What Liberal Organizers Are Seeing on the Ground in 2018

One grassroots group has knocked on 400,000 doors since President Trump’s election. Those conversations suggest a mixed outlook for Democrats in future contests.

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The focus groups that provide the most revealing reactions to Donald Trump’s tumultuous presidency may be the thousands of front-door conversations held every month around the country by canvassers for the liberal organizing group Working America. Those encounters suggest Democrats could reap big gains in 2018—but are still facing big questions about their position against the president in 2020.

The AFL-CIO founded Working America in 2003 to reach working- and middle-class voters who resemble its members in all but one respect: They don’t belong to a union. In tactics and targets alike, the group represented a departure for the left. Working America was among the first liberal organizations to resurrect the old technique of contacting voters through door-to-door organizing, rather than using the direct-mail and television-advertising campaigns that had dominated activism after the 1970s. And it dispatched its organizers to working-class communities where few voters ever heard from liberal groups. Karen Nussbaum, the group’s founding director, says that when it compared its 3 million members with the membership lists of other major progressive organizations, it found that 90 percent of its people didn’t belong to any of the other groups. “No one is talking to these folks,” she says.

In 2016, the group’s immersion in working-class communities made it among the first to detect the emotional connection Trump was forging with white blue-collar workers, even some who had voted for former President Barack Obama. As early as late 2015, Nussbaum says, Trump “crushed” Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in focus groups the organization conducted near Cleveland and Pittsburgh. “People wanted to burn the house down,” she says.

Since Trump’s election, Working America’s organizers have conducted about 400,000 more conversations with voters at their doorsteps. These discussions, says Matt Morrison, the group’s executive director, show that voters are “experiencing … a very different America” as the Trump presidency unfolds.

In more affluent and better-educated communities, he says, voters are heavily consuming news about the daily maelstroms engulfing Trump. The perpetual chaos and conflict, he says, is powerfully energizing the college-educated voters most repulsed by Trump, especially women. And that undertow is so strong that it is tugging others around them away from the GOP: “If you live in a college-educated community, you are moving with that overall community,” Morrison says.

The story is very different in the white working-class areas that powered Trump’s unexpected 2016 victory. There, amid daily economic strain, the drama filling cable news is like a distant shout in the wind. “In working-class communities, this whole thing still doesn’t fucking matter,” he says. “What’s happening with the [Pittsburgh] Steelers: That’s more top of mind than Trump’s latest tweet.”

This engagement deficit creates an opening for Democrats in November because they could tilt the electorate’s composition away from the GOP. Michael Podhorzer, who supervises Working America as the AFL-CIO’s political director, says the evidence suggests that suburban college-educated voters, particularly those who most revile Trump, will likely vote in large numbers in November. By contrast, the blue-collar whites who surged to the polls for Trump in 2016 appear less motivated to come out for other Republicans—just as many of Obama’s younger and minority supporters didn’t show up during the GOP landslide in 2010, his first midterm election. “In a peculiar irony,” Podhorzer says, “Trump may have something of Obama’s problem in 2010: If he’s not on the ticket, the surge voters are not going to come out and vote for congressional Republicans.”

And while support for the president in white working-class communities remains formidable, the Working America organizers say they have succeeded in moving some blue-collar Trump supporters, especially women, away from GOP candidates. They’ve done so by highlighting Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, as well as the risk that huge deficits created by the GOP tax plan will eventually compel cuts in Medicare and Social Security.

These shifts broadly track the actual voting patterns in key special elections since 2016, including recent contests in GOP-leaning House districts in Pennsylvania (where the Democrat Conor Lamb won) and Ohio (where the Democrat Danny O’Connor narrowly lost). If this “differential turnout,” as political strategists call it, continues through November, it would make the Democrats the clear favorite to win the House, especially if the decline in Trump’s approval rating recorded in several polls this week persists.

But Podhorzer, Morrison, and Nussbaum all caution that recapturing the House this fall wouldn’t mean that Democrats have solved all of their problems for 2020. For starters, each says Working America’s experience indicates that, despite all of Trump’s racial provocations, Democrats still face a serious challenge improving on the lackluster minority turnout that hurt Clinton in 2016. In its canvasses, the group has found that working-class minority communities are no more, and may be even less, engaged than their white counterparts. All three say they see no sign this year of an uptick from the typical midterm-turnout decline among minorities—and no evidence that distaste for Trump alone will change the equation for 2020.

The core of the Democrats’ problem, they believe, is that while many minority voters see Trump and the GOP as hostile, they are not convinced Democrats have ideas to meaningfully improve their economic condition. White blue-collar communities are even more skeptical. Among these working-class voters on both sides of the color bar, Morrison says flatly, “it is not credible to see the Democrats, broadly speaking, as a change agent.” The ominous result for Democrats? In all parts of the country, families that cite the economy as their top concern during Working America’s door-knocking visits prefer Republicans.

That doesn’t mean working families believe Trump’s economy has solved the long-term squeeze on their living standards, Morrison says. But it does mean that in the many hardscrabble places that keyed his 2016 win, Trump would begin the 2020 race with one main advantage: Despite Democratic charges that he’s favored the rich, many voters still believe he’s governing with people like them in mind.

“You can’t beat something with nothing,” Morrison says. “Donald Trump stood on that [campaign] stage and said, ‘I’m coming for the coal miner and the steel worker in western PA.’ He called someone’s name. Democrats are not speaking to that identifiable population. They are not speaking to what’s right there in front of them.”