Beyond the Hat: Will the Trump Coalition Hold in 2020?

by Michael A. Smith, Professor of Political Science, Emporia State University 

2020 Election

Will President Trump’s Coalition hold in 2020? Hardly anyone seems to be asking this question, at least in public these days.  It is up to us political scientists to remind voters that some of the conventional wisdom still holds, when analyzing elections.  Trump’s voters are not a monolith but a coalition, and his key to re-election rests upon his ability to hold together that coalition.  Like any motley crew, Trump’s coalition includes a range of supporters, from rock-solid to undecided to those who decided, early on, that they made a mistake.  He must hold his coalition together to win four more years in office, just like a more conventional President seeking a second term.

These insights are not mine—or rather, they are not mine alone.  I found this conclusion to be the emerging sense of the meeting a few months ago, when serving on a roundtable on the 2020 Presidential election, at the Great Plains Political Science Association annual meetings.  Colleagues Kim Casey and Bronson Herrera of Northwest Missouri State, Nicholas Nicholetti of Missouri Southern, and I bounced around numerous ideas, from rigorous and research based to purely impressionistic, during our lively exchange.  Ultimately, one thing we could all agree upon is this:  President Trump’s supporters are not a single, monolithic group.  Many do not wear “MAGA” hats or visit alt-right websites.  They run the gamut from evangelical Christians to hardcore religious skeptics, war hawks to isolationists, traditional Republicans to independents and ex-Democrats.

In popular culture, the focus is generally placed upon the ways in which Trump’s coalition does not appear to be diverse.  They tend to be white and non-Hispanic, middle-aged or older men and married women, heterosexual, and reside in suburban and rural areas.  The vast majority identify as Christian.  Yet even this conceals some diversity.  Twenty-eight percent of Hispanic voters, for example, supported Trump in 2016—about the same percentage that backed Mitt Romney.  The conservative news/editorial media is abuzz with early reports that African American voters support Trump at higher rates than previous Republican candidates—though they still prefer the Democrats by a substantial margin.

Trump’s continuous stream of Tweets, outrageous quotes, and confrontational behavior can easily confound observers into thinking that the old political campaign playbook has to be discarded this term.  Add in the fact that some in academia—and many more in the news media– blew the call for the 2016 election.  Yet we political scientists are notorious debunkers of the conventional wisdom—and that includes the so-called insight that Trump completely rewrote the way we view campaigns.

One group that already knows this, is Trump’s campaign staff.  Trump brought a lot more to the table than MAGA hats and campaign rallies in 2016.  His staff developed a sophisticated microtargeting operation, much more advanced than Hillary Clinton’s.  Expect this to be back for 2020.

Microtargeting—a concept popularized by journalist Sasha Issenberg in his 2012 book The Victory Lab—is a powerful reminder that Trump’s campaign has to do a lot more than hats and rallies.  Just as would a more conventional politician, Trump must hold together key blocs of supporters to stay in office.  Otherwise, his razor-thin margins in states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin may disappear.

The value placed upon “swing” votes may be overestimated.  A recent Politico article featured a rather overhyped synapsis of Dr. Rachel Bitecofer’s research.  Bitecofer made dead-on predictions of the 2018 midterm elections, which featured a dramatic turnout surge compared to 2014.  Democrats will undoubtedly seek to capitalize on this, particularly among young voters.  Bitecofer argues that elections today are turnout battles with heavy emphasis on negative partisanship—that is, voting against, as opposed to voting for.  Other analysists agree that swing voters are diminishing.

Still, a presidential election is not a midterm, and Democrats will be looking for whatever cracks they can find in the Trump coalition.  These will be more apparent in some constituencies than others.  Again it must be borne in mind that even slight shifts in states such as Wisconsin can shift their electoral votes, since the vote there was incredibly close in 2016.

The Trump coalition includes the following:

1. The alt-right

This group dominates perceptions about Trump, particularly by his opponents.  With their MAGA hats and boisterous rallies, Trump’s so-called “alt-right” supporters cut quite a figure.  Trump’s early decision to appoint Steve Bannon of the alt-right online publication Breitbart.com to a key White House position further energized this group, as do his staunch opposition to illegal immigration, his attempted (and partly successful) “Muslim ban,” and of course his speeches and tweets.

Yet just as most Democrats are not yoga-posing, Prius-driving vegans, the stereotypes of Trump supporters as being exclusively made up of these vocal and visible alt-right voters are highly misleading.  Most voters for Trump—as for nearly all candidates—have never been to a political rally and have no desire to go to one.  This is why turnout tends to be dramatically lower in caucus states than in primary states, for example—most voters don’t want to invest the time, nor publically disclose who they are backing.  While alt-right voters are active on social media, the bombast of their words may cause us to overestimate their numbers.  These voters aren’t going anywhere, but good political analysis requires us to push past this group and look at the rest of the President’s coalition.

2. Evangelical Christians

Trump does not speak for all Christians, as many passionate dissenters have made clear.  Critics of faith object to Trump’s treatment of immigrants, hawkish stance on Iran, environmental policies, cuts to social programs, and non-cooperation with Congressional investigations into his own behavior—including the impeachment trial.  Yet among the rank and file, most evangelicals remain fiercely loyal to the President.  Supreme Court appointments and the possibility of overturning the Roe v Wade court decision are of course front and center, but there is more. Trump’s recent authorization to kill Iranian General Qassem Soleimani is widely supported by evangelicals, and it reinforces a narrative that Islamic extremists are a danger to the western world, and to Christianity in particular.  Trump’s hawkish stand on Israel is also much more popular with evangelicals than it is with most Jewish Americans, the latter of whom still overwhelmingly back Democrats, and play a key role in battleground Florida.  Progressive Christians like Jim Wallis cite anecdotal evidence that Trump’s evangelical supporters are having doubts, but it is unlikely that Democrats can peel away more than a small number of them, particularly when they are re-energized by actions such as Soleimani’s assassination.

