The other day, I posed a question: If Democrats rack up big gains in the “blue wall” states in the industrial Midwest that Donald Trump cracked in 2016, as appears increasingly likely, is it really appropriate to call the region “Trump Country” anymore?
Journalist Thomas B. Edsall has now considered this question in much more detail and has collected valuable intelligence from strategists in both parties about it. This is a question that will have enormous importance for our politics going forward, because as Edsall notes: “The region was not only crucial to Trump’s victory, it has been crucial to continuing conservative control of both branches of Congress.”
First, let’s reiterate that Democratic gains in the region do appear very likely. Democrats seem poised to easily win Senate races in Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, three states that Trump won, the latter two shocking the political establishment. Democrats also appear well ahead in the gubernatorial race in Michigan, another state in which Trump pulled off a surprise victory.
The picture could end up looking a bit mixed, because the Ohio and Wisconsin gubernatorial races, which are both marquee contests with important long-term implications, are still pretty close. But overall, Democrats clearly appear poised for a much bigger rebound in the area than one might have expected, given Trump’s gains there, and given all the punditry we’ve seen that has ascribed to Trump a kind of mystical hold over the whole region.
What is happening here? Edsall talks to one Democratic strategist who says the key dynamic is that the so-called Obama-Trump voters, that is, people who voted for Barack Obama but then switched to Trump because of his outsider message and also perhaps because of distaste for Hillary Clinton, are coming back to the Democratic candidates. As the Democratic strategist put it, these voters “had mixed feelings about supporting the president,” and “not all of them were the die-hard Trump supporters some in the media like to report them to be.”
A Republican strategist concurred to a point, telling Edsall that many in the region who backed Trump were “nose-holders,” who “weren’t particularly fond of Trump, but liked Hillary a helluva lot less, so they voted for Trump.” This means they’re still in play for Democrats in 2018.
But here’s what is so puzzling about this diagnosis. Why would these Obama-Trump voters be souring on Trump? If you accept the basic diagnosis of Trump’s win that many have offered — by focusing on trade and jobs, Trump spoke to the region’s anxieties about the economy and globalization in a way Clinton and indeed many orthodox Republicans did not — then it is not clear why this would be happening.
After all, Trump just announced a big trade deal with Canada and Mexico, and he is boxing China about the ears in a separate trade war, and on top of that, the economy is doing extremely well. If the above diagnosis is correct, shouldn’t Trump be reaping tremendous political rewards for all this from those very voters?
It is of course possible that Republicans in the region are struggling precisely because they are not Trump. Indeed, many in the party did oppose Trump’s tariffs, and it is possible that these voters still see the GOP as the party of plutocracy and not as the party of the Trumpian economic populism that (at least according to the official pundit explanation of his win) drew these voters to Trump in 2016. Indeed, one Democratic strategist tells Edsall that even if Republicans do lose throughout the region this year, Trump still must be seen as formidable there in 2020.
But this explanation doesn’t quite add up either. After all, on many fronts — tax cuts for the rich, attacking the safety net — Trump fully threw his lot in with conventional GOP economic orthodoxy. Given that many Republican candidates are on the defensive over the Trump tax cut plan and the GOP effort to gut Obamacare, it is just as plausible that Republicans are struggling in the region, at least in part because both Trump and Republicans actually joined to sell out on many aspects of the supposed “economic populism” he ran on.
The bottom line, I think, is that if Democrats do win big in the Rust Belt, it will be time to reevaluate the official explanation for his win in the region. I don’t claim to have a better explanation — the best I’ve been able to do is argue that his win had many causes, and that sorting them out is impossibly complex — but neither the official one nor the one being offered by these strategists feels sufficient at this point.