The Cultural Chasm Hurts Democrats With Trump Supporters

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Millennials Aren’t Saving The Democratic Party

Still smarting over a humbling defeat in 2016 and a daunting Congressional map in 2018 the party is looking forward to 2020.  Specifically, because of President Trump’s persistent weakness with Millennials and their potent growth they are poised to offer the party a pathway forward to power.

Writing in the Atlantic, Ronald Brownstein lays out the basic Democratic premise.  By 2020, the share of the electorate represented by Millennials is expected to eclipse Boomers.  They continue to oppose Trump at higher rates than other generations of voters and Democrats hope Trump makes the GOP irreversibly racist in their eyes.

But, this analysis (Democrats, not Brownstein’s), is overly simplistic at best and devoid of data at worst. Consider, that in 2000 Bush and Gore split the youth vote.  A mere four years later Kerry won them by nine and Obama carried them by a massive 36 and 30 point margins.  Trump lost Millennials by a small margin than Romney.  Not necessarily an indication of an increasingly liberal bloc.

Of course, not all Millennials are the same.  Trump did not need to do better with all Millennials.  Just certain Millennials.  For comparison, Romney and Obama actually ran close to even among college educated white Millennials.  But among blue-collar Millennials Romney won by 10.  Now flip the script and Hillary ran circles around Trump with white, college educated Millennials.  But Trump won blue-collar Millennials in the right states by massive margins.

Take a look at some of Brownstein’s analysis.  “Exit polls found Trump reduced the GOP deficit among those younger voters compared with Romney in 2012 in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, and he actually carried voters under 30 in Iowa. In all of those states except Michigan, Clinton’s vote share among those younger than 30 fell by double digits compared with Obama’s, while Trump improved by 7 to 9 percentage points over Romney. Trump also significantly improved over Romney among young people in New Hampshire and Maine, two mostly white states. Even in the coastal and Sunbelt states where Trump’s vote share among young people was either stagnant or slightly below Romney’s, Clinton’s numbers usually lagged Obama’s, sometimes significantly, as more Millennials drifted away to the third-party options.”

Further complicating Democratic hopes, the share of college educated Millennials in many of the swing states heading into the 2020 election are unlikely to change by a significant percentage.  Sure, Democrats might find somebody better able to appeal to them but odds are good that will turn off their college educated base.  Everything in politics involves a trade-off.

Just look at how the baby boomer vote has shifted over the years.  In 2000, Bush and Gore deadlocked.  But in every election since they have become increasingly Republican.  Unlike Millennials, Boomers also vote far above their actual demographic numbers.  Millennials, not to much.

Democrats would counter Millennials might even turn Georgia or Arizona, perhaps Texas, in four years.  But if they could not pull it this year when every dirty secret about Trump was aired, what are the chances it will happen in 2020?  If nothing else, no higher.

In 2016, Clinton put a massive amount of importance on their votes.  She had reason according to the polls.  Again, according to Brownstein, “In one survey for the liberal groups Project New America and NextGen Climate, which looked solely at Millennials across 11 battleground states, three-fourths of them described him as a racist; roughly an equal number said he was biased against women; and almost 70 percent said they would be “ashamed” for the country if he won.” Yet, on Election Day, Clinton only won 55 percent of their votes.

A common theory batted around about this is that these voters were drawn third party candidates because of James Comey.  But the only exit poll to ask third party supporters who they would vote for if it was Trump or Clinton found a massive 55 percent would not even show up.

Further presenting problems for Democrats in the run-up to the midterms is Millennials have horrible turnout in midterms.  In 2010 and 2014 turnout dropped precipitously from the prior Presidential elections.

It is also unclear how late generation Millennials and the up and coming Social Media generation will shape the path of the youth vote.  John Sides notes that generations of voters tend to lean more towards the opposite party than the one of the President they grew up under. Worse, while the youngest voters are the most diverse they also seem to behave the most conservatively on fiscal issues.

Predicting long-term is a horrible business in politics.  But, we do know Millennial turnout is likely to drop next year.  Even if it it increases massively in 2020 the Presidential map will likely be fought on turf more favorable to the GOP than not.  Whether Millennials can, and will, help Democrats beyond that is the question.

My word of advice for the party.  Don’t put all your eggs in that basket.  Just ask how that turned out for Hillary Clinton.