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Opinion How Trump’s praise of Putin could cost him the election

Donald Trump speaks to the Polish American Congress in Chicago on Sept. 28. (Jewel Samad/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

Donald Trump likes to mock Hillary Clinton for speaking to small crowds. So what was Trump doing last week giving a surprise speech to just 100 people in Chicago, Illinois — a state he has zero chance of winning?

Answer: damage control.

Trump seems to finally realize that his bizarre embrace of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and questioning of the U.S. obligation to defend its NATO allies, has alienated a critical voting bloc he needs to win the White House — Americans of Eastern European descent. So last week, Trump took a break from criticizing a former Miss Universe to give a speech to the Polish American Congress — the nation's most prominent Polish American organization — where he lavished praise on Poland. The fact that Trump is reassuring Polish American leaders less than 40 days before a close election shows he is worried about losing this voting bloc — and with good reason.

Putin is despised by millions of Polish Americans, as well as Czech, Slovak, Ukrainian, Hungarian, Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian Americans, who either escaped to this country from behind the Iron Curtain or whose parents or grandparents did. These voters know what it is like to live in a police state. Thus, many were appalled when, at NBC's Commander-in-Chief Forum last month, Trump stated with apparent admiration how Putin "has very strong control over a country" and declared him "a leader, far more than our president has been." When host Matt Lauer pointed out that Putin "annexed Crimea, invaded Ukraine, supports Assad in Syria, supports Iran" and asked, "Do you want to be complimented by that former KGB officer?" Trump was unfazed. "I'll take the compliment, okay?" he replied, pointing out that Putin "does have an 82 percent approval rating."

Not with Americans of Eastern European heritage, he doesn’t. Trump’s gushing over the Russian autocrat could cost him on Election Day, when many of these voters decide they can’t cast their ballot for a man who loves a KGB-trained Russian dictator who is threatening their ancestral homelands.

On Sept. 7, during a town hall event hosted by MSNBC, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump claimed he would have “a good relationship” with Putin. (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

How many are there? According to the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey, there are some 5,583,223 Americans of Eastern European heritage. While not as large as other voting blocs, they are influential because they are concentrated in many of the key swing states that decide presidential elections.

Take Ohio, for example, where Trump leads Hillary Clinton by just two points — a statistical dead heat. Ohio has at least 865,204 Eastern European American voters, including 420,149 Polish-Americans, 183,593 Hungarian Americans, 118,975 Slovak Americans, and 40,742 Ukrainian Americans. These are the white, ethnic working-class Reagan Democrats whom Trump is expecting to carry him to victory in Ohio. In a tight race, he can't afford to lose any of these voters over his Putin bromance.

Or take Florida, where Trump trails Clinton by two points. In 2000, George W. Bush won the state by just 537 votes. Florida has 747,243 voters of Eastern European descent, most of whom are not happy with Trump's embrace of Putin. If 2016 is close, losing even a fraction of those voters could mean losing Florida — and the White House.

The story is the same in other battleground states. Pennsylvania (where Trump is trailing Clinton by two points) has 1,481,914 voters of East European descent. Wisconsin (where Trump is gaining but still trails by five points) has 666,194. Michigan (where Trump is trailing by five points) has 1,075,800.

What is baffling is why Trump has needlessly alienated Eastern European voters. Many are working-class Democrats who are his natural constituency and should be attracted to his protectionist message on trade. They came over to the GOP in the 1980s, inspired by Ronald Reagan's promise to defeat the "Evil Empire," and ever since, Republican candidates have worked to keep them in the GOP fold. There is a reason that, in July 2012, Mitt Romney chose to visit Poland just a few months before Election Day. He wanted to win the votes of 3,223,613 Polish Americans.

Trump, by contrast, has seemed intent on driving them into Hillary Clinton's waiting arms. This is especially maddening, because Clinton should be anathema to Americans of Eastern European descent. She was the mastermind behind the disastrous Russian "reset." It was on her watch that the Obama administration caved to Putin's demands that we cancel our missile defense agreement with Poland and the Czech Republic — and did it on the 70th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland. Instead of taking advantage of her vulnerability, Trump has been pushing these voters into the Democratic column. Now he has belatedly recognized that he needs them.

Introducing Trump in Chicago, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani tried to reassure the crowd that while Trump will push NATO allies to pay more, "that doesn't mean he doesn't understand his solemn obligation, which is, if any member of the NATO alliance, all 20 of them, if any one of them is attacked, we all come to each other's defense." Trump said none of this in his speech, nor did he back off his praise of Putin. He pledged that "a Trump administration will be a true friend to Poland" but quickly added, "We're going to be friendly to everybody."

Will that be enough to win over skeptical Eastern European Americans? If it isn’t, and Trump loses, we may find out that Russia did in fact influence the outcome of a presidential election — just not in the way most expected.

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Anne Applebaum: In Poland, a preview of what Trump could do to America

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