There has been an odd sort of meme developing lately where the argument is being made that Obama-Trump voters actually weren't important in 2016 and, relatedly, that those who voted for Trump, regardless of who they voted for before, are not accessible to Democrats, no matter what appeal the party uses.
I think both of these propositions are dead wrong and I have argued against them before. So I was very pleased to see a detailed article by Nate Cohn in the New York Times today that refutes these propositions and gets the Obama-Trump voters about right.
Cohn begins with this crisp summary which is entirely correct:
The story of the 2016 presidential election is simple. Donald J. Trump made huge gains among white voters without a college degree. His gains were large enough to cancel out considerable losses among well-educated white voters and a decade of demographic shifts.
He notes the following about white noncollege Obama voters in 2016:There are questions and details still up for debate: whether Democrats can win back these voters, and how to think about and frame the decline in black turnout. But postelection surveys, pre-election surveys, voter file data and the actual results all support the main story: The voters who switched from President Obama to Mr. Trump were decisive.
Just 74 percent of white Obama voters with a high school diploma or less backed Mrs. Clinton in the [Democracy Fund Voter Study Group survey].
And on persuadability, Cohn provides the following illuminating data:Similarly, the Cooperative Congressional Election Study [C.C.E.S.] found that Mrs. Clinton won just 78 percent of white Obama voters without a bachelor’s degree. The figure was even lower in the key Rust Belt battlegrounds.
The C.C.E.S. found that 26 percent of Obama-Trump voters identified as Democrats in their postelection study, while 35 percent were Republicans and 37 percent were independents. Including those independents who lean toward a party, Republicans led by a wider margin of 45 percent to 30 percent. Even so, that’s a significant share who continue to identify with the Democratic Party despite voting for Mr. Trump.
Democrats were probably still winning a lot of these voters in 2016. The results speak for themselves to some extent. Jason Kander lost his Senate race in Missouri by just three percentage points, even as Mrs. Clinton lost by 20 points. Even Democrats who didn’t run ahead of Mrs. Clinton over all — like Tammy Duckworth in Illinois, Russ Feingold in Wisconsin or Katie McGinty in Pennsylvania — nonetheless ran far ahead of Mrs. Clinton in traditionally Democratic, white working-class areas.
Mrs. Duckworth’s performance is probably the most telling. She won Illinois’s 12th Congressional District — a downstate, working-class district now held by Republican Mike Bost — by nine points. Mr. Trump won it by 12 points.
Mr. Bost might seem like a fairly safe Republican for re-election, if you judge the partisanship of his district strictly by his party’s performance in the last presidential election. He certainly would be safe if Democrats wrote off Obama-Trump voters. But the willingness of these voters to support a Democrat for federal office against an incumbent Republican in a fairly decent year for Republicans suggests that at least these Obama-Trump voters remain in play, and Mr. Bost is more vulnerable than it might initially seem.
More generally, there is reason to think these voters are likelier to vote for a Democrat against a more traditional Republican who hasn’t developed a message to match Mr. Trump’s appeal to white working-class Democrats. These voters, for instance, tend to support abortion rights and same-sex marriage. They support a higher minimum wage.
All considered, it does seem likely that at least a portion of the Obama-Trump vote can be lured back to the Democrats — especially against traditional Republican candidates who emphasize small government, free markets and social conservatism.
So don't let anyone tell you that Obama-Trump voters were not important or that Democrats should give up on them. They were and Democrats shouldn't.Whether that means it should be the crux of the Democrats’ path to power is another question. But it will most likely be a part of it, and will probably need to be for Democrats to secure parts of the Rust Belt that continue to play an outsize role in American elections.