3. Regular Republicans

I was one of the analysts who blew the call in 2016.  My prediction of a Clinton victory was based largely on my assumption that many traditional Republicans—of the sort who backed John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012—would defect from the party over Trump’s nomination.  Not only were Trump’s comments often shocking, he also defected from longstanding Republican precedent by advocating for tariffs—which had not been discussed openly in American politics for about a century—in place of the party’s longtime support for free markets and free trade.  I thought many Romney supporters would switch to Clinton this time.

What happened, was that I forgot about the fundamentals that my mentors taught me in grad school.  As documented in John Sides and Henry Farrell’s excellent ebook The Science of Trump, these fundamentals apply just as much to Trump, as to more conventional candidates. Most voters simply are not ideological—not liberal, not conservative, not even moderate.  Their attachment to parties and candidates comes from other sources like family, race, and religion.  Trump shifted the Republican Party on some key policy issues, but many of their voters did not care.  If these voters did not leave the party in 2016, it is highly unlikely they will do so in 2020.

And as for my own mistake in predicting the 2016 election:  fool me once…

4. Obama-Trump voters in general

Yes, they are a thing.  Estimated at about six million nationwide, they are particularly concentrated in the Great Lakes “firewall” states that flipped in 2016 and put Trump in the White House.  These voters have policy views remarkably similar to other Democrats on issues like abortion rights, health care, and the DACA program for undocumented immigrants brought here as children.  Yet, these voters are notably more conservative on other immigration issues, including Trump’s border wall, and are more likely than other Democrats to believe that people of color and feminists are making too many demands of white men.  These issues will be tricky for the Democrats to negotiate and have received a lot of coverage in the press, but in the end showing some empathy for their belief that working-class whites are being left behind may prove to be pivotal for Democrats seeking to win back some of this group.

5. Auto industry voters

The data presented in last article hyperlinked above also shows something not discussed by the article’s own authors—a huge gap between Obama-Trump voters and other Democrats on the Paris Climate Agreement.  The former group is much less supportive, and I have a pet hypothesis as to why.  These voters are heavily concentrated in states where the auto industry has a large presence:  Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, and to a lesser extent, Iowa.  Two more auto industry states, Missouri and Indiana, shifted over just 8 years from a near-tie between Obama and McCain back in 2008—Obama actually won Indiana the first time—to double-digit Trump victories in 2020.  Why?

The American auto industry today includes many factories run by overseas-based companies like Toyota, Nissan, and Volkswagen.  Most of these are non-unionized, and many are in the South.  Yet the traditional “Big Three,” UAW-organized auto industry remains a strong presence in the Great Lakes and Mississippi Valley states, and two of these three companies—and an estimated 1.5 million jobs– were rescued from bankruptcy by Obama Administration policies.  Obama’s advertising from 2012 highlighted Mitt Romney’s notorious “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt” editorial headline, while another commercial featured a cartoon Romney putting company logos into a wood chipper.

If Democrats seek to renew their support for the workers and retirees of U.S. auto industry, they are going to have to confront a big problem:  fuel economy.  Environmental advocates, who overwhelmingly favor Democrats, want more of it, for example hailing California’s strict new gas mileage standards and support for electric cars.  Yet the traditional U.S. auto industry does not excel in the market for these cars.  Instead, they dominate the market in larger SUVs and pickup trucks, which tend to be gas guzzlers.

Many of these auto industry voters are members of the United Auto Workers, which traditionally supports Democrats, and they agree with their old party on issues like health care.  Yet in order to win them back, the Democrats will have to convince them—as did Obama—that their jobs, and their pensions, are not at stake, without losing the staunch pro-environmentalism supporters to nonvoting or to third-party candidates.

Donald Trump’s behavior as candidate and President is anything but conventional.  For one thing, he just became the first President in U.S. history to seek re-election while being impeached.  Yet it is incumbent on us political scientists to cool the hype—in this case, the overblown case that traditional approaches to political analysis are no longer relevant.  Nothing could be further from the truth, and operatives working quietly but effectively in the campaign organizations of both parties already know this.  Now it is time for the rest of us to realize it, too.  In order to get re-elected, the President must hold together his coalition.  In order to defeat him, Democrats will have to simultaneously turn out new voters, and cut into Trump’s coalition, targeting those who are most cross-pressured.  Neither job will be easy, and it would be very premature for either side to throw out all those old campaign playbooks.

Michael Smith

Michael A. Smith is Professor of Political Science and Chair of Social Sciences at Emporia State University.  He has authored or co-authored three books, the most recent of which is co-authored with two Emporia State colleagues, Drs. Bob Grover and Rob Catlett.  It is entitled Low Taxes and Small Government: The Brownback Experiment in Kansas and was released by Lexington in 2019.  He has other academic publications as well, and also writes newspaper columns carried throughout Kansas as part of the Insight Kansas group and blogs for the MPSA. Michael appears occasionally on television and radio in Kansas and western Missouri to discuss state and national politics.  He was an expert witness for the plantiff in the Bednasek v Kobach case, decided together with Fish v Kobach by the federal district court for Kansas in 2018.  Michael teaches courses in American politics, state and local government, and political philosophy. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Missouri in 2000. Follow Michael on Twitter

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