When Donald Trump won the election in 2016, it was not because he turned out the Republican base. Although important, that was not enough to sweep him to victory. This is illustrated by the fact that Mr. Trump lost the popular vote. What made the difference was that Trump was able to win just enough Obama voters in the right places – Florida, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania – to eke out an Electoral College win. The question for 2018 and beyond is whether Trump can retain his hold on these voters or whether Democrats will be able to woo them back.
Elections are normally won by the voters who care least about them. Even though political parties often focus on turning out the base, neither party has a majority of voters. Even including “leaners,” the most recent Gallup polling shows Republicans at 39 percent and Democrats at 49 percent. Although the percentages vary by state, the dominant party in every state must win some independent voters to carry the election.
It’s difficult for political junkies to believe, but many of these independent voters are not even thinking about the upcoming election yet. In a New York Times piece today that interviewed people who voted for both Obama and Trump, one of the scariest quotes to the politically tuned-in comes from 28-year-old Sharla Baker of Ohio.
“Honestly, it hasn’t crossed my mind really at all,” Ms. Baker said, when asked about the upcoming midterm elections, which are just six months away.
What Ms. Baker is telling us is that the crucial demographic that decides most races, the late-deciding independent voter, has not even begun to think about who they will vote for. These voters can be swayed by late-breaking “October surprises,” flashy ad campaigns and the roll-of-the-dice that is the daily news cycle in 2018. Any polling at this point should be taken with a grain of salt and an eye toward the percentage of undecided voters.
The 38 voters in 14 states interviewed by the Times is not large enough to form a statistically valid sample, but their comments do provide insights. The group almost uniformly did not like Mr. Trump as a person, but many did like his policies. In particular, tax reform and attempts at curbing illegal immigration were popular.
“Only a few regretted their vote,” the Times notes in a sentence that must fill Democrats with foreboding.
The voters said that they still liked Obama, but did not want to vote for Hillary Clinton. In fact, many voted for Donald Trump for the same reason that they voted for Barack Obama: A desire for change.
Charlotte Griffin, of Bear Grass, N.C., said that Trump was the first Republican she had voted for in 50 years. Her vote was based on anger at both political parties and frustration at the government’s inability to get things done.
“Did I really like Trump? No. I still don’t,” Ms. Griffin said. “But at least I thought we might move. We were in a stalemate. We were at dead center zero. We were just sitting there spinning our wheels.”
She added that Trump’s behavior is “severely testing my sensibilities.”
Sharla Baker was disappointed that Mr. Trump had not raised the minimum wage and forced companies to expand employee benefits. “He’s not there for the poor and the middle class,” she said. “I thought he would be, but he’s not.”
Brad Ziegler, a 68-year-old retiree from Warren County, Ill., regrets his vote for Trump, who he says he thought would be “contained” by his advisors. Ziegler, who seems representative of the middle-of-the-road voters who feel alienated by President Trump, is open to voting for Democrats, but complains that the opposition party has moved too far left.
“The Republicans are about money and big business and the Democrats have lost their way,” he said. “They are not taking care of that core group they know is out there.”
Some of the voters say they intend to vote Democrat this fall while others plan to cast their ballot for a Republican. Most are undecided.
Many Trump voters are open to Democratic candidates and, while they don’t like Donald Trump on a personal level, do like the extra money from the tax reform that he signed. While President Trump’s character isn’t going to be enough to push these voters into the arms of the Democrats on its own, it does provide Democrats with an opening. Republicans who claim that voters don’t care about Trump’s erratic behavior are wrong, but voters may look past Trump’s foibles to consider the Republican record of accomplishment.
Democrats need a positive and not-too-radical agenda to pair with President Trump’s unpopularity. For their part, Republicans have a record to stand on that includes more money in people’s paychecks, but must balance loyalty to the president in the primary with distancing themselves from his behavior in November.
President Trump remains unpopular outside the GOP, but his unpopularity may not be enough to win back Democrat Trump voters. The Democrats are in danger of blowing what could be a monumental midterm election by assuming that dislike of Trump is akin to embracing far left political positions. It isn’t.
Where Democrats have succeeded in special elections is where they have run competent candidates with moderate political views. Conor Lamb, the Democrat who won in a red Pennsylvania House district, disavowed the unpopular and extreme Nancy Pelosi and did not throw mud at President Trump. A successful national strategy could include working with Republicans on popular reform bills, but also holding Trump accountable for bad behavior, something most Republicans have been hesitant to do.
Congressional elections and presidential elections are different, but the 2016 status quo would favor Democrats by default. Since Donald Trump won with a minority of the popular vote, Democrats need fewer gains than Republicans to win the next elections. This is a goal that could be accomplished simply not running Hillary Clinton.
In contrast, barring a repeat of Trump’s unlikely Electoral College victory, Republicans need to flip more voters than the Democrats do. There is little evidence that is happening.
The midterms are currently shaping up into yet another election in which voters without a political home will have to decide which party they dislike less. It frequently seems that both parties are doing their best to push voters in the opposite direction. Considering the up-and-down news cycle of 2018, the unpopularity contest may go down to the wire.
[Photo credit: Michael Vadon/Flickr]