“Trump country” stories help explain our politics, not the next election

The “journalist-among-the-Trump-voter” subgenre of stories is a unique phenomenon of this political era. There was no similar rash of articles in 2010 asking Barack Obama’s staunchest supporters in mostly black neighborhoods why they still backed the president, how they justified the soaring unemployment rate, whether they felt betrayed.

The reason is that journalists didn’t miss Obama’s rise and they weren’t perplexed by the motivations of his voters; there was no mystery to solve. Trump, by contrast, blindsided us. The political press — myself included — underestimated both the depth and durability of his support, and has been trying to atone for that mistake, and ensure it’s not made again, ever since. But in trying to take Trump’s staunchest supporters seriously, we need to make sure we don’t lose sight of his weaker supporters — and his numerous opponents. They’re the ones who decided the 2016 election and will decide the 2018 and 2020 elections.

Michael Kruse’s Politico story revisiting diehard Trump supporters in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, is among the best of these Trump country stories I’ve seen — it’s a tremendous piece of reporting that has a lot to say about our politics. What Kruse discovers is that Trump’s supporters don’t care about his broken promises, don’t believe the swirling scandals, and haven’t heard many of the dominant criticisms. Their filter bubble leads to bizarre moments like this one:

Kruse concludes that hardcore support for Trump is more tribal than ideological, more cultural than political, and more interested in who Trump is fighting than what he is doing. There’s also quite a bit of racism in the mix. And Kruse gets all of it vividly, powerfully, on the record.

Where Kruse’s story goes awry is in its effort to draw a macro-political conclusion from all that (emphasis mine):

Here’s the thing: No one will win in 2018 or 2020 by trying to convert the most hardcore of Trump supporters. That isn’t how elections are won. It never has been: Herbert Hoover, in the depths of the Great Depression, held about 80 percent of his vote from the previous election. You can imagine stories going deep into Hoover country quoting die-hard Hooverites explaining away their president’s failures. But Hoover still lost his reelection bid in a landslide.

Or take Tuesday’s elections in Virginia. The massive Democratic victory was driven, among other things, by a surge in turnout from suburban districts that leaned Democratic in 2016, but swung harder blue in 2017. The Northern Virginia suburbs delivered 64 percent of their vote to Hillary Clinton last year, and 68 percent to Ralph Northam this year. A 4 percentage point swing toward the Democratic candidate in 2020 wouldn’t require converting any hardcore Trump enthusiasts, but it would bury his reelection campaign.

Trump’s record matters: he’s been losing support since he took office

Trump’s 2016 Electoral College win included some strong Trump supporters, but it also included a lot of weak Trump supporters and a bunch of voters who disliked Trump but hated Hillary Clinton even more.

One reason that coalition could come together is that Trump had the advantage of running without a record. He had no unemployment rate to explain, no votes to justify. Even those uncomfortable with his campaign could tell themselves he was just putting on a show, but when he took office, he would govern as the pragmatic businessman who’d built a multi-billion-dollar global brand.

But since taking office, he’s been developing a record, putting his name to bills, letting the American people see how he’s running the White House, and the result is he’s consistently losing support. His record very much has mattered:

More important than the lines on the chart is the context behind them. Trump didn’t win in 2016 by a healthy margin. Even with James Comey’s assist, he lost the popular vote, and the election turned on a mere 74,000 ballots in three states. Which means Trump can’t lose support and win again in 2020. He has to expand his coalition, or at least stop it from shrinking. At that, he’s failing.

There are plenty of Trump voters out there who aren’t deep inside Trump’s bubble, who don’t like the fights he’s constantly picking, who are open to arguments about his record. In the LA Times, Michael Finnegan has a less colorful story that is in some ways more telling — he finds Trump voters bitterly disappointed by the president and reconsidering their support for him.

“He said he was going to drain the swamp,” one Trump voter told Finnegan. “All he’s done is restocked it.” Another Trump supporter was even more searing: “He has no clue how to run a country.” The most recent Washington Post/ABC News poll shows Trump’s job approval at 33 percent among independents — it’s almost impossible to win a national election with numbers like that.

This isn’t to take anything away from Kruse’s excellent reporting, or the importance of trying to understand what voters of all orientations think. But we shouldn’t mistake Trump’s hardcore support for the votes that won him the White House, and that he’s at most risk of losing.