Can Democrats Win Back Trump Voters—Without Compromising Their Soul?

Can Democrats Win Back Trump Voters—Without Compromising Their Soul?

Can Democrats Win Back Trump Voters—Without Compromising Their Soul?

Many analysts say Democrats need to score significant swing voter support to win in 2020. The question is whether they can do that without tilting to the center.


Jason Rochester met Cecilia Gonzalez in 2004, on her first day of work at a UPS depot in the Atlanta suburb of Roswell. He fell for her right away. “I liked her from Day 1—I thought she was beautiful,” he recalls. He wanted to date, but she wanted to remain friends. Part of the reason was that she had a secret: She was undocumented. She crossed the border from her native Mexico when she was 19 and had lived in the half-shadows for almost a decade. When a friend shared her secret with Rochester, he decided he liked her so much, it didn’t matter. They got married in 2007. Six years later, in 2013, they had a son named Ashton.

When Donald Trump railed against immigrant rapists, murderers, and gang members during the 2016 campaign, Rochester thought he was right. After all, who wants violent criminals of any origin in the country? Gonzalez wasn’t so sure. She worried about Trump. But her husband assured her that Trump wasn’t talking about people like her. She had never even gotten a traffic ticket.

A devout Christian, Rochester didn’t love Trump, with his countless infidelities and penchant for nasty insults. But he couldn’t bring himself to vote for Hillary Clinton; her stance on abortion was his bright red line. So in November 2016, he cast his vote for the man in the MAGA hat. “I had to go with the fact that my wife would be fine because she was not a bad person,” he says. “I was wrong.”

On January 9, 2018, Gonzalez found herself back in Juanacatlán, the village in central Mexico she had escaped years earlier. She wound up there after a check-in with Immigration and Customs Enforcement went horribly awry; in anticipation that the agency might move to deport her under the Trump administration’s increasingly anti-immigrant policies, her lawyer volunteered that she would deport herself. She will be unable to apply for reentry to the United States for a decade, at which point she may still be denied.

Rochester was shocked by what he saw in Juanacatlán when he visited his wife. “Dirt roads, no gas stations, no industry, hardly at all. No buses, no jobs,” he says. “Plus it was dangerous. People were being killed and disappearing. Family members coming up missing, neighbors getting shot.” While Gonzalez was stuck in Mexico, they learned that their son, now 6, had Wilms tumor, a rare form of kidney cancer.

“I would like a meeting with Trump,” Rochester says. “I want him to explain to my son why his mommy can’t ever come home.”

Three years after casting what he considered a “lesser of two evils” vote for Trump, Rochester says he would not vote for the president again. He’s disgusted by the detention camps at the southwestern border. “They’re children. It’s sickening that our country has stooped to this level,” he says. But he’s not electrified by the Democrats, either. “I would definitely not be opposed to voting for a Democrat, but as of now, the choices are not looking good,” he says. Rochester voted for Barack Obama in 2008 because he believed Obama would pass immigration reforms that would help people like his wife, but he opted not to vote for Obama again in 2012—he says he can’t remember whether he voted for Mitt Romney or sat out the election—because he thought Obama hadn’t delivered.

As a man who voted for the nation’s first black president and then, eight years later, pulled the lever for an anti-immigrant white supremacist—only to see his life upended by that very man—Rochester is an extreme example but not an altogether unusual one. Between 5 and 15 percent of the voting electorate, or as many as 9.2 million people (the estimates depend on the data sources, of which there are many), took a similarly puzzling path, voting for Obama in 2012, only to opt for Trump in 2016. Now, as the country hurtles toward the 2020 election, these voters have become both a news media fetish, endlessly interrogated about their electoral intentions, and a question mark at the center of the Democratic Party’s strategy: Can the Democrats win over these swing voters—people like Rochester who voted for Trump in 2016 but have become turned off by his behavior? Or is the Democrats’ best hope that these voters will simply sit out the election? Should the party play for their support, or is it better off focusing its energies elsewhere?

It’s a controversial question, one that touches not only on the Democrats’ 2020 electoral strategy but also, many argue, on the soul of the Democratic Party itself. To critics, the idea of spending precious electoral resources courting former Trump supporters is as flawed as it is absurd, a fundamentally backward-looking strategy that would require the party to cater to a constituency that is out of sync with core Democratic values. These voters, critics charge, are a lot like the Reagan Democrats of old—white men and women, often from the Rust Belt, who began defecting from the party in 1980—and while they may have legitimate grievances, they voted for a racist who was credibly accused of sexual assault. To spend time and capital courting them seems tantamount to flinging dirt in the face of the party’s base (most notably, people of color, progressives, and women) who are both loyal and, to judge by the results of the 2018 and ‘19 elections, fired up.

