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It’s not just Virginia: Maine has a crucial lesson for Democrats

Old-fashioned big government can win back (some) working-class whites.

Bucksport, Maine, voted for Trump and to expand Medicaid.
Matthew Yglesias

If the much-watched Virginia gubernatorial election offered a road test of a certain form of “Trumpism without Trump,” then Maine’s ballot initiative on Medicaid expansion was another one.

Presenting a pure question of a big-government economic redistribution scheme divorced from any questions about candidate personality or culture war politics, the ballot initiative was a roaring success, passing with what looks to be about 60 percent of the vote. In the Democratic stronghold of Portland, it ran 5 points ahead of Hillary Clinton and secured 81 percent of the vote. But it also carried inland towns like Ellsworth and Dover-Foxcroft that Donald Trump won.

That suggests that both blades of the Trumpist scissors — economic populism and white identity politics — mattered to Trump’s success, and that while Democrats certainly won’t win white rural America over to their column, their candidates have ample opportunity to make at least some inroads by emphasizing traditional social programs and downplaying culture war issues.

There were two parts to Trumpism; he’s only governed with one

As a presidential candidate, Trump amped up culture war politics, brought back “tough on crime” rhetoric from the 1980s, and positioned himself and the Republican Party as squarely anti-immigrant and anti-immigration. But he also softened the traditional GOP line on taxes and the welfare state, promising to raise taxes on the rich while avoiding cuts to major safety programs, including Medicaid.

As president, Trump has governed very much the way he campaigned on culture war topics — but very differently on economic ones.

Health care bills he endorsed would cut billions in Medicaid funding over the years, his tax plan is a bonanza for the wealthy, the budget the GOP passed to facilitate that tax plan cuts Medicare by billions, and Trump’s own budget proposal included billions in Social Security cuts.

We are a long way off from the version of Trump who, shortly before his inauguration in January, told Robert Costa that he would offer “insurance for everybody” with “much lower deductibles” regardless of ability to pay.

This matters, but only a bit

The Maine result is a confirmation that the missing economic populist wing of the Trump airplane matters, but also a reality check that it only matters a little bit.

Medicaid expansion ran well ahead of Hillary Clinton, and that serves as a potent reminder that the Democratic Party’s basic bread-and-butter promise of taxing rich people to provide useful public services is more popular than the broader Democratic gestalt. That said, the basic political pattern of Maine as established in the 2016 election continued. Medicaid expansion did best roughly exactly where Clinton did best — the more urban parts of the state, the college towns, and the better-educated and more affluent coastal towns. It did worst in the places where Trump did best — the sparsely populated and economically ailing interior where people identify culturally with Republicans.

That pattern holds up even though Medicaid expansion, almost by definition, is a bigger deal for the poorer, Trumpier areas of the state than in the more liberal ones.

And that shouldn’t be a huge surprise. Most people don’t have detailed opinions about most issues. Instead, voters who feel a broad cultural identification with the Republican Party are inclined to take cues from Republican leaders who said Medicaid expansion was bad, while those who identify with the Democrats had the opposite response. As Michael Kruse’s excellent Politico magazine profile of older white Trump voters in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, shows, many Trump voters are reacting to Trump’s broken promises by deciding they don’t care that much about the promises.

Mattering a little bit could be enough

All that said, American politics doesn’t work by a demographic Electoral College —changes at the margin matter.

Barack Obama did quite poorly overall among white voters with no college degree. And of that bloc of non-college white Obama voters, the vast majority — somewhere between 74 and 78 percent — went on to back Hillary Clinton. But the electoral impact of losing 20 to 25 percent of Obama’s already scant white working-class support was enormous, putting a number of key battleground states out of reach. That’s so even though it’s perfectly true that the typical white working-class Obama voter wasn’t sold on Trump’s pitch.

The same thing is true in the opposite direction. No matter what Democrats say or do, small towns that overwhelmingly supported Trump in 2016 are almost certain to support him again in 2020 and to support GOP candidates in 2018. But pulling 5 or 10 percent of them away would deal a devastating blow to the GOP’s overall electoral fortunes.

And while Ralph Northam’s Virginia victory powered mostly by white college graduates was impressive, to make significant midterm inroads, Democrats will need to win in places where the white population tilts more working class. The Maine referendum seems to point the way to do it: remind people that Democrats like the same safety net programs they do, and that Trump has broken his promises to protect them.

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