The 2016 presidential election scrambled American politics with President Donald Trump crafting a winning coalition that broke apart the last 30 years of electoral politics. But two questions remain: Has the Trump coalition really re-made American politics and can it last?
Republican political consultant Brad Todd and national political reporter Selena Zito think the answer to both questions is yes. In their new book, The Great Revolt, Todd and Zito conduct an exhaustive study of the Trump coalition, including in-depth interviews of voters, review of election data and intensive survey research. Unlike the typical collection of post-campaign books, which are mostly gossipy insider stories or self-serving autobiographical tomes, The Great Revolt puts the spotlight on the voters.
Sixty-five million voters for President Trump cannot be simplistically classified and the authors describe a complex coalition of voters. As importantly, the authors recognized that a big proportion of voters aren’t voting for a candidate, but against the opponent. Uniting all Trump voters is rejection of the globalist institutions that have failed to spread prosperity from a narrow grouping of (mostly) coastal cities to the rest of America. Trump voters see, hear and feel the contempt of the elites in New York, Washington and California — and they respond with their own contempt for a hypocritical, self-dealing ruling class.
Not only did Trump successfully construct a localist coalition that crossed traditional ideological and partisan lines, he was able to appeal directly to voters in a way that had not been possible before.
Whether that was a conscious strategy by Trump or just a necessity since all doors to the establishment were closed, we’ll never know.
But is this coalition the way forward from Trump and the Republicans? That case is not as strongly proven. Election Day data shows that the traditional Republican is not dead yet.
In Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, traditional conservative Republican U.S. Senate candidates performed significantly better than Trump. Rubio (R-FL) won by a massive 713,000 votes, 600,000 more than Trump. Portman (R-OH) – ex-US Trade Representative and the prototypical Chamber of Commerce Republican – trounced his opponent by over 1.1 million votes (nearly 700,000 more than Trump). Toomey (R-PA) and Johnson (R-WI) were in races rated as Lean Democrat to tossup and both won by more than double Trump’s margins.
Trump’s own victory was pretty thin – flip just 35,000 votes in two states and he comes up short. Plus, his victory was against the most lead-footed, tin-eared major party nominee in modern times. In addition, voter turnout was down among urban Democratic constituencies in the key states.
The comparative benchmark Todd and Zito used, Mitt Romney’s numbers in 2012, is not as rosy for the new Trump coalition as it appears. In 2012, Mitt Romney performed a lot better than is assumed. Yes, Trump did better than Romney. But, Romney wasn’t supposed to win. Since the Civil War, no president running for re-election lost during an economic expansion at least three quarters old — and the last Democrat to lose re-election before Jimmy Carter was Grover Cleveland.
With 12 straight quarters of economic growth, President Obama should have won in a landslide. In the post-war era, presidents winning re-election averaged 416 electoral votes and a 12-point margin. Obama’s 332 electoral votes and 3.9 percent margin was a major underperformance against Romney.
Put it all together and the Trump coalition, united by a shared set of economic and cultural grievances, is likely the largest coherent voting bloc in the country — but it is not a majority. To win in 2020 and build a lasting majority, expanding the base is necessary. To be sure, the Republicans have a simpler task ahead of them than the Democrats, who have to manage a jigsaw puzzle of often-squabbling and incompatible pieces.
Unless Trump and the GOP recover a portion of their lost suburban right-of-center voters, the margin of error for winning will be very, very narrow.
It is clear the Democrats’ identity politics failed to build a big enough coalition to win in 2016. It is also clear the Trump coalition is barely enough to do the job — and vulnerable to just a few defections or a small turnout increase by the Democrats. The Great Revolt shows that there is a powerful base for populists like Trump, but the open question is how to expand on that base to form a winning coalition. Maybe that will be Todd and Zito’s next effort.
Keith Naughton is a political consultant.