It’s also a cop-out, the same critics charge: In a country where nearly half of the electorate remains untapped and unengaged, why scrape and scramble for a few million fickle votes? And why scramble when the effort may well end in defeat? Rochester’s dad, who lost his daughter-in-law to Trump’s hard-line immigration policies, still plans to vote for the president on the basis of the economy. And polling suggests that that favorable view is not an outlier. Among Republicans, his approval ratings have hovered close to 90 percent for much of the past year, and it has never dipped below 77 percent since he took office. According to one analysis of Obama-Trump voters who voted in the 2018 election, three-quarters opted for the Republicans.

Despite all this, a dedicated flank of the Democratic Party continues to insist that there might be a way to bring Trump defectors back—and that it’s not only sensible but also essential to try. Many of those making the argument come from the party’s cautious center, and for them, the argument is as ideological as it is practical. These are the Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg advocates, the Mike Bloomberg boosters, and the Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders skeptics, who fear that the party’s shift to the left will be its political as well as its electoral demise. But there’s also a cadre of wonks and number crunchers who argue that Democrats would be foolish not to make a play for swing voters and, just as crucial, that the party doesn’t need to tack to the center to do so.

Swing voters, this group argues, are more diverse than the stereotypes would indicate; their backgrounds are varied, their politics idiosyncratic. And while a number of recent studies suggest that many of them lean Republican, they also reveal that a respectable portion hold views consistent with the most loyal Democrats’. As Sean McElwee, a cofounder of Data for Progress, and political scientist Brian F. Schaffner wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed, “On issues like gun control, health care and the environment, these voters look remarkably like the Democratic Party’s base.” They concluded, “These patterns show that Democrats can win back Obama-Trump voters by focusing on issues that also appeal to their base.”

More important, Schaffner told The Nation, Democrats have to try to win these voters back, and they have to do so for the same stubborn reason the two parties have long vied for this demographic: The country’s tangled electoral system makes it hard to win without them. It’s a lesson that Clinton learned the devastating way in 2016, when she won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College, and one that this year’s Democratic nominee would be foolish to ignore. “The Electoral College map is such that it seems like Democrats still probably need to win Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin,” Schaffner wrote in an e-mail to The Nation. “And in those states, it is less clear that mobilizing lower turnout groups is going to be sufficient. Thus, it may very well be that winning back some of those Obama-Trump voters is likely to pay particularly big dividends in the blue wall states.”

The Trump team knows this—just as they knew it in 2016, when the campaign harnessed the combined power of Big Data and social media to microtarget swing voters in critical states. Now the campaign is at it again, dumping millions of dollars into an aggressive online strategy, putting these voters into play whether Democrats like it or not.

All of which raises the same set of questions posed by Rochester’s tale of Trump support gone sour: Can the Democrats lure back enough voters like him to tip the Electoral College in their favor? And just as important, can they do this without compromising the party’s rising spirit of multiracial progressivism?

Political strategist and veteran democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg has been studying swing voters for decades. In 1985 he traveled to Macomb County, Michigan, to study a group of people that he would famously dub “Reagan Democrats,” and he has returned to the county periodically in the many years since. Last year, he turned his focus on the changing Democratic base and published a book, RIP GOP, arguing that demographic changes—the progressivism of young people and people of color—favor Democrats and doom Republicans in the long term. In the short term, he says, Democrats in 2020 can still reach voters who cast a ballot for Trump in 2016. “Democrats with a more progressive economic policy could reach some of these voters,” he tells The Nation.

Over the summer, Greenberg and his team ran a series of focus groups in rural parts of the country. They went to Bangor, Maine; Oak Creek, Wisconsin; and a rural area outside Las Vegas. Two-thirds of the participants voted for Trump in 2016, and all identified as independents or Republicans.

The Second Congressional District in Maine flipped from Obama to Trump in 2016. When Greenberg asked the Maine women how they felt about the state of the country, they were not optimistic. “Scared. Concerned. Hopeless,” they said. They have no plans, let alone hopes, for retirement. “Never,” said one woman. “It will never happen,” another concurred.

