Where did all the Trump voters come from, and where did the Cruz evangelicals go? One of the great mysteries of the 2016 primary is how so many assessments of the Republican electorate turned out to be wrong. The primary electorate that gave us Donald Trump as the presumptive nominee was dramatically different from the one that chose Mitt Romney in 2012.
Jeb Bush thought there was a huge, quiescent moderate majority nostalgic for a return to the Bush era, or looking for a doggedly inoffensive candidate like himself, blessed with endorsements from all the right people and a campaign war chest so huge it was supposed to scare other candidates out of the race. Senator Rand Paul thought the GOP’s libertarian moment had arrived, driven by young voters who were deeply concerned about privacy issues in the online era and weary of interventionist foreign policy under Bush and Obama alike. Senator Marco Rubio thought he had crossover appeal to every faction of the Republican Party and so much electability that GOP voters would be crazy to turn him down. Governors like Rick Perry and Scott Walker thought voters in other states would be impressed by their successful resumes.
Most baffling was the miscalculation of Senator Ted Cruz, who was counting on a Southern conservative and evangelical firewall that should have made him an early front-runner. Cruz had every reason to think those voters were out there and every reason to suppose they would be unwilling to support Donald Trump, on both moral and policy grounds.
Instead, Trump cleaned up with evangelicals, and his eventual victory in the primary was heralded by many observers as a death knell for “movement conservatism.” At the very least, we were told, conservatives were in such disarray that they couldn’t unite around a candidate who could stop Trump, even though well over half the party didn’t want him as the nominee.
The alternative theory of Trump’s primary victory is that he’s bringing new voters into the Republican primaries, and it’s clearly not just a few saboteurs looking to set Hillary Clinton up with her preferred GOP opponent.
NBC News is the latest outlet to run a story on Trump bringing new voters into the GOP fold, noting that the 2016 Florida primary saw tens of thousands more votes cast than Mitt Romney’s take in the 2012 general election, and the lion’s share of the new votes went to Trump. In Establishment-friendly Northeastern races, Ohio Governor John Kasich pulled vote totals comparable to Romney’s primary vote in 2012, but Trump’s new voters swamped him.
Sean Trende at RealClearPolitics suggested in January that neglected white working-class voters were coming back to the GOP after taking a pass on Mitt Romney in 2012. Trende described them as “mostly lower-income, blue-collar voters who lived in areas that had also voted for Ross Perot,” who had been turned off by “Mitt Romney’s wealth and upper-class demeanor.”
As Trende noted, President Obama’s re-election campaign shrewdly exploited this sense of distance, through such measures as an Ohio ad blitz that rather blatantly asserted Romney was “not one of us,” while Obama’s friends in the media slammed Romney as “a car-elevator-owning businessman who made statements such as ‘I like being able to fire people.’” (Notice how the same media is now serenely untroubled by the fabulous wealth and opulent lifestyle of Hillary Clinton, who somehow raked in multi-millions without any positive economic activity or job creation whatsoever, as detailed in “Clinton Cash.”)
“Missing voter” theories abound after big elections, because so much of the eligible American electorate consistently chooses not to vote. With voter participation well under 60%, even in big presidential elections, the “missing electorate” is big enough to be a theoretical game-changer in virtually every race. It’s arresting when a missing electorate returns, as Trende suggests is happening with Trump.
Along the way, he makes the point that Ted Cruz was fundamentally wrong about who the missing voters were, as he frequently quoted analysts who misunderstood what Trende was saying in his 2012 election post-mortem.
They weren’t evangelicals miffed that Mitt Romney was a Mormon, or a moderate. The missing voters weren’t mainly conservative Christians at all, since Trende notes that that cohort has always maintained a level of voter participation far above the national average. Many of the missing voters disengaged from politics long before 2012, and it’s mostly because they didn’t think either party had anything to offer them.
The key to understanding this theory is to remember that Ross Perot brought a lot of disengaged working-class people into politics too, and besides his famous disdain for deficit spending, the big planks in his platform were opposition to illegal immigration and criticism of big trade deals, particularly the North American Free Trade Agreement, which both Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush supported. In the second presidential debate in 1992, Perot famously spoke of “a giant sucking sound going south” to describe the effect NAFTA would have when American jobs went to Mexico.
It’s no surprise that Donald Trump is talking about NAFTA too, and getting a huge response at his campaign rallies, even as analysts on the Left and Right scratch their heads and wonder why he’s talking about a “settled issue” from two decades ago after Bill Clinton signed it into law.
To the missing voters, NAFTA has never been a settled issue, or a forgotten one. They’re still hurting from the shift of jobs and opportunities out of the country. They were told not to worry about it, because new high-tech jobs with better pay and working conditions would replace the “jobs Americans just won’t do”… and then those jobs got sent overseas as well, or filled with H1-B visa workers.
There is a line of argument from free trade enthusiasts that insists such policies are good for the country overall. We’re told that controlling legal immigration, or even cracking down on illegal immigration could significantly damage the U.S. economy. These grand strategies overlook the fact that the people who have been getting clobbered for decades to provide this higher level of national prosperity are tired of being the designated losers. On both the Left and Right, there is anger from people who believe they have been exploited to make others wealthy. That’s the fundamental argument of liberal ideology, but Republican leaders really should have noticed when a substantial number of their traditional constituents began feeling that way.
