Trump Democrats Are Rare — But Electorally Important

Photo-Illustration: Daily Intelligencer; Photo: Mark Makela/Getty Images

The Obama-Trump voter is either the author of our current political crisis — or, a marginal, irrelevant freak who’s been as overrepresented in political commentary as disaffected male comedians have been in half-hour dramedies.

It all depends on when — and whom — you ask. On November 9, it looked like a critical mass of white, working-class Obama voters in the Midwest decided to vote for the kind of change Barack couldn’t believe in. One month later, some studies argued that this was a geographic illusion: Obama counties did switch to Trump, but only because so many traditionally Democratic voters stayed home.

By spring of 2017, however, a consensus formed in favor of the first hypothesis: In a few razor-tight swing-state races, Obama-Trump voters were decisive. Now, the only question was whether Democrats should care. In the Washington Post last week, Dana Milbank answered in the negative: New data from the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group showed that there were fewer Obama-to-Trump voters than popularly believed, and that most of these voters were less Trump Democrats than they were “Obama Republicans” — people who were willing to turn left to express their displeasure with the smoldering ruins of the George W. Bush presidency, but who are otherwise more at home in Red America.

There are swing voters in every election. The fact that the latent conservatism of white Obama voters in the Rust Belt — combined with Clinton’s idiosyncratic weaknesses, mistakes, and improbable misfortunes — tipped the last contest to the GOP is of no great consequence, Milbank argues. The Democrats should just focus on improving the turnout rates of the groups that agree with them — and avoid nominating the subject of an active FBI investigation in 2020 — instead of pandering to a bunch of “Trump Democrats” who barely exist. As Milbank writes:

These people aren’t Obama-Trump voters as much as they were Bush-Obama voters. This is important, because it means Democrats don’t have to contort themselves to appeal to the mythical Trump Democrats by toughening their position on immigration, or weakening their support for universal health care, or embracing small government and low taxes. What Democrats have to do is be Democrats.

The New York Times’ Nate Cohn begs to (partially) differ. Cohn accepts that white, working-class Obama-to-Trump voters made up a tiny slice of the national electorate. And he agrees that most of these voters lean Republican, oppose the Affordable Care Act and liberal immigration policies, and were attracted to Trump primarily on the basis of his reactionary racial politics.

But Cohn insists that such voters were, nonetheless, decisive — and that a small, but significant subset of the demographic appears to be winnable for Team Blue:

The [Cooperative Congressional Election Study] found that 26 percent of Obama-Trump voters identified as Democrats in their postelection study…that’s a significant share who continue to identify with the Democratic Party despite voting for Mr. Trump.

Democrats were probably still winning a lot of these voters in 2016. The results speak for themselves to some extent. Jason Kander lost his Senate race in Missouri by just three percentage points, even as Mrs. Clinton lost by 20 points. Even Democrats who didn’t run ahead of Mrs. Clinton over all — like Tammy Duckworth in Illinois, Russ Feingold in Wisconsin or Katie McGinty in Pennsylvania — nonetheless ran far ahead of Mrs. Clinton in traditionally Democratic, white working-class areas.

Mrs. Duckworth’s performance is probably the most telling. She won Illinois’s 12th Congressional District — a downstate, working-class district now held by Republican Mike Bost — by nine points. Mr. Trump won it by 12 points.

Cohn further notes that a significant portion of the “Republican” Obama-to-Trump voters saw little appeal in the GOP before the populist demagogue came onto the scene: A Pew Research Center study found that 18 percent of non-college-educated white votes who “leaned” Democratic in late December 2015 ended up identifying as Republican-leaning one year later. Which is to say: They switched parties only after the Republican Party nominated an idiosyncratic celebrity who promised to protect entitlements, deliver universal health care, pass a $1 trillion infrastructure stimulus, and restrict the freedom of corporations to move overseas.

In my view, Cohn’s analysis shows that Milbank is both right and wrong. On the first count: It makes little sense for the national Democratic Party to make winning over the typical Obama-to-Trump voter its guiding ambition. The Democrats are never going to be number one with whites who believe they are oppressed by racial minorities.

But Milbank is wrong to suggest that Democrats can comfortably ignore all Obama-to-Trump voters, and to imply that the only alternative to ignoring them would be to embrace “small government” conservatism.

Here’s the thing about non-college-educated white people in America: There’s a lot of them. And the design of our Constitutional system amplifies their clout — not just in the Electoral College, but also in the House and Senate.

