After Richard Nixon won the 1972 Presidential election in a 49 state landslide, New Yorker film critic was flummoxed at how this could happen as none of her Manhattanite friends would vote for him. This possibly apocryphal episode illustrated how seaboard elites can be so out of touch with Middle America (sometimes flippantly labeled as “Fly Over Country”).
A similar cognitive dissonance has occurred at the election of President Donald Trump in 2016. Heading into election night, the 538 blog polling guru Nate Silver predicted that Hillary Clinton had a 72% chance of winning. Yet when election results were confirmed at 2:30 AM November 9th, Donald J. Trump gave a victory speech. While Mr. Trump won a huge 304 to 227 (with five disloyal electors), the margins of victory in five Rust Belt states were close. Had 56,000 voters not voted for Mr. Trump, then Bill Clinton would have returned to the White House as First Gentleman (sic).
To delve into how Donald Trump was able to confound conventional wisdom and assembled a new coalition which led him to the White House, Salena Zito and Brad Todd wrote “The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics” (2018 Crown Forum 309 pages). Salena Zito is a reporter from Pittsburgh but made made her mark during the campaign for the New York Post by traveling to these Midwest battleground states and interviewing prospective Trump voters to understand their attraction and enthusiasm for this first time populist candidate.
These oral histories are backed up by data from Brad Todd’s On Message Inc. polling unit. The metrics were particularly instructive in seeing how sentiments shifted in swing counties between 2008 and 2016.
The Great Revolt featured 21 interviews with voters from two key counties in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa. These interviews felt like an extended coffee talk at a diner with a trusted confidant. The Great Revolt broke down these voters into seven archetypes: 1) Red Blooded and Blue Collar 2) Perotistas 3) Rough Rebounders 4) Girl Gun Power 5) Rotary Reliables 6) King Cyrus Christians 7) Silent Suburban Moms. While they all chose to support Trump, their pathways were not straight and narrow and deserve careful consideration.
Over the past several elections, Democrats seemed to abandon salt of the earth blue collar erstwhile Democrats to favor demographically up and coming minority majorities and those new voters who might be culled from immigration. During the 2008 Democrat primaries, candidate Barack Obama derisively referred to rural Rust Belt voters as “bitter clingers to their guns and their Bibles”. Ironically, Ms. Clinton was trying to win their support for her first failed presidential run.
Yet in 2016, these same segment of voters were ignored by the Hillary! campaign as she declared that half of Trump supporters were a “Basket of Deplorables” which might serve as a caricature of this segment of voters which would be more sympathetically described as The Forgotten Man.
Hillary Clinton chose to ignore Wisconsin during the 2016 General Election campaign and made only a couple of trips to large population centers in Michigan, figuring that she had those votes already in the bag. Donald Trump campaigned hard in Rust Belt states in rural precincts and scraped together enough support to win the Wolverine State by about 8,000 votes (0.23%) and the Badger State by about 22,000 votes (0.77%).
Pundits have pontificated that Republicans face a demographic problem whereas Democrats have a geographic problem, as they continue to lose support in vast swaths of middle America. In 2016, Mrs. Clinton only won 526 counties compared to the over 1500 counties that her husband President Clinton won in 1992. What became obvious after election night 2016, racking up large victories in the popular vote does not necessarily win the White House. Both parties would learn from contemplating the shared psyches of these Trump voters if The Great Revolt was a one time populist phenomenon, if it can transfer unto other populist politicians and if it can be sustained after 2016.
A couple of these Great Revolt subgroups, such as Rotary Reliables and NRA inspired Girl Gun Power types are likely to continue to actively oppose progressive politics as it directly impacts their intrinsic interests. It is more dubious for other groups. In 2016, evangelical voters made a pragmatic decision to back Mr. Trump, who has a messy personal life and whose blithe brashness is an antithetical attitude, because they were concerned about the Supreme Court and pushing back against abortion. The outlook for Perotistas is unclear as their support seemed personality driven and may not be transferrable. The three women interviewed as Perotistas were superannuated, so one can surmise that their support will age out.
As much as the iconoclastic mainstream billionaire turned celebrity politician appealed to some segments of The Great Revolt voters, what became quite clear is how his opponent and the nature of the race also impacted the election. In some of the vignettes, the anti-Hillary! sentiment jumped off the page.
Many of the interviewees came from union families or those who served in the military would have been quite at ease in John F. Kennedy’s Democrat Party but who are red headed stepchildren in today’s Democrat Party. That being said, they probably would not have participated in politics or been motivated to vote GOP had Donald Trump not reached out and appealed to their sensibilities. They may not always agree with Mr. Trump and may recoil at some of his Tweets or stances but as Salena Zito nailed during the campaign, they know to take Trump seriously but not always literally (unlike the anti-Trump pack press).
Most of the coalition in The Great Revolt worried about their economic security and loss of their rural way of life, it did not seem like there was strong linkage to “Build the Wall” or immigration. While one union activist was strongly against NAFTA, much of the blue collar sentiments revolved around being forgotten by their erstwhile allies, the Democrats.
While the interviews in The Great Revolt were vivid, it would have been desirable if there was a bit more uniformity when describing the interlocutors. Not all of the portraits had demographic details or made it easy to discern the interviewees profession. There also seemed to be a disconnect between the prefatory analysis with the dialogues of the Trump voters. The authors rightly proposed that Mr. Trump’s social media instincts allowed him to circumvent curating by the mainstream media and directly reach his coalitions. Yet many of the interviewees contained in The Great Revolt wished that President Trump would tweet less.
That being said, surely Salena Zito and Brad Todd appreciated President Trump’s pre-publication post which extolled the virtues of The Great Revolt.
The case histories in The Great Revolt offer insightful context for the unexpected coalition which elected Donald Trump to the White House in 2016. But the archetypes portrayed in The Great Revolt may point to traits that could appear in other voter segments. Democrats have opted to appeal to progressive identity politics and rely on the brown wave of new voters in lieu of “The Forgotten Man” (rural, blue collar, union white males). A flaw with that strategy is that it relies upon banked voters, which since 1964 have been the bulk of black voters. The Great Revolt chronicles how slim segments of voters who feel neglected and come to the epiphany that their traditional party no longer represents their values can impact an election.
Recently, Kanye West said some favorable things towards President Trump. Perhaps that was a publicity stunt or an African American celebrity "talking out of turn" as Rep Maxine Waters (D-CA 43rd) claimed. But afterwards polling showed a doubling of his support among African Americans. Mr. Trump has been making explicit appeals for those voters.
It is conceivable that an upsurge in black labor participation and showing up to make the case may shift some attitudes, or mollify some of the bile against him. Conservative Black video bloggers Diamond and Silk have shown that elements of the Trump Administration agenda may have some appeal to fed up African American voters. Black represent about 13% of voters and in recent elections have voted about 95% for Democrats. If there is a 5% shift in that segment of reliable votes, Democrats’ election strategy may be in trouble.