David A. Graham: White voters are abandoning Trump
Maybe that’s because after years of predictions by progressive demographers that the country was tending toward a “permanent Democratic majority,” 2016 seemed to augur a new era. Trump managed to cobble together an Electoral College majority that held most historically Republican voters, but added in a large number of white working-class voters who had traditionally voted Democratic. If he could hold that bloc in places like the Midwest, the new GOP might never manage a majority of the popular vote, and it might not even matter.
The shape of the 2020 race suggests that 2016 might have been less a realignment than an anomaly: A uniquely unorthodox Republican candidate, an extremely vulnerable Democratic candidate, and just the right external conditions combined to give the presidency to Trump.
This is not to say that the parties have not changed on policy, taking the GOP’s 180-degree-turn from free trade to protectionism as a prime example. Nor is it to say that there haven’t been meaningful shifts in the electorate. Trump continues to outperform previous Republicans with white, non-college-educated voters. But that doesn’t mean the electoral map has permanently transformed—a reality most clearly demonstrated in the upper Midwest.
“I think 2016 for the midwestern states was more of a fluke—a real disenchantment with Hillary Clinton, and a real willingness to give a chance to a nonpolitician,” David B. Cohen, a political scientist at the University of Akron, told me. “I think 2020 is going to show that those states are going to come back home to the Democratic Party.”
A presidential election had never seen a nominee like Trump before 2016: wealthy, famous, shameless, and a political outsider. By breaking with GOP dogma on issues such as entitlements and trade (at least rhetorically), he was able to appeal to voters who had little interest in patricians like Mitt Romney; and by openly espousing racism, he was able to appeal to white identity politics. Amid a long-running decline in manufacturing during the Obama administration, the industrial Midwest was especially fertile ground for him.
Clinton was also an unusually weak candidate, thanks to a combination of misogyny, her own frequent mistakes and past policy stands, and a decades-long barrage from conservative media. Many traditionally Democratic voters crossed the aisle or simply stayed home rather than vote for her.
David A. Graham: Kenosha could cost Trump the election
The result was the shocking Election Night, in which Trump carried Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. By a hair, he won Wisconsin, which hadn’t voted Republican since Ronald Reagan. He even came within spitting distance in Minnesota, which hasn’t gone red since 1972.
There were signs even then that Trump’s takeover was not built on a solid foundation. The narrow margins are the stuff of legend and Democratic nightmares, but they bear fresh emphasis. Of the four Rust Belt states that the president won, he won a majority (51.7 percent) only in Ohio. Elsewhere, he won weak pluralities: Michigan, 47.5 percent; Pennsylvania, 48.6 percent; Wisconsin, 47.2 percent. Political scientists, including Larry Bartels, in November 2016, and Seth Masket, in October 2017, argued that the election didn’t look like a realignment.