In Search of Donald Trump Democrats

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to guest gathered at Fountain Park during a campaign rally on March 19, 2016 in Fountain Hills, Arizona. Trump visits Arizona for the second time in three months as he looks to gain the GOP nomination for President. (Photo by
Ralph Freso/Getty Images

The true nature of the “Trump Democrats” is one of the big question marks hanging over the 2016 election. Donald Trump and his supporters claim he’s inspiring a large number of Democrats to switch parties and vote for him.

Trump detractors believe these are mostly either saboteurs – Democrats who registered in the GOP primary in their state, and voted for Trump, because they want him as the candidate facing Hillary Clinton in the general election – or “soft” supporters who might be Trump-curious today, but will scurry home to the Democrats in November. Some of them might have serious reservations about Clinton today, but will swallow those objections and vote for her in the end.

At the Pittsburgh Tribune-ReviewSalena Zito writes of another possible explanation: some of these Trump Democrats are really Republicans in their hearts, and have voted that way in off-year elections, but kept their Democrat registrations because they wanted to cast meaningful votes in local elections, and their municipalities are dominated by Democrats.

One of the people Zito interviewed, a college-educated police officer in western Pennsylvania, put it that way explicitly: “It’s not like I wasn’t going to vote Republican in the general election anyway. I’ve generally voted conservative for the past 15 years, and the only reason I never changed was because I wanted the ability to vote in local elections.”

“The popular view is that conservative Democrats now switching parties are of a certain type – uneducated whites bordering on racists, who live in left-behind towns in rust-belt states like Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia or farther south, who have just found conservatism through the rough rhetoric of Trump,” Zito writes.

Challenging that view are analysts who argue these Trump Democrats are often well-educated, as with the police officer Zito interviewed, and can be found in middle- and upper-class suburbs, as well as dying post-industrial towns.

It’s a notion that runs counter to the conventional wisdom that Trump’s rise was caused by some failure of conservative thought. On the contrary, this would suggest conservative ideas have been making inroads with some traditionally Democrat constituencies, combined with the Democrats taking a harder line on positions that drove them away. In Trump, they found a candidate who rejects what they dislike about the Democrats, without embracing some of the Republican positions that have kept them at arm’s length from other GOP presidential candidates.

As University of Virginia political analyst Kyle Kondrik put it, “The Democratic Party became the non-white party, became the environmental party, became the socially liberal party, became the anti-gun party.”

If the Democrat-In-Name-Only bloc is as large as Trump hopes, and holds together despite enormous pressure to abandon him during the general election, it might also be an ironic benefit of the very same Republican Party establishment which Trump voters are generally unhappy with. Republicans haven’t been doing terribly well at national political battles since the late Bush era, but they’ve been doing extremely well in state and local elections… thus setting the stage for more DINOs to decide they no longer need a Democratic voter registration to have a voice in local elections.

Or, the net result of the Trump Democrat migration could be the fracture of a Republican Party that isn’t ready to handle it. Zito quotes Kondik saying he spotted the early stages of the realignment after the 2006 midterm elections, but thought it would result in a third party movement driven by disaffected Democrats. Instead, it seems on the verge of pushing some Republicans out of the GOP to form their own conservative/libertarian/federalist third party.

Because the Republican Party did not serve conservatives well across the past decade, it will have trouble persuading them to stay while it assimilates an influx of centrist Democrat voters… and it lacks the institutional confidence to assimilate them. A moment of great political opportunity has instead become an existential crisis.

It’s quite possible that all of the proffered explanations for Trump Democrats are true – some of them probably are saboteurs, and some of the sincere explorers of Republican territory will tack left and sail home in November, driven by winds of pop-culture disapproval that will make Trump voters feel like space aliens in Democrat precincts. The vital question is how many of them fall into each category.

For what it’s worth, there is some evidence Democrats are taking Trump’s appeal to their disaffected working-class voters seriously. The Democrat operatives and left-wing activists quoted by Politico last week don’t sound like they’re salivating at the promise of a ridiculously easy general-election victory against Trump. Some of their current anti-Trump activities sound more serious than early mudslinging against the pre-emptive Republican nominee.

There’s plenty of that too, of course, but Politico mentions that even Hillary Clinton and her apparatchiks have been telling Sanders supporters it’s time to wrap up his little insurgency and coalesce behind her, so she can get to work on Trump… while some Sanders people bristle and insist he’s far better positioned to run against Trump than she is.

Even this could be part of a “don’t throw me in that briar patch!” Democrat effort to push Trump as a beatable Republican nominee, although the sort of Republican who keeps up on these inside-baseball political stories has probably made up his or her mind about Trump already, one way or the other.

Also, given that political solons are also predicting that Trump could bring the Republican majorities in the House and Senate down with him in a massive election catastrophe, Democrats have good reason to ramp up their anti-Trump efforts to fever pitch, even if they’re confident they can beat him – they believe they’ll win bonus prizes for running up the score.

Whatever the outcome of the 2016 election, it’s clear that a significant number of Democrats considered voting Republican. Their numbers may turn out to be less than hoped, or they might change their minds by November, but it’s a real phenomenon that should be studied carefully. Unfortunately, the Republican Party has demonstrated a remarkable ability to avoid learning from either its successes or its failures.