“Issues that matter to them: health care, prescription drug prices—these people are on the edge,” Greenberg says. “The income gains aren’t happening in their communities, so it’s alienating for all of them when Trump is talking about the great economy. Above all, they’re getting killed by drug prices, the pharmaceutical industry, the opioid crisis they see in their community.” They think corporations and the 1 percent are only concerned about profit, he adds. One woman described the pharmaceutical industry as “dead evil, evil.” Another called student loan debt “insane” and a “racket.”

“He’s part of the 1 percent—that concerns me,” one Maine woman said, referring to Trump. “Even though he gives his paycheck back to the US, he’s still part of the 1 percent.” Another woman chimed in, “He forgot about the forgotten Americans. Because if he was a voice, he’d be doing something about the drug epidemic. He’d be doing something about health care.”

Asked about the state of the country, women in Wisconsin echoed their counterparts in Maine. “Sad. Worried. Irritated. Disappointed,” were among their responses.

Greenberg was curious about how Trump’s attacks on “the Squad”—Democratic Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley—was viewed by the focus groups. His team found that white rural male voters didn’t really care about Trump’s attacks on the Squad. But they were a major turn-off for rural blue-collar white women, and that’s an important group of voters. In 2016, Trump expanded the GOP’s margins with them by 21 points.

Greenberg found that rural women didn’t approve of Trump’s personal style. “Since the election, everything Trump is doing is producing a counterreaction,” he says. One-third of the white working-class women interviewed by his team who voted for Trump said they’d consider voting for someone else this year. They thought Trump was impulsive and mean. A bully.

“What we found was, they shook their heads when they watched him on TV or in response to his tweets. He was actually driving them away. The biggest piece of it was, they found him divisive,” Greenberg says.

The president’s nasty tweets alarmed them. “I think from now on, maybe presidents shouldn’t be allowed on Twitter,” a woman in Bangor told Greenberg. Another woman fretted about Trump’s “mental status…. His tweets are the reason I just have no confidence in him,” she added. “I mean, he says one thing one day, he says something else the next. He contradicts himself. Doesn’t seem like he has a lot of common sense sometimes.”

Brooke Johnson Stanley lives in rural Wilkes County, North Carolina. She’s a young mother who is active in her local Baptist church. She works with Project Lazarus, a group that helps people in the community who are addicted to opioids, as she was once herself. A lifelong conservative, she voted for Trump in 2016 because she says it’s her civic duty to vote in every election and she couldn’t bring herself to vote for Clinton. Johnson Stanley was turned off by what she perceived to be Clinton’s dishonesty. Johnson Stanley says Clinton flip-flopped too much, depending on her audience. She just didn’t like her. “At the risk of sounding foolish, there is just something about her manner, her voice, her attitude, and that smirk of hers that just drove me nuts,” Johnson Stanley tells The Nation. “He was the lesser of two evils. I disliked him greatly too, but I disliked her more.”

An Obama fan and voter, Johnson Stanley says she wants the country to succeed. After three years of Trump’s antics, she says she is considering not voting for him again. “Trump has this lack of moral compass. It almost overshadows even some of the politics I agree with him on,” she says. “There’s such a division. He just fans the flames. I can’t understand why somebody can’t take his Twitter away. It embarrasses me.”

The challenge for Johnson Stanley and the Democrats who might want to woo her is that she is generally unenthusiastic about the Democratic field of candidates and is turned off by the party’s push for impeachment. Her favorite 2020 contender is Andrew Yang, who she says is “authentic, likable, just genuine.” She also likes Buttigieg, although she’s “not sure he’s ready.” But she is not a fan of the Democratic front-runners. Warren and Sanders are “too liberal,” while Biden is “a stereotypical politician.”

Still, she acknowledges, he’s “better as a person than Trump.”

That tiny affirmation may not count as a ringing endorsement, but it could presage a larger shift among voters like her. Joe Ferullo, who worked as a CBS programming executive from 2006 to 2019 and now writes a politics column for The Hill, believes enough women share Johnson Stanley’s desire for a return to normality that it could be an advantage for the Democrats this year. He was at CBS in 2017 when the network commissioned a study of 3,000 women ages 25 to 54. It wasn’t a political poll; instead, the survey asked how they felt about their lives. The most common sentiment, Ferullo says, was “I need a sanity break—life feels out of control.”

The current political scene hardly inspires confidence or a sense of stability, exacerbating the stress of financial insecurity. “The last 10 years have been tough, ever since the Great Recession,” Ferullo continues. “The economy is changing under their feet—especially working-class women. Maybe 10 years ago, they or their husbands lost a job. Now a lot of them are involved in the gig economy. Then you throw a few years of Trump on top of that? Life just seemed a little crazy to them.”

