I recently spent some time with Joel, a friend from Oregon who had voted for Barack Obama twice. He said that he had not supported Trump in the 2016 election, but could understand why many people had. Portland had been a thriving port, but the decline of the timber industry had led to an economic slump in the region. Plans to revitalize the area with a natural gas shipping facility languished under President Obama and would presumably continue to do so under Hillary Clinton. In the end, he didn’t vote at all.
Joel and others like him are the subject of an internal study by the Priorities USA PAC detailed in the Washington Post. What they found hearkens back to the Bill Clinton’s basic rule: “It’s the economy, stupid.”
The study focused on voters that switched from Obama to Trump as well as “drop off” voters like Joel who stayed home. The polling found that Obama-Trump voters were largely working-class whites who were skeptical of Democrat economic ideas. Drop off voters were largely anti-Trump, but not swayed by the message of the Clinton Democrats. Many drop off voters were in “communities of color” while “struggling exurban families” often pulled the lever for Trump.
Other findings about the Obama-Trump voters include:
- 50 percent said their incomes were falling behind the cost of living
- Another 30 percent said that their incomes merely kept pace with cost-of-living increases
- 42 percent said that Democrat economic policies favor the wealthy vs. only 21 percent who thought Trump’s policies favored the wealthy
- 30 percent said that their vote was a vote against Clinton rather than for Trump
When a focus group was asked what the Democratic Party stood for, Obama-Trump voters answers showed that the Democrats have lost touch with blue-collar voters. Focus group members answered the question with phrases like “The one percent,” “The status quo” and “They’re for the party. Themselves and the party.” Many voters see the Democrats as representing the elite and the establishment after two terms of Barack Obama.
Some of the problems result from Clinton’s unlikability, but Guy Cecil, chairman of Priorities USA said the problems go deeper. Since many of the problems are linked to Democrat policies and their effectiveness over the past eight years, the problem is much more difficult to resolve that just finding a more charismatic candidate.
Blue collar voters put their faith in Obama and were rewarded with a lackluster economy and diminished purchasing power. When faced with more of the same from Democrat presidential and congressional candidates, they voted for Donald Trump, the current candidate of hope and change. While the study doesn’t address other potential Republican candidates, it seems likely that Clinton would have had the same or worse problems against other Republicans with fewer negatives than Trump.
With much of the modern Democrat strategy emphasizing identity politics and knee-jerk “resistance” to Donald Trump, the party is currently ill-prepared to mount a comeback. Cecil’s first solution is to attack traditional liberal bogeymen such as Wall Street, pharmaceutical companies and for-profit colleges.
His second solution is more substantive. “The second part of the argument must include a real, forward-looking economic plan that does more than rehash the same four policy proposals from the last 20 years,” he says. “How do we deal with automation and huge company mergers? What do we do to address opportunity deserts in rural and urban areas where real investment is almost impossible to find?”
The lesson in the study for Republicans is that parties that promise recovery and prosperity need to implement policies that can deliver. There is a window to win traditionally Democrat blue-collar voters to the GOP as Ronald Reagan did with the Reagan Democrats in the 1980s, but it may close quickly if President Trump and congressional Republicans prove themselves incapable of governing and forging bipartisan alliances to advance their agenda.
A rule of politics is that voters vote with their wallets. 2016 was no different. 2018 won’t be either.