How the Democratic Party can turn the Sun Belt blue
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.