Missed opportunity?

I’ve been meaning to link to this Alec MacGillis take on white working class voters, for a while, but I didn’t just want it lost among 20 or so quick hits.  MacGillis really emphasizes the voters who voted for Obama in 2012, but not Clinton in 2016.  Surely, there are many reasons for that.  Could be that Obama is just a far more charismatic and compelling candidate,  but I certainly think the economic message was part of the story.

But there was a whole subset of the white working class Obama was still winning: voters in northern states where unions, however diminished, still served to remind members of their Democratic roots (and build inter-racial solidarity). In these states, voters could still find national figures who represented them and their sort, people like Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown and Vice President Joe Biden. Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania, centered on Biden’s hometown of Scranton, went for Obama with 63 percent of the vote in 2012. Rural Marquette County, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, went for him with 56 percent of the vote. In Ohio, there were a couple counties in the state’s Appalachian southeast that went stronger for Obama in 2012 than they had in 2008. In the opposite corner of the state, gratitude for Obama’s bailout of the auto industry helped win him 64 percent of the vote in Lucas County, around Toledo. Across the North, Obama ran even or ahead with John Kerry and Al Gore among white working-class voters; their raw vote total for him nationwide exceeded his tallies of college-educated white voters and minority supporters…

Most crucially, she was running not against Romney, the man from Bain Capital, but against Trump. Yes, Trump was (or claimed to be) a billionaire himself, but he was not of Romney’s upper crust — they scorned him and his casinos and gold-plated jet, and were giving him virtually none of their campaign contributions. Trump attacked the trade deals that had helped hollow out these voters’ communities, he attacked the Mexicans who had heavily populated some of their towns and had driven much of the heroin trade in others, and, yes, he tapped into broader racial resentments as well. Faced with this populist opposition, Clinton fatefully opted against taking the “I’m on your side; he’s not” tack that Obama had used so well against Romney, and had instead gone about attacking Trump’s fitness for the presidency.  [emphasis mine]

I really do think that’s an important point.  I think for a lot of voters, Trump was somewhat unfit, somewhat unhinged, somewhat fill-in-the-blank-ist, but on their side.  Better the flawed, “unfit” candidate on your side than the fit candidate who is not.  It’s clear that Clinton went hard after Trump’s greatest weakness– his clear temperamental unsuitability to be president.  Yet, I’ve always loved Rove’s idea of going after your opponent’s strength. Once you take that away, they’ve got nothing.

And here’s the thing, yes, Trump was able to offer rhetoric and a generalized disposition that he was on their side, but policy-wise, he so was not.  It seems that this should have been hammered home.  Sure, there was some of this, but damnit, if you can go after Romney’s tax plan, you can certainly go after Trump’s.

And, there was basically a ton of evidence that Trump is essentially a con man.  Maybe the Clinton campaign determined he really was teflon on this stuff.  And, hey, easy to take shots at the losing campaign.  But in an election ultimately this close, the campaign probably did matter.  And it does seem pretty clear that Trump’s unfitness just did not resonate enough with many white working class voters.  Perhaps, the fact that Trump was conning them in order to deliver big tax cuts to the rich would have resonated.  Alas, we’ll never know.

 

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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