These disaffected working-class people are especially weary of master plans that deliberately injure Americans for the benefit of big U.S. investors and foreign interests. That’s why a willingness to speak frankly about immigration was such a powerful signal to the missing voters, a sign that Trump was aware of them, in a way that few other Republicans were.
The core element of any fair deal for neglected American workers is the acknowledgement that America exists, and its government understands that it has a unique responsibility to American citizens. There is nothing inherently hostile or xenophobic about that understanding. The put-upon citizens of the most open and generous country in the world are tired of being insulted as selfish and hateful for insisting our national priority should be our nation.
For decades now, our central government has asserted the wisdom and moral stature to pick “winners and losers.” Those assertions are especially loud from Barack Obama, but he wasn’t the first to make them. The people who feel they’ve been picked as losers, for generations, are tired of it.
Trende talked about the shifting “priorities” of these voters, which could go a long way toward explaining why Cruz didn’t get the support he was looking for in the South. It’s not so much a question of those voters rejecting Constitutional conservatism, as their political priorities shifting to more immediate concerns.
They’re under attack by the federal government, and they want relief. Intellectual discourse on the Constitutional basis for freedom of religious expression has less political value when the federal government is sending a battalion of lawyers to escort men into the women’s restroom. They still care about our future of unsustainable government debt, but their more immediate concern is getting the economy moving for their regions and income brackets again. Abstract discussion about the proper limits of government gives way to more concrete concerns: What will you do to bring the jobs back, nourish our wages back to health, and make us feel like something more than targets?
Romney got creamed because he couldn’t appeal to these disenfranchised working-class voters. He should have been able to do it, because his message of creating a business-friendly environment where jobs could flourish was reasonable and consistent with what the missing voters want. They’re looking for opportunity, not food stamps and welfare checks.
The problem was that Romney never made his message directly relevant to the alienated working class. He didn’t speak their language or act like he personally cared about them, the way Trump does. Romney was so thoroughly defined by the Obama campaign’s early attacks that he would have needed enormous populist charisma to overcome it. He had no detectable populist energy at all.
Romney would bring a hundred entrepreneurs onstage to support him, but not their employees. For some reason, it didn’t occur to his campaign that they could repel Obama’s foolish assault on venture capitalism by deploying an army of regular folks whose jobs had been saved by capital investment. He took great umbrage at Obama’s “you didn’t build that” speech, without understanding why Obama’s line had populist appeal, or how to counter it. Romney stood up for entrepreneurs against socialists, without showing the working class why they are the natural adversaries of socialism as well.
Some of the blame for those errors is due to the Republican Party at large, which frittered away the Reagan legacy through both Bush presidencies, and allowed the Left to teach the masses what “capitalism” means. Reagan brilliantly redefined the relationship between American citizens and their government, but as soon as he was gone, the GOP allowed that new understanding to be erased, perhaps mistakenly convinced it was unnecessary to defend capitalism from socialism while the Soviet Union was busy collapsing into a pile of ashes.
A gulf developed between Republican leadership and the voters they should be able to reach. Until now, they didn’t realize how wide that gulf was. They didn’t invest nearly enough effort in figuring out who the missing voters were or how to bring them back. On the contrary, the GOP leadership devoted more energy to stamping out the first sign of renewed political life from those disaffected Americans, the Tea Party movement. Instead of understanding who those people were, absorbing their strength into the Republican coalition, or really listening to what they were saying, the GOP Establishment set about marginalizing them. They didn’t realize how much damage they were doing to themselves among people who were watching the fate of the Tea Party movement, without being active members of it. Exasperating signals were sent, and received.
Both supporter and critic will agree that Donald Trump sends a very different set of signals. The clearest is the signal he sends about putting American government to work on behalf of working Americans. It’s so different from what they’re used to hearing, from both parties, that they cut him slack on almost everything else. Republican leaders simply did not understand how much the priorities of their current and potential electorate had shifted, so they watched in numb amazement as Trump scored with constituencies that shouldn’t have been willing to vote for him, or should have vastly preferred someone else. And in state after state, they saw Trump boosted by voters they had written off decades ago.
Of course, it remains to be seen whether these returning voters will stick with Trump through the general election. He could make mistakes that lose them, they could become disgusted with politics again and go home, or the Democrats could poach some of them. Democrat leaders are hopelessly out-of-touch with working-class voters too, but they’re aggressive about buying affection with government money. The media generally considers it revealed truth that support for Big Government programs equals compassion, which is supposed to outweigh the tone-deafness, corruption, and conspicuous consumption of liberal big shots.
It would be a crying shame if the various elements of the Republican Party fail to learn the right lessons from Trump’s primary run. The most obvious one is that American workers, American taxpayers, want a President who genuinely likes them and thinks the American government’s first duty is to them. It’s amazing how many people seem to have been waiting a generation or more to hear that.