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Opinion How to change hearts and minds in ‘Trump country’

The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll finds:

… residents of 438 counties that either flipped from voting Democratic in the 2012 presidential election to Republican in 2016, or saw a significant surge for [President] Trump last year, found that a third — 32 percent — believe the country is better off now than it was before Trump became president.
But a plurality — 41 percent — say the country is worse off now than it was when Trump became commander in chief. An additional 26 percent say the state of the nation has remained about the same.
And overall, slightly more than half — 53 percent — say they do not think Trump has a clear agenda on how to address the major issues facing the country.

These voters sound like non-Republicans in the country at large “when it comes to improving America’s image around the world (41 percent satisfied, 57 percent dissatisfied), helping to unite the country (38 percent satisfied, 60 percent dissatisfied), improving race relations (37 percent satisfied, 59 percent dissatisfied) and improving the health care system (37 percent satisfied, 59 percent dissatisfied).”

This raises several questions.

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If Trump voters in “Trump country” are souring, why do the national polls show very little if any erosion in support among Republicans? It’s hard to tell without understanding the “Trump country” share of the electorate. The erosion of support in the counties that flipped or surged in Trump’s favor does however open up another possibility that we’ve pondered: Perhaps many of the self-identified Republicans in 2016, especially in Trump country, now aren’t self-identifying as Republicans. Trump has lost these voters and shrunk the GOP, which now consists of the most ferocious Trump defenders. Put differently, a voter who cast a ballot for Barack Obama in 2012 (or did not vote in 2012) but came out for Trump in 2016 now may show up as a dissatisfied Trump voter — and identify as an independent or Democrat.

In addition, the poll casts doubt on the argument that Trump voters are unmovable and immune to facts. Whether they believe mainstream media or not, they can see for themselves that things are, to put it mildly, not on a sane, positive track. They see and hear the president’s statements and can see the puny legislative results. Critics of Trump should be patient and persistent in exposing the president’s debacles; voters really are listening and watching. Highlighting the adverse effect of Trump’s policies on these voters may not be a futile exercise.

President Trump's troubles have only just begun with the charges facing former campaign advisers Paul Manafort, Rick Gates and George Papadopoulos. (Video: Adriana Usero, Kate Woodsome/The Washington Post)

Moreover, as the new CNN poll shows, the Russia investigation may in fact be taking its toll on “soft” Trump voters. As special counsel Robert S. Mueller III proceeds, these voters — 55 percent of whom do not consider Trump “honest and truthful” may be inclined to side with Mueller rather than the president.

The poll also gives some insight into how Hillary Clinton lost. She is loathed in these counties that flipped or surged. Forty-seven percent have a very negative view toward her; overall, 60 percent do. A putrid 23 percent have a favorable view of her.  We should not forget that Trump’s demonization of Clinton worked — which is why he still falls back on his anti-Clinton venom as his own performance falters. Voters might not regret their vote — because they so loathe Clinton — but that doesn’t mean they are loyal to Trump.

Finally, the lesson here for House members and senators who represent Trump country is not to follow Trump blindly, but to stay close to constituents, stay true to an agenda that helps middle- and working-class voters, and refuse to enable or encourage Trump’s bombast and recklessness on the international stage. For example, two Trump country states — Iowa and Minnesota — have high state-income tax rates (8.98 and 9.85 percent, respectively). For Iowa and Minnesota senators and representatives, fighting to preserve the state and local tax deduction makes sense, although that means opposing Trump.

The good news for Democrats is that these voters are not permanently lost to Trump and the GOP. The warning however is that they better find a candidate in 2020 who is a heck of a lot more appealing than Clinton was.