The Democratic Party has no major problem at the presidential level. They’ve won the popular vote in six of the last seven elections, and lost the Electoral College in two of those by freakishly tight margins. Team Blue’s crisis is in the states, and there’s no way out of that crisis without winning more working-class white voters than they did during the Obama years. This will continue to be the case, even as America grows more diverse and urban: The structure of the Senate ensures that predominately white, rural states will continue to exert great political influence, no matter how absurdly unrepresentative (of the nation as a whole) their populations become.

To build sturdy Senate majorities — and liberate poor and nonwhite Red State residents from reactionary rule — Democrats are going to need to win over more non-woke white people. This should be possible, given how unpopular the GOP’s fiscal agenda is. In political scientist Lee Drutman’s analysis of the Voter Study Group data, most culturally conservative voters in 2016 espoused left-of-center views on economic policy. Just 26.5 percent of the entire electorate expressed broadly conservative positions on pocketbook issues.

If Team Blue is gonna try to add some economically liberal, cultural conservatives to its big tent, the ones who identified as Democrats — or Democratic-leaning independents — before 2016 seem like prime targets.

And, contra Milbank, health care may be a winning issue for Democrats with such voters. It’s true that 75 percent of Obama-Trump voters supported repealing the Affordable Care Act, according to CCES data. But Donald Trump — and most other Republicans — didn’t say that they wanted to replace Obamacare with a less generous, market-based program that would leave more people uninsured, because cutting taxes on the rich is more important than guaranteeing Americans affordable health care. Rather, they promised to deliver care that was cheaper, better, more “patient-centered,” and universally accessible than that which the Affordable Care Act had provided.

A recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll found that only 10 percent of Republicans wanted the GOP to replace Obamacare with a program that “does less.” And yet, every health-care plan Trump & Co. have pushed over the past six months would have done exactly that. The public is broadly aware of this, which is why Trumpcare has proven to be the least popular piece of major legislation in at least three decades.

Last month, a Vox/Survey Monkey poll found that one in seven Trump supporters feared that the GOP health-care bill would hurt them. These voters were, in the aggregate, poorer and less economically secure than the president’s other supporters. Critically, their fear of Trumpcare appeared to be alienating them from the president more broadly: Compared to other Trump backers, they were less confident in the president’s economic management, and more concerned about the Russia scandal and the administration’s alleged ethical violations.

Recent focus groups with Obama-to-Trump voters produced a similar finding: When these voters were informed that Trump was pushing a conventionally conservative Republican agenda, they became more skeptical about the authenticity of their populist champion.

Further, a growing body of evidence suggests that foregrounding the GOP’s grotesquely regressive plans for our health-care system would boost Democrats’ fortunes in a wide variety of 2018 districts. To take just one example: The first publicly released poll of New Jersey’s 11th district finds that longtime Republican incumbent Rodney Frelinghuysen’s support for Trumpcare (a.k.a. the American Health Care Act) has put his seat in jeopardy. As Farleigh Dickinson political scientist Dan Cassino writes:

In the modified voter list sample, Frelinghuysen is down nine points against an unnamed Democratic challenger, 37 to 46. That, in and of itself, is surprising for an incumbent who’s won every re-election bid by a wide margin.

What’s more surprising is the effect of his vote on healthcare. Embedded in the survey was an experiment: half of the respondents (412 respondents) were asked about their vote choice in next year’s election early in the survey, and the other half (398 respondents) were asked only after being asked Frelinghuysen’s AHCA vote. Respondents disapproved of his vote by a wide margin, 60 to 24, and while Frelinghuysen was down by 9 points among respondents who weren’t primed with his healthcare vote, the unnamed Democrat was up by 20 points, 50 to 30, among respondents who were asked about healthcare first. To put it simply, his vote on healthcare is costing him 11 points overall in the district, much of that among independents. In the baseline condition, independents favor him over the Democrat by 14; when primed with the AHCA vote, they prefer the Democrat by 15.

Democrats need to win more (non-woke) white people. Upon obtaining federal power, the Republican Party made cutting Medicaid to finance a tax cut for the rich its top legislative priority. The vast majority of Americans did not appreciate this.

Before Team Blue resigns itself to permanent irrelevance in rural America, it should try to make that last fact matter in 2018.

Trump Democrats Are Rare — But Electorally Important