In 2016 voters wanted dramatic change—to blow things up, Ferullo says. But now they might be ready for things to go back to normal.

If Greenberg’s and Ferullo’s findings hold true, the dual stressors of economic fear and political chaos might steer some swing voters away from Trump in 2020. But there’s a serious snag. Some of his most atrocious policies—like his war on immigrants—have broad support among the people who helped sweep him into office, even if they don’t love his Twitter feed.

From March to October of last year, the Swing Voter Project led a series of focus groups composed of so-called persuadable voters, who voted for one major party’s candidate in 2012, then for the other party’s nominee in 2016. In other words, from Romney to Clinton or Obama to Trump.

Rich Thau, the president and a cofounder of Engagious, which spearheads the Swing Voter Project, tells The Nation that there are different types of persuadable voters. “One is change voters—they like to change things up. Maybe they voted for [George W.] Bush, got sick of him…. Obama promised change, so they voted Obama, but then soured on him. Then they’ll say something like ‘Hillary Clinton was more of the same, so we voted Trump.’ They don’t necessarily have ideological consistency. They fall in love, fall out of love.”

Another category consists of people who are open to Democrats but didn’t like Clinton. “That’s where you see an Obama vote and then an anti-Hillary vote,” Thau says. Their thoughts on Clinton reveal why she was so vulnerable to a challenge from a crude TV personality. One man who participated in a focus group in Appleton, Wisconsin, and who previously voted for Democrats because labor issues are important to him, said he had doubts about whether “she could be trusted or not.” Another man, who also had doubts about Clinton’s trustworthiness, said, “She’s just a not good person. That’s my opinion.” (While they didn’t explicitly refer to Clinton’s gender, the idea that Clinton’s “badness” made them vote for Trump suggests a far different standard of behavior for the female candidate.)

Most participants are not news junkies or even regular Fox News watchers. They tend not to follow politics closely and get most of their information from Facebook, friends, coworkers, family members, or their local news outlets. Thau asks me if I follow hockey, and when I say no, he points out that my limited knowledge of the sport (“There’s a Stanley Cup?”) is more or less the level of information his focus groups have about politics.

Asked what state Biden is from, one group sat in awkward silence until an older white woman tentatively answered, “Minnesota, maybe?” They don’t read The New York Times—which has published a series of stories about Trump’s financial disasters through the years—so many buy into his narrative that he’s a successful businessman and therefore a good steward of the economy.

Still, Thau’s findings align with Greenberg’s conclusion that a Democrat could reach people who are struggling. Enthusiasm for Trump has lagged in areas suffering from economic instability. “The state of the economy where we did focus groups, it matters. In Bowling Green, Ohio—it’s not a booming place—you had the greatest dissatisfaction with the economy and with Trump,” Thau says.

But he warns that a majority of persuadable voters want to give Trump a second term. A Democrat must be able to tie pocketbook worries to Trump’s policies while rebutting his inevitable fusillade of attacks, such as the idea in 2016 that “Crooked Hillary” was not to be trusted.

Like Greenberg, Thau found that Trump’s conduct was a turnoff. Voters in a focus group in Ohio were nostalgic for Obama because of his comportment. Several cast their vote hoping that Trump would change once he got into office. At a July 8 focus group in Macomb County—home of Greenberg’s original Reagan Democrats—​four out of 12 focus group participants said they’d vote for Obama over Trump. Another woman in the focus group said she missed Obama because he created a sense of the “normal.” But she added that she’d probably vote for Trump again, since the current crop of Democratic candidates wasn’t doing anything for her.

“There’s no silver bullet to pull people away from Trump,” Thau points out. On the issue of immigration—where progressives have found Trump the most inhumane—people who voted for him in 2016 mostly seem to love him for this hard-line policy. “They think it’s the greatest thing ever,” Thau says. “For them, what the president’s doing is exactly why they voted for him. They want the wall built. They want the foreigners kept out.”

When Thau asked the focus group what should be done about “all those people coming to the border,” their response was clear. “Send them home,” they said.

Forty-year-old Alejandra Juarez was deported from her home in Florida to Mexico in 2018, thanks to Trump’s increasingly fierce anti-immigrant policies. Like Cecilia Gonzalez’s husband, Juarez’s husband voted for Trump in 2016.

