Democrats Are Reclaiming Populism, And Obama-Trump Territory

The party has persuaded voters throughout the Midwest to return to the Democratic fold.

WAVERLY, Iowa ― Democrats throughout the country are winning back a small but potentially critical number of voters in counties and cities that flipped to support President Donald Trump four years ago, thanks to a renewed outreach from Democrats and the loss of the populist edge the Republican Party developed in 2016.

These areas, where voters are disproportionately white, rural and older, and without college degrees, are mostly in the northern half of the country, especially in the Midwest. They have disproportionate power in the nation’s political system because of the overrepresentation of rural states in the Senate and the Electoral College.

“The blue wall has to be reestablished,” Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden told reporters in Pennsylvania on Monday, expressing optimism about winning the three traditionally Democratic-leaning states ― Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan ― that Trump narrowly won over Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Few operatives in either party expect Democrats to win back these voters or the small counties and cities they live in entirely, but the party’s gains with them are playing a crucial role in creating a path to 270 electoral votes that looks increasingly solid for former Vice President Biden.

“People are pissed. They’re angry. They think the entire system is corrupt. And they’re voting for Joe Biden.”

- Matt Morrison, executive director of Working America

For many of these voters, the issues match the top reasons anyone in the electorate is backing Biden: They believe Trump has grossly mishandled the coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 250,000 Americans and think Republicans are threatening key health care protections. But operatives in both parties also said they’ve been surprised at the ability of Biden, a career politician, to steal the mantle of populism from Trump.

“People are pissed,” said Matt Morrison, the executive director of Working America, the political organizing arm of the AFL-CIO, describing what his group hears from voters in text messages and phone calls. “They’re angry. They think the entire system is corrupt. And they’re voting for Joe Biden.”

While Biden and his campaign are leading the charge, the shift is also occurring further down the ballot, providing key boosts to Democrats running for Senate and governor in rural states and for House candidates battling for control of the exurban districts.

On a Monday earlier this month, Theresa Greenfield, the Democratic U.S. Senate candidate in Iowa, was trying to win over more of these voters with a swing through four counties in the state’s northeast corner that had backed Democrat Barack Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016. Each socially distanced, mask-wearing stop was designed to highlight a different reason why voters in these sparsely populated rural counties might be tempted to abandon the GOP Sen. Joni Ernst and the Republican Party.

CrawDaddy Outdoors was surviving ― people can kayak even during a pandemic ― but many of its neighbors on the main commercial drag in Waverly were struggling. The owner of Scott Pharmacy in nearby Fayette talked about how consolidation in the health insurance and pharmaceutical industries was making it harder for independent drugstores like his own to survive. Trump’s trade war had hit the timber business in Elkader, to the east, blocking it from selling to Chinese customers. In Decorah, the owner of an organic farm had taken a part-time job at the U.S. Postal Service to help make ends meet.

At each stop, Greenfield, whose accent and relentless cheeriness peg her as a native daughter of the Midwest, pointed to solutions: A focus on vocational schools and community colleges, along with new infrastructure funding, could boost the economy. A public option and granting Medicare the ability to negotiate drug prices would help seniors afford prescriptions. Ditching Trump’s preference for bilateral trade deals could open up foreign markets. She would work to increase access to capital for small farmers.

Public polling shows Iowa Democratic Senate candidate Theresa Greenfield winning over a small but critical number of voters who backed President Donald Trump in 2016.
Public polling shows Iowa Democratic Senate candidate Theresa Greenfield winning over a small but critical number of voters who backed President Donald Trump in 2016.
Caroline Brehman via Getty Images

Greenfield was always sure to mention her own roots in rural America ― she grew up on a farm just over the border in Minnesota, in a town with a population of less than 500 ― as a way of connecting to a lifestyle she admitted many Democrats now felt was foreign. (Ernst’s campaign is fond of pointing out that Greenfield, a real estate executive, now lives in one of Iowa’s wealthiest ZIP codes.)

“When I was just a sport, my parents added on to the house. They added a big entry,” she said in an interview. “You know what was in it? A shower, a washing machine and a dryer. Because we didn’t take showers when we left in the morning, we took them when we got home at night because we worked. And that’s just very Iowan. And Democrats haven’t been talking about that.”

