisle.
Some of these voters may learn that Trump is a regular Republican the hard way — by losing access to their health care or local Planned Parenthood. But many will not.
In 2020, Democrats need to make sure they inform the latter that Donald Trump is something much worse than a racist, misogynist, incompetent populist: a regular old Medicare-cutting, abortion-banning movement conservative.