Editor’s Note: Paul Sracic is professor and chairman of the department of politics and international relations at Youngstown State University and a former Fulbright scholar in Japan. The views expressed are his own.
Paul Sracic says Trump has shown the potential to attract working-class voters in the swing state of Ohio
Latest national poll, from CNN, shows the race is essentially even
Tuesday’s CNN poll shows Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump winning the support of about two-thirds of white registered voters without a college degree. I’m sure there are some Democratic strategists out there who are tempted to say in response, “So, what else is new?” After all, in 2012, President Obama lost the white, working-class vote by 26 points, while still being comfortably re-elected.
When looking at numbers like this, however, it’s important to remember that we vote for president by state, with most of the outcomes easily predicted before the election even takes place. The focus, therefore, is always on the dozen or so swing states that remain unpredictable. Here the story gets more interesting.
The demographics of the swing states vary, and candidates win by cobbling together unique coalitions of voters. In Ohio in 2012, for example, some white working-class voters, namely those who lived in union households, were an important part of the Obama coalition. In fact, a study by Peyton M. Craighill and Scott Clement showed that union households were largely responsible for holding down the margin of Obama’s overall loss of the white working-class vote in Ohio to only 14 points. Considering how close the election was in Ohio four years ago, this was significant. Obama narrowly won the key swing state.
It is helpful to understand where these union households are in Ohio. A lot of them are in areas like Youngstown, where Trump campaigned on Labor Day. This explains why the Youngstown metropolitan area, which has a large number of white working-class voters, has remained one of the Buckeye state’s most Democratic areas.
If you look at past ballots in the two counties that make up this region – among the larger counties in the state, with a combined population of well over 400,000 – you will see that voters have been so loyal to the Democratic Party that Republicans often don’t even bother to field candidates in many races, especially during presidential years. This is because it is common in the primaries in these counties for five or six Democratic ballots to be cast for every one Republican vote. In general elections, any Republican who passes 35% of the vote is thought to have done well.
That’s what makes this year so stunning. In the March primary in Mahoning County, where Youngstown is the county seat, there were almost an equal number of Democratic and Republican votes. Over half of those Republican votes were cast for Donald Trump. In neighboring Trumbull County, similar results were seen.
How do we explain this crossover appeal? First of all, it is important to recognize that this sort of crossover voting really is unusual, especially in presidential races. Political scientists know that one of the best ways to guess someone’s party affiliation is to ask about their parents. So for many people, political affiliation is part of their inheritance, perhaps even in the genetic sense. Once inherited, our political party becomes part of our identity. Studies show that we use our partisan lens to filter out contrary political information, and maybe even other people who don’t share our political leanings.
It is therefore extremely difficult for individuals to switch parties. It is like asking a New York Yankees fan to cheer for the Boston Red Sox. So how is it that so many of these Democratic voters in Youngstown were able to cross over and vote for Donald Trump in the Ohio primary? Well, they could easily tell themselves that they were not really becoming Republicans.
Trump’s secret weapon with these voters is that they know he is not really a Republican. For these voters, the classic Republican is someone like Mitt Romney or Jeb Bush – who they see as country club Republicans, representing the interests of the rich.
Trump, ironically the billionaire owner of many such country clubs, has somehow managed to sell himself as the anti-Romney, and the slayer of Bush. The hatred that both of these traditional Republicans show for Trump actually helps him convey this message. It is telling that some of these Ohio Democrats who supported Trump said they wanted to “switch to the Trump party.”
But Trump’s weapon is potentially a two-edged sword. Notice how Barack Obama, when he spoke at the Democratic National Convention, mentioned the Republican icon Ronald Reagan, and noted that Trump was nothing like a normal Republican, with whom he might have honest policy differences.
This message was not intended for Democrats, and certainly not aimed at Sanders’ supporters; it was directed at moderate Republicans who might feel just as uncomfortable as working-class Democrats with the idea of “switching teams.”
Obama’s words, combined with the fact that Hillary Clinton has selected a pro-life Democrat whose father-in-law was a Republican governor as her running mate, shows that the Democratic leaders know they have a shot at pulling in their own crossover voters this year.
So looking at the white working-class vote this year may tell us only part of the story. In 2012, more than 90% of both Democrats and Republicans who voted supported their party’s nominee. This year, the winner may be the one who can steal the most voters from the other team.