In 2008, Macomb County, Michigan, voted for Barack Obama by an 11-point margin. The county broke again for Obama in 2012 by 5 points.
But in November, Macomb swung hard against the Democratic Party — backing Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton by more than 10 points, and helping Trump win the crucial swing state on his way to the presidency.
A new report says one way for Democrats to win these voters back is to more aggressively attack Wall Street, corporate tax breaks, and international free trade deals. On Friday, the progressive think tank the Roosevelt Institute and Democracy Corps released a 17-page memo detailing extensive focus group studies with 35 Democrats and independents in Macomb who voted for Trump.
It found that some of the Trump voters were “put out of reach by their racist sentiment, Islamophobia, and disdain for multiculturalism.” But it also suggests that most are not particularly enthralled with Trump, and that the president’s standing with them could be weakened if they were convinced that he opposed their economic policy priorities, particularly on entitlements and taxes.
The report comes amid a widening debate about the strategy Democrats should pursue in the 2018 midterm elections and beyond to repair the smoking heap of rubble that is their political party. One portion of that debate centers on how much the party should emphasize populist economic policies that could appeal to members of the white working class who crossed the aisle to vote for Trump in November.
Those are the questions the Roosevelt Institute report explored.
“A majority of these voters were very open to Democrats ... who oppose trade deals, want to protect consumers from Wall Street, oppose corporate tax breaks, and will bar secret campaign money so government works for the middle class,” writes Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg, who served as a political adviser to Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and John Kerry. “That’s the kind of change they were hungry for.”
Democrats hoping to attack Trump should focus on Medicare and Social Security
In the immediate aftermath of the election, Democrats on Capitol Hill admitted to wrestling with the same problem that Hillary Clinton’s campaign faced: Trump’s outrages seemed so wide and varied, it was hard to focus on one long enough to make it stick.
“We are often way too schizophrenic on all of these issues, and we just sort of throw things at the wall in a scattershot and incoherent way as they come up,” one Democratic aide on the Hill told me. “We have to get smart and begin recognizing what attacks are sticking and which ones aren’t.”
The Roosevelt Institute generally supports progressive economic messaging, so it’s not surprising it found that could be key to success. But it also explored what attacks on Trump could be most effective. Going after the Trump Organization’s business conflicts and the president’s refusal to release his tax returns did not seem particularly damning for these voters, the institute found.
But one potentially effective attack was simple: Trump is a Republican who is governing, in many ways, along lines that would please the Republican establishment. “In contrast with Trump, they believe Republicans have ‘always been for the upper class,’” the report concludes.
Told that half of the president’s “middle class tax cuts” would go to the 1 percent of richest Americans, the Trump voters were furious — and suddenly willing to believe that he “may just be a typical politician who will tell you what you want to hear and then nothing changes,” the report says.
“These critiques successfully raised questions on whether Trump is a working class warriors,” they write. “It aligned him with the economic and cultural elite who won’t bring the promised change.”
Nor is Trump’s alliance with congressional Republicans likely to be particularly popular:
We showed these voters pictures of Speaker Paul Ryan and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and by their responses it was clear they do not trust them. They describe them as “shifty,” “only look out for themselves,” and “like the CEOs.”
And while the focus groups were unfazed by the fact that Trump had appointed billionaires to his Cabinet — “They are fine with him bringing all his wealthy friends in government ‘if they can help him’ and if they are also ‘straight-shooters’” — they were much more alarmed by the Cabinet secretaries’ positions on important social insurance programs.
Appointing Cabinet officials who want to cut Social Security and Medicare could hurt Trump. During the study, the researchers told the Macomb voters that members of Trump’s Cabinet wanted to voucherize Medicare and raise the Social Security retirement age. (Tom Price, Trump’s health and human services secretary, supported Speaker Paul Ryan’s plan to privatize Medicare, according to CBS News. Mick Mulvaney, the director of the Office of Management and Budget under Trump, has called Social Security a “Ponzi scheme” and said he wanted to look into raising the retirement age during his confirmation hearing.)
“When voters learned about the position of Trump’s cabinet secretaries on Medicare and Social Security, alarm bells went off,” the report says. “They say a betrayal like this would be along the lines of what the banks did to them.”