Public polling shows crucial gains: The last iteration of the Des Moines Register’s Iowa Poll showed Greenfield with a small lead over Ernst. In the survey, Greenfield was winning 10% of voters who had backed Trump in 2016. The same poll showed Biden in a tight race with Trump.

Surveys in other states show similar small but important shifts. In a Monmouth University poll of Pennsylvania, Trump was leading in a set of counties where he dominated in 2016 by 22 percentage point margin, but that was down from 36 points four years ago. A New York Times/Siena College poll of Michigan found Biden barely trailing Trump among rural voters there.

Stanley Greenberg, a Democratic pollster who has studied working-class voters for decades, praised Biden for “articulating a vision that was grounded in his working-class values and talks about working-class life,” in contrast to the Clinton campaign four years earlier.

“They thought Trump was different. They believed his promises because he was a business guy, because he was bellicose. But they see now that he’s worse.”

- Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio)

“It was a campaign that, after [Clinton] lost to Bernie Sanders in Michigan, thought she couldn’t win white working-class and rural voters,” Greenberg said. “There was a Trump pull to the white working-class revolt, but there was also a push from Hillary Clinton and some Democrats.”

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who has long been bullish on winning back industrial areas in the Midwest, said voters in his home state ― which polling indicates is tied after Trump won it by double digits in 2016 ― no longer believe Trump is different from typical politicians. He noted Trump has failed to stop the offshoring of manufacturing jobs and has undermined rules designed to boost overtime pay and protect contract workers.

“They thought Trump was different. They believed his promises because he was a business guy, because he was bellicose,” Brown said. “But they see now that he’s worse.”

Biden’s campaign has always contained elements of populism ― he launched his campaign at a union hall in Pittsburgh, attacking Trump over cuts to health care ― but he’s stepped up his critiques of the Trump administration’s bias toward the wealthy over the course of the past month, relentlessly framing the race as a battle between “Scranton and Park Avenue.”

“More than 215,000 dead because of COVID-19. Experts say we’ll lose nearly 200,000 more lives in the next few months,” Biden said during a trip to Detroit earlier this month. “All because all this president cares about from his Park Avenue perspective is the stock market.”

Earlier this month, the Biden campaign began airing a series of localized ads around the country contrasting Trump’s plans to push for a cut in the capital gains tax ― which would disproportionately benefit the wealthiest Americans ― with his own plans to implement “Buy American” rules for federal purchases.

“Donald Trump’s answer? A new $30 billion tax break for the 100 richest people in America,” a narrator says. “Joe Biden has a plan for economic recovery that actually helps you.”

The populist positioning is having an effect: A CBS News/YouGov poll of Wisconsin released earlier this month found 60% of likely voters there believe Trump was most concerned about the “wealthy and elite.” Just 35% of likely voters said the same of Biden. The poll has found similar results in Pennsylvania ― 56% of likely voters said the Trump administration has mostly favored the wealthy ― and in Michigan, where 55% of likely voters said Trump’s campaign was paying too much attention to the wealthy and 51% said it was paying too little attention to the middle class.

Trump has tried, over the course of the campaign, to reemphasize the issues that brought white working-class voters into his coalition into 2016. A full 30% of the Trump campaign’s television spending since Labor Day has gone toward ads on immigration, according to data from Kantar/CMAG.

“What does Biden now propose while the pandemic smolders around the globe?” a narrator asks in one such ad. “Increasing refugees by 700%, from the most unstable, vulnerable and dangerous parts of the world.” (As the narrator speaks the second sentence, the words “Syria Somalia Yemen” appear on the screen.)

But a University of Wisconsin poll of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania found fewer than 5% of voters think immigration is the most important issue facing the country.

Democratic performance in these counties is improving not only because they are winning over voters who backed him four years ago but also from winning over voters who backed third-party candidates or stayed home in 2016.

Maria Laviena, a Reading, Pennsylvania, resident who is now active in the progressive group Make the Road Action, voted for Trump four years ago because of his business background. “He was a businessman, a man with money, a capable man,” she said.

Her opinion has changed. After seeing Trump’s treatment of her native Puerto Rico, she’s concluded Trump “doesn’t have the capacity to govern.”