“In two days, it’ll be a year since I got here,” Juarez tells The Nation, speaking by phone from her new home in the Yucatán Peninsula. “When the new president took over and he came up with his new law, zero tolerance… that’s how people like myself became a priority where we weren’t before,” she says. “Still hurts like yesterday.”

Juarez fled her home in Mexico when she was 18, making her way to Florida, where she eventually met her husband, Cuauhtemoc “Temo” Juarez. He was a Marine. He was deployed three times, including a 13-month stint in Iraq. He became a US citizen only days before he served in the Iraq War. Almost two decades later, when they learned that she was going to be deported, they were shocked. Trump promised to go after criminals, not the spouses of US military vets. “Oh, my gosh, I wish he’d have said, ‘I’m going to deport anyone,’” Alejandra Juarez says. “Then we would have saw it coming…. My husband would not have voted for him. He said he’d deport criminals. And no one wants rapists in the country. But… I feel like [Trump] lied. He brainwashed people.”

I ask her husband if he regrets voting for Trump. “Regret” isn’t quite the right word, Temo Juarez replies, but then he can’t land on a different word. Right now, he considers himself undecided in 2020. As a lifelong Republican, he says he doesn’t know if he can vote for any of the Democrats who are running. “I may just hold my vote,” he says. He and his wife try not to discuss politics.

If Donald Trump had your wife deported but you can’t stomach voting for one of the many Democrats vying to oust him, it seems there’s little hope for the Democrats to make headway with 2016 Trump voters. Perhaps the best progressives can hope for is that these disenchanted Trump voters stay home in 2020, as Juarez suggests he might.

And yet that may be too pessimistic a read of the situation. (It’s also an unconscionably cynical approach for a party that claims to be on the side of inclusion and enfranchisement.) While the Juarezes’ case demonstrates the hurdles Democrats face persuading some swing voters to come back into the fold, it also hints at Trump’s weakness going into this election year—namely the gulf between what he promised as a candidate and what he has delivered as president.

Both Jason Rochester and Temo Juarez say they thought that, if elected, Trump would deport only violent criminals. Instead he deported their perfectly nice wives. Their cases are extreme, but a similar dynamic plays out across a range of issues. Candidate Trump blew up the uninspiring Republican establishment in the primaries. President Trump seems to come close to blowing up the world several times a day. As a candidate, Trump made a somewhat compelling case about the negative impact of trade policies, leaving Clinton in the unenviable position of being linked to NAFTA. As president, Trump has not done much to preserve working-class jobs. Nor has he crafted a reasonable alternative to the Affordable Care Act. What will his strategy be if, say, Sanders—who arguably has a legitimate claim to authentic economic populism—asks Trump what happened to his promise of health “insurance for everybody”?

This vulnerability appears particularly pronounced with female swing voters and tracks closely with what we saw in the 2018 and 2019 elections. Tired of the drama and feeling economically pinched, women showed up to vote for Democratic candidates with overwhelming determination. And they may well do so again.

What this suggests is that there could be an opening for the right candidate delivering the right kind of message. The Democratic establishment seems frightened that nominating a progressive candidate will turn off swing voters, prompting the late entries of Bloomberg and Deval Patrick into the race. But focus groups suggest that one of Trump’s biggest weaknesses going into 2020 is his failure to deliver on a truly populist policy. A Democrat should be able to make the case that a true progressive platform would benefit many voters, from blue-collar workers to rural white women to young people of color. And it doesn’t require choosing a centrist candidate like Biden. Democrats could tap into Trump fatigue while broadcasting the message that he has failed to deliver on health care, well-paid jobs, or the opioid epidemic. They can expose the faux populism that propelled his campaign as a sham and offer a progressive alternative.

There’s no surefire way to know what these voters will do on November 3. Electoral experts who project the outcome with confidence are likely to repeat the mistakes of 2016. And given how uncertain swing voters are, ramping up the base, reenfranchising purged voters, and engaging those who have long been tuned out is essential.

The primary field will start to thin, especially after the Iowa caucuses. At that point, any candidate who comports himself or herself with more dignity than Trump (which shouldn’t be that hard) and offers a vision that addresses bread-and-butter issues will likely have the best shot at reaching swing voters without betraying the progressive trends that doom the Republican Party in the long term.

“There’s a possibility that we might see in this campaign, depending on who the Democrat is, a left-focused populism against a more Trumpian right-focused populism,” Thau says. “It could be a duel between which flavor of populism people like better.”

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