In Jenna Johnson's magnum opus on Iowa voters and their feelings about President Trump a month into his tenure, there's a terrific quote that gets at both why Trump won and why he should be very worried about his reelection prospects. Here it is:
“I voted for the Supreme Court. I didn’t want to vote for Trump. With Trump, you just hold your nose.”
That quote came from Jim George, a retired county engineer who calls the town of Perry — just north and west of Des Moines — home.
It's an important window into the 2016 election and the relatively dim view even many Trump voters had — and have — toward him.
* 25 percent of voters said they voted for a candidate primarily because they disliked the other choice. Trump won that group of voters 50 percent to 39 percent. Among the 41 percent of the electorate who said they voted for a candidate because they strongly favored that candidate, Hillary Clinton won 53 percent to 41 percent.
* One in five people (21 percent) said the Supreme Court was the most important factor in their vote for president. Trump won that group 56 percent to 41 percent. He lost in every other subgroup that said the court was something less than their most important voting issue.
The first data point makes clear how much of this election was about people not liking either of their choices. Trump gets — and takes — most of the credit for running a populist campaign that turned out lower-middle-class white voters in states such as Michigan and Pennsylvania. But, a LOT of him winning those voters had to do with the fact that the other choice was Clinton. This was a binary-choice election. Many people didn't want choice A so they were left with Choice B. Period.
The second exit poll number suggests that Trump's best days — as I suggested during the campaign — were when he released his short and then longer lists of judges he would name potentially to fill the opening created by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. For Republicans who doubted Trump's conservatism or recoiled at his personal style and tone, the Supreme Court was the one thing that kept them coming back to him. He would, they thought, appoint a justice more in line with their views than Clinton would. In the campaign's final stages, Trump smartly argued that Republicans needed to vote for him even if they didn't like him because the court opening was that important. Enough did — barely.
In short: Jim George is far from alone. This was — for him and many like him — a “hold your nose” election.
The question for Trump now is how people like George will feel a few years from now.
On one hand, Trump's pick of Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court has won rave reviews from conservative circles, and even many Democrats have acknowledged that the judge has made a very good impression on the Senate and is likely to be confirmed.
On the other, Trump probably won't be running against Clinton in 2020. (I say “probably won't” because if the 2016 campaign taught me anything, it's never to say never.) And, outside of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), it's hard to see Democrats nominating any candidate who inspires the dislike and distrust that Clinton did among Republican and independent voters in November.
The fact is that Trump is going to have to win a second term on his own. And, although that race is still more than three years away, there's very little evidence that he's taking the right steps to make that happen.