There’s an elephant in the Republican Party’s midterm room. Discussion about how to close the yawning generic ballot gap has focused on building the wall, selling the tax cuts, and emphasizing how President Trump has delivered on judicial nominees and deregulation. All of these issues are of particular import to Republicans and the base. But so far almost all discussion has focused on how to attract the voters who put Trump in the White House to begin with, the disaffected Democrats and independents who switched from President Obama to Trump.
This remains puzzling. Trump got fewer votes than Romney in the major suburban areas of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Iowa, and Wisconsin, yet he carried all four states where Romney couldn’t even come close. Trump’s winning margins exceeded Romney’s by a minimum of 6 percent in five other states (North Dakota, Montana, Missouri, Indiana, and West Virginia) with incumbent Democratic senators up this year. It should be clear that the GOP’s majority and control of the presidency rest on the votes of white, blue-collar Democrats and independents. Yet no one talks about these voters as a distinct group to win over. They are presumed to be part of “the base.”
If that were true, President Romney would be nearly halfway through his second term. If that were true, the GOP would have won every presidential election between 1980 and 2008, losing only when the Great Recession threw millions of these voters out of work. If that were true, American politics for the past 30 years would be completely different.
The fact that this is not true, and yet the Republican Party leadership continues to act like it is, explains why the GOP continues to struggle to retain power whenever it achieves it.
I could throw poll data at you until you’re blue in the face to show that these voters value different things than do establishment, evangelical, or movement conservative Republicans. I summarized a lot of these data in the final chapter of my book, The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism. In short, these voters aren’t moved by culture wars in either direction; they value jobs and security equally with growth and over entrepreneurship; and they favor a robust but not adventurous foreign policy. They can live with the base of either party as long as their needs and wants are satisfied.
Republicans Ignore Trump’s Message at Their Peril
Trump demonstrated that connection with these voters in spades. He clearly is not a culture warrior, except to the extent that he provokes progressives to engage in culture wars of their own against these voters. He ran as a candidate of jobs over growth, and explicitly took entitlement reform off the table. Moreover his break with the Bush-McCain approach to foreign policy was music to these voters’ ears.
These approaches, not the GOP’s priorities, are what gave Trump victory and the GOP its unexpected chance to govern. Failing to understand that means these voters have less reason to turn out and less reason to vote Republican. This lack of comprehension puts both House and Senate control in jeopardy.
One can see this most clearly in the GOP’s approach to trade. Trump made renegotiating foreign trade deals a major part of his campaign. While the media focused on his immigration stances, Trump’s speeches made trade an equal focus. The evidence shows this helped him. Clear majorities of Republicans in the 2016 primary exit polls and in many other surveys since believe that free trade either has cost more jobs in America than it has brought or that expanded trade deals have been bad for America.
This is particularly true among these non-Republican blue-collar voters who have shown a yearning for trade restrictions since they turned to H. Ross Perot, who campaigned against the then-proposed NAFTA deal with Mexico, in 1992. Evidence from the special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District, where a Republican lost a seat in steel country that Trump had carried by 20 points, suggests that the GOP candidate could have won if he had just campaigned in support of the president’s trade policies. Yet there is no GOP voice today echoing Trump’s views.
Don’t Overlook Key Voters
Republican cluelessness is on display right now in the special election in Ohio’s 12th Congressional District. Trump is campaigning there on Saturday for Republican nominee Troy Balderson. Polls show that this district, which Trump won by 12 points, is now up for grabs. When you look at the seat, it’s not hard to see why.
Ohio-12 can be divided into two different areas. Sixty percent of the district is in the affluent suburbs of Columbus, the state capital. This area, like many similar areas, moved heavily away from Republicans in 2016, largely in reaction to Trump. Democrat Danny O’Connor comes from the largest part of this area and is benefiting from Democratic and moderate, anti-Trump Republican hatred for the president. These voters are going to the polls to vote against Trump come hell or high water.
The remaining part of the district, however, contain loads of non-Republican Trump supporters. Romney won four of the five counties in this area, but Trump won all five. Moreover, he improved upon Romney’s margins in each by between 15 and 29 percent. If Republicans energized these voters, they would more than offset the Democratic and moderate Republican anger from the suburbs and Balderson would be cruising to victory.
Instead, the National Republican Campaign Committee and the Congressional Leadership Fund have overlooked this key group. The ads they have run for Balderson don’t emphasize the issues or themes that Trump used to attract them in 2016. Instead, they have concentrated on vanilla topics like education spending or combating opioid abuse. As a result, polls show that Balderson’s support is nowhere near Trump’s level in the areas of the district that could deliver his majority.
Trump’s appearance is the Republicans’ last chance to target these voters. He should focus on them in his stump talk, expressly speaking directly to them and explaining why Balderson is the type of Republican they can support. The president could tweet about the race, not in the vague generalities of his pro-Balderson tweet on Thursday, but by specifically calling on Democrats and independents who backed Trump to back him again by backing Balderson. The president might note that “Dishonest Danny” says he won’t back Nancy Pelosi for Speaker of the House, but that when pressed on TV he said he would back whomever the Democratic majority voted for. Tweets like that might even make the evening news, as we know the media can never resist Trump starting a fight.
This might not happen by the election on Tuesday. But win or lose, Balderson’s close race should serve as a wakeup call to the Republican high command in Washington. If they can’t learn how to mobilize the blue-collar Democrats and independents who backed Trump, they will forfeit their best chance to gain seats in the Senate and offset inevitable House losses in the suburbs. And to do that, they have to understand what makes them tick. After all, if you’re not into them, don’t be surprised to discover that they’re just not that into you, either.
Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a think tank in Washington D.C. He is also an editor at UnHerd.com where he writes about populism and politics around the world. He is the co-author, with Dante Scala, of The Four Faces of the Republican Party (Palgrave, 2015) and is the author of The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism (HarperCollins, 2017).