When President-elect Trump promised he could win the votes of Reagan Democrats, most political media declared that there were none left.
Yes, they existed in the 1980s, but that was then and this is now, it was said. And now they were all already Republicans. So Trump was hunting for a chimera, a beast that didn’t exist. He’d get no votes from that source.
But now it’s Trump who can say, “That was then, and this is now.” Now it’s apparent that political media, both liberal and conservative, were wrong in their analysis. The “Trump Democrat” is real, and he flipped five key Rust Belt states from blue to red.
Almost incredibly, one-third of the counties in America that President Obama won twice picked Trump this time. One of the most dramatic flips was Macomb County, Mich., a working-class suburb of Detroit. It went for Obama by 4 points in 2012, but for Trump by 11.
Most of these Obama-Trump counties were not as big as Macomb. But across the map, and especially in the rural midwest, small towns and small cities that Obama had carried by convincing margins abandoned the party of FDR and JFK to vote for a candidate most people gave little chance of victory. In some cases, there were 40-point swings in the Republican’s favor over Mitt Romney’s performance in 2012.
Nor were the counties that changed color the only important ones. Red counties got redder, and blue counties became less blue. Take Monroe County, Ohio, which had given Romney an 8-point victory margin in 2012. It went for Trump by a staggering 45 points.
The election added a footnote to every article about Trump declaring him a racist, did a real service to journalism this week by visiting Nelsonville in Southern Ohio, a small town of about 5,000 people.
Reporter Dave Jamieson took the time to speak to some of the “forgotten men and women” to whom Trump referred in his victory speech. Nelsonville and its four precincts had gone to Obama by 40 points in 2012. But this time, Trump won it by a hair.
The people there talked about a lack of jobs and of hope, and a sense among older residents that things will be worse, not better, for their children. Local Hillary Clinton volunteers said they canvassed the same Democratic households as usual, only to be told by one voter after another that they were backing Trump this time.
“Who can tell me there’s any way of fixing this country without jobs?” asked one union retiree who had voted for Obama but hopped aboard the Trump Train in 2016. “Black or white, they’ve all got one common goal: They need a job … Everyone says the economy is doing great. But I don’t see jobs around here.”
One important takeaway is that perhaps Americans aren’t always swayed so much by sanguine optimism as they are by a connection through personal experience. When Trump talked about Crippled America, the title of his campaign book, we criticized his dour message. But he was connecting with millions of people who face hardships that the educated, upper-middle class does not.
The most specious and self-refuting explanation of the 2016 election, casually advanced as an aside in several think pieces, has been that a backlash against a black president caused Clinton to do far worse with the same electorate voter for that same black president.
Such explanations soothe the prejudices of white liberal journalists in big cities, but it doesn’t explain why millions of the same people who elected Obama went for Trump this time.
There are surely many haters who supported Trump, just as there were also many who supported Obama in the previous two election cycles. But places such as Nelsonville remind us that hatred did not elect Trump.
Democrats took for granted a key portion of their voter base, and they paid the price. It’s a lesson that every political party needs to learn if it wishes to compete, and one that Republicans had better learn if they want to carry Nelsonville again.