Vice President Mike Pence arrives at a campaign rally at the Reading Regional Airport on Oct. 17. A rising Latino population in the area has cut into Trump's 2016 leads.
Vice President Mike Pence arrives at a campaign rally at the Reading Regional Airport on Oct. 17. A rising Latino population in the area has cut into Trump's 2016 leads.

Mary Brennan, a barista in Scranton, Pennsylvania, has a mix of liberal and conservative views but identifies as a Republican. Her 2016 vote for Trump was the first time she had voted in years. She doesn’t like Biden, but Trump’s mishandling of the pandemic and recent behavior has alienated her enough to consider voting for the Democrat on Election Day.

“He knew he had COVID and then he went and did a big rally,” Brennan said. “He’s doing all these things to, like, screw up. And it’s almost like he’s doing it on purpose.”

Voters like Brennan would probably be firmly in Trump’s corner if Trump had kept more of the populist promises he ran on, according to Pennsylvania state Sen. John Yudichak, who represents Luzerne County ― a heavily white, working-class county in northeast Pennsylvania that flipped from Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016.

“If President Trump came out of the gate, instead of attacking health care, put together a bipartisan deal for the largest infrastructure funding bill in the history of the country, I don’t think we would have a competitive election today,” he said.

Yudichak formally left the Democratic Party last November, becoming an independent who caucuses with Republicans. Yudichak, a pro-labor moderate, is particularly frustrated by some Democrats’ opposition to fracking, which has been a major source of union jobs in his part of the state.

But Yudichak plans to vote for Biden because he believes he stood up to the left by rejecting calls to oppose fracking and by condemning rioting that spilled out from anti-racism protests in late May and June. Trump, by contrast, has not been willing enough to confront the extreme elements in his own base, Yudichak said.

Officials with the Democratic Governors’ Association say Biden’s strengths are helping their underdog candidates in Republican-leaning Missouri and Montana. House incumbents such as Maine Rep. Jared Golden, whose Trump-won rural district is the largest east of the Mississippi, are cruising to reelection.

Still, the race in Iowa may be the most vivid down-ballot demonstration of these gains and how Republicans are trying to limit them. After victories in the presidential race in 2016 and the governor’s race in 2018, the GOP was confident a then-popular Ernst could hold her Senate seat as Republicans worked to protect their endangered 53-47 majority.

Instead, the race has become a $140 million slugfest and one of the nation’s closest Senate contests. Democrats and Greenfield have relentlessly slammed Ernst for suggesting cuts to Social Security, for downplaying the pandemic and for purchasing a “luxury condo” in Washington.

“If President Trump came out of the gate, instead of attacking health care, put together a bipartisan deal for the largest infrastructure funding bill in the history of the country, I don’t think we would have a competitive election today.”

- Pennsylvania state Sen. John Yudichak

Republicans have largely responded with the same attacks they’ve deployed against every Democratic Senate candidate: Their television ads falsely say Greenfield supports the Green New Deal and a “government takeover of health care.”

But there is one attack that stands out, highlighting Greenfield’s role as a “big shot executive” who “personally signed the notices to kick small businesses to the curb to allow a foreign-owned corporation to move in,” in the words of a narrator for a super PAC controlled and funded by allies of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Asked by a local reporter about the ads, Greenfield dismissed them as meaningless partisan attacks attempting to turn an everyday business deal into a scandal. “I’m quite proud of my small business record,” she said.

Still, the goal of the ads is clear: They seek to portray Greenfield as a smaller-time version of the distinctly un-populist villain Democrats turned Mitt Romney into during the 2012 election, betraying the little guy for cash and foreign companies.

American Bridge, a Democratic super PAC, has spent millions on television ads targeting white voters in rural areas of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, believing that limiting Trump’s margins was key to providing a path back for Democrats.

Sacha Haworth, the group’s political director, said Trump’s initial weaknesses with these voters were on health care and the economy, but his behavior became more concerning as they realized he had broken key promises.

“They liked he was an asshole because they thought he was their asshole,” Haworth said. “But he turned out to just be an asshole.”

Daniel Marans contributed reporting from Pennsylvania.

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