Focus groups, a dime a dozen are often used as self-fulfilling prophecies, with practitioners cherry picking facts and the data to fit their preconceived notions. Still, it is useful to pay attention to them from time to time. One recent study, from Democratic pollster Stanley Greenburg, stands out.
Greenburg, an icon in partisan polling circles, interviewed 35 Independent and Democratic voters from Macomb County, Michigan. All supported Trump. All these voters are considered swing voters and all showed consistent loyalty to Trump throughout the focus group even as Greenburg concluded his report by saying Democrats could win over these voters by pivoting leftward on economic issues.
The report should be required reading for Democrats seeking a path out of the political wilderness. For while the Democrats majority-minority, college educated,white female and upper suburbanite base is frothing at the mouth in anger at Trump, the party’s former backers are not. Yes, Democrats could make small gains with Trump supporters in the Midwest if they become more populist. But, the cultural disconnect between the party and Trump voters is so wide it is hard to see Democrats making the necessary compromises to win over this disaffected constituency and maintain their hold on their current support.
Now, despite Greenburg’s partisan leanings he does know what he is doing. He was the original pioneer of the idea of “Reagan Democrats” in the 1980’s when he conducted several studies on the county’s voters. For while these voters have always had Democratic leanings they have never been solid Democrats. Consider Obama won Michigan by 10 points in 2012 but he only won the county by four points. Still, this made Greenburg wonder whether the county’s blue collar roots still mattered. That was until last year when Trump won the county by a commanding 12 points and commanded a 50,000+ vote advantage that helped him carry the state.
Among some of the study’s most notable findings were 1) Trump’s base is extremely loyal, 2) culture matters, 3) Obamacare is still unpopular and 4) few of these voters are receptive to supporting Democrats. Let’s take each of these in turn.
1. Trump’s base is loyal: Not a single voter in the survey said they regretted voting for Trump. This, despite the President languishing with 40 percent approval ratings. Additionally, these voters liked his “bluntness,” “outspokenness,” and “honesty.” They further accepted Trump’s version of the news and facts and their reactions to videos of his press conferences and interviews reinforced the point, Greenburg wrote.
In the GOP’s quest to implement its agenda on America this loyalty matters. For example, the NY Times had a story out Sunday questioning whether the party could hold the blue-collar Midwest and repeal Obamacare. Except, many of these voters dislike the law (more on this in a second) and they trust the President. They see the benefits of healthcare as a result of Trump, not the former President, and they believe Trump will look out for their interests. Even if it means challenging Republican leaders in Congress.
2. It’s the culture, stupid: Greenburg believes the party can make gains with these voters on economics but read between the lines and it is clear even Greenburg believes this has limited pull with these voters. While these voters align with Democrats on several major issues (including entitlements and healthcare) on cultural issues they are miles apart. These Trump voters cited concerns about terrorism, immigration and lack of integration, worsening race relations and more. Such talk dominated the focus group, even among those who once backed Obama.
3. Obamacare’s newfound national popularity did not show in the focus group: Democrats are crowing about Obamacare’s newfound popularity, even among Trump/Obama supporters. One problem, it did not show in the focus group. Indeed, many participants in the survey shared horror stories about their health insurance as a consequence of Obamacare, citing personal examples of how the law was a hardship for them.
Citing the group, Greenburg writes, “early every person in our group was struggling with how to afford their plans, co-pays, and medications.” No concrete alternatives were discussed but they did show they had faith in Trump to fix the healthcare system and look out for their best interests.
4. The biggie, no one expressed receptivity to supporting Democrats: If Democrats want to regain control of Congress they are going to have to make gains in the Midwest and the focus group’s responses highlight the party’s struggle. Despite agreeing with general liberal policy preferences the group did not show much receptivity to supporting Democratic candidates.
Greenburg notes about two-thirds of the focus group supported a generic, populist Democrat more than a moderate, business friendly candidate who supports globalization. That’s great and all, but generic candidates do not win elected office. Actual candidates do. Greenburg puts a pitch in for progressive icons like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren who fit the populist profile. But, the focus group did not seem enthusiastic about either. Worse, the group showed little support for any other progressive icon on the horizon (including Joe Biden).
The study was commissioned by a progressive think-tank so it is little wonder Greenburg sprinkles in analysis with optimistic takeaways and pronouncements. Except, these voters gave no indication they were giving up on Trump anytime soon.
The study should stand as yet another warning for the party. Despite becoming more diverse and multi-cultural, the party has limited its electoral reach. By putting the blame of worsening race relations, a stagnant economy, wage inequality, intolerance, bigotry and more squarely on the shoulders of blue-collar whites they have bled their cultural connection to these voters.
Democrats for years have had warnings this was coming. All the way back in 1992, Bill Clinton recognized his party was out of step with these voters and took on the worse excesses of his party in a bid to redefine what a Democrat was. He was extremely successful, winning back Macomb County for his party in 1996. In subsequent elections, his party did not follow suit. Al Gore won the county narrowly in 2000 and George Bush took it in 2004 (thanks to John Kerry’s inept campaign). While the county backed Obama in 2008 and 2012, it did so only because Obama ran as a populist in the region, seeking to defend the average Joe from a Republican (Mitt Romney) that would ship their job overseas.
These voters were never really loyal to the Democratic Party even as they backed Obama. They backed Congressional Republicans up and down the ballot that year, in the prior midterm and the midterm after. Since Clinton, Democrats have been losing their appeal to these voters. Now, any cultural connection the party has with these voters is gone. That’s great news for Trump and Republicans. It is bad, bad news for a reeling Democratic Party.