As Donald Trump’s popularity with white working-class voters became vexingly apparent a year ago, the pro-labor organization Working America sent its canvassers out to have “front-porch conversations” with more than a thousand voters in Ohio and Pennsylvania. The AFO-CIO–affiliated group found trouble: Twenty-five percent of the Democrats they contacted said they would be voting for Trump. His appeal wasn’t about specific issues, Working America director Karen Nussbaum told me last year. “They have a strong feeling that government isn’t working for them, and they want political leadership that helps them. If we move them to clarify who’s really to blame and who really will help, we can help make sense of a frightening situation.”
Apparently, Democrats failed to do that. In the states Working America canvassed, a surprising number of white working-class voters who had backed Barack Obama chose Trump over Hillary Clinton, helping flip those states to the GOP. So after the election, Nussbaum’s team went back into the field, surveying over 2,300 voters in Ohio and Pennsylvania to make sense of what had happened. Their conclusion, provided exclusively to The Nation today: Many Trump voters “are as up for grabs [to Democrats] now as they were before the election,” Nussbaum said. That may be of little comfort, two days before the inauguration, but it should remind Democrats that the defection of some of their voters to Trump wasn’t a lasting shift based on policy but a bad choice these voters nonetheless perceived as best for them.
Working America’s post-election report resists a shrieking, clickbait headline. Like all of the group’s work, it’s the result of conversations, not polling, so extrapolating from its numbers can be hard. It’s also not trying to be a scientific, demographically correct sample. For example, it deliberately over-interviewed Democrats, as well as white voters, and included non-voters in its data. As a result, white voters in the survey favored Clinton over Trump 47-40 percent (with the rest either voting third party or staying home); nationwide, white voters backed Trump 58-37. Voters of color in the survey backed Clinton 75-10, which was closer to the national result. A disturbing 11 percent of voters of color the group surveyed didn’t vote at all, compared with 6 percent of white voters. Among the Trump voters, there were some “lock her up” diehards, Nussbaum said. But most of them “wanted to talk with us, they’re still searching.” One-third of the folks they canvassed decided to join Working America, an openly pro-labor progressive organization—and of those, one out of five voted for Trump.
“None of us won,” a 50-something white male Trump voter on Cleveland’s west side told veteran organizer Soren Norris when he visited him after the election. “I had teased him, ‘Well, your guy won, I’m the one who should be dejected here,” Norris told me. That “none of us won” answer “echoed a theme I heard from a lot of Trump voters,” Norris said. Back in July, I followed Norris around Brooklyn, Ohio, just outside of Cleveland, to talk to white working-class voters there. Six months later, we reconnected by phone, and he shared some of what he heard after the election. It was confusing, he admitted.