There’s no such thing as a Trump Demo­crat

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - DANA MILBANK Twit­ter: @Milbank

Do you be­lieve in mermaids, uni­corns and fairies? If so, you may have taken in­ter­est in a new myth­i­cal crea­ture that ap­peared dur­ing the 2016 elec­tion: the Trump Demo­crat. It has be­come an ar­ti­cle of faith that an un­usu­ally large num­ber of peo­ple who voted for Barack Obama in 2008 or 2012 switched sides and voted for Don­ald Trump over Hil­lary Clin­ton. It fol­lows that Democrats, to win in the fu­ture, need to get these lost par­ti­sans to come home.

But new data, and an anal­y­sis by AFL-CIO po­lit­i­cal di­rec­tor Michael Pod­horzer that he shared with me, puts all this into ques­tion. The num­ber of Obama-to-Trump vot­ers turns out to be smaller than thought. And those Obama vot­ers who did switch to Trump were largely Repub­li­can vot­ers to start with. The aber­ra­tion wasn’t their votes for Trump but their votes for Obama.

It fol­lows for Democrats that most of these Obama-Trump vot­ers aren’t go­ing to be per­suaded to vote Demo­cratic in fu­ture; the party would do bet­ter to go af­ter dis­af­fected Democrats who didn’t vote in 2016 or who voted for third par­ties.

In the af­ter­math of Trump’s sur­prise win, the com­men­tary quickly fo­cused on the “Oba­maTrump voter.” Nate Cohn of the New York Times said, “Democrats have to grap­ple with the im­por­tance of the Obama-Trump voter.” NBC’s Chuck Todd said “one of the big sur­prises of this elec­tion was the emer­gence of the Oba­maTrump voter.” Pri­or­i­ties USA, the su­per PAC that backed Clin­ton, con­cluded that Democrats must win back Obama-Trump vot­ers.

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) as­serted that Trump is “ex­pand­ing the Repub­li­can tent. We used to call them Rea­gan Democrats. Now they’re Trump Democrats.” Don­ald Trump Jr. em­braced the “Trump Democrats” claim at a rally. And many Democrats have bought into this think­ing. Not long ago, ac­cord­ing to McClatchy News, the Demo­cratic po­lit­i­cal firm Global Strat­egy Group con­cluded that Oba­maTrump vot­ers “ef­fec­tively ac­counted for more than two-thirds of the rea­son Clin­ton lost.”

There was some jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for think­ing this. Data from the Amer­i­can National Elec­tion Study sur­vey found that about 13.4 per­cent of Trump vot­ers had backed Obama in 2012. A Univer­sity of Vir­ginia poll found that 20 per­cent of Trump vot­ers had sup­ported Obama at least once.

But such polls have a flaw: Peo­ple tend to for­get how they voted in pre­vi­ous elec­tions, with more re­call­ing they voted for the win­ner than ac­tu­ally did. A poll re­leased in June by the Democ­racy Fund Voter Study Group, a non­par­ti­san col­lab­o­ra­tion of an­a­lysts and schol­ars, avoided this prob­lem be­cause it re-in­ter­viewed the same re­spon­dents queried in 2012; they were asked who they voted for in real time.

Democ­racy Fund found a fairly or­di­nary cross­over vote in 2016: 9.2 per­cent of Obama vot­ers sup­ported Trump and 5.4 per­cent of Mitt Rom­ney vot­ers sup­ported Clin­ton. That was a “typ­i­cal” and un­sur­pris­ing de­gree of par­ti­san loy­alty. “The 2016 elec­tion did not cre­ate more in­sta­bil­ity, in the ag­gre­gate, than oth­ers,” it re­ported.

And those Obama vot­ers who did cross to Trump look a lot like Repub­li­cans. The AFLCIO’s Pod­horzer an­a­lyzed raw data from the Co­op­er­a­tive Con­gres­sional Elec­tion Study, out in the spring, and found that Obama-Trump vot­ers voted for Repub­li­can con­gres­sional can­di­dates by a 31-point mar­gin, Repub­li­can Se­nate can­di­dates by a 15-point mar­gin and Repub­li­can gu­ber­na­to­rial can­di­dates by a 27-point mar­gin. Their views on im­mi­gra­tion and Oba­macare also put them solidly in the GOP camp.

“Demo­cratic an­a­lysts who are look­ing to solve the party’s prob­lem by ap­peal­ing to this small group of Obama-Trump vot­ers are point­ing them­selves to a group that by and large is a Repub­li­can group now,” Pod­horzer told me. “The bulk of Obama-Trump vot­ers are not fed-up Demo­cratic vot­ers; they are Repub­li­can vot­ers who chose Obama in 2012. As such, few are avail­able in 2018 or 2020.” Democrats should in­stead ap­peal broadly to work­ing-class vot­ers, he said.

In 2008, a larger-than-usual num­ber of Repub­li­can vot­ers went with Obama dur­ing an ex­tra­or­di­nary time, when the econ­omy was in free fall and an in­cum­bent Repub­li­can pres­i­dent was deeply un­pop­u­lar. ANES polling found that 17 per­cent of Obama vot­ers in 2008 had been for Ge­orge W. Bush in 2004, com­pared with the 13 per­cent of Trump vot­ers, the same sur­vey found, who sup­ported Obama at least once. These peo­ple aren’t Obama-Trump vot­ers as much as they were Bush-Obama vot­ers.

This is im­por­tant, be­cause it means Democrats don’t have to con­tort them­selves to ap­peal to the myth­i­cal Trump Democrats by tough­en­ing their po­si­tion on im­mi­gra­tion, or weak­en­ing their sup­port for univer­sal health care, or em­brac­ing small gov­ern­ment and low taxes. What Democrats have to do is be Democrats.

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