1 March 2016

The GOP leadership’s worst nightmare: Reagan Democrats for Trump


The most striking aspect of the rise of Donald Trump is its rebuttal of the universally accepted axiom that it could not happen. Just months ago the conventional wisdom every Monday was that he would crash and burn by Thursday. Then, as the opinion polls mysteriously moved in his favour, his political demise was postponed to a new meridian: “Wait until actual votes are cast and he’ll soon fade.”

The Iowa result lent momentary credibility to that scenario, only to see it trashed in New Hampshire. Then The Donald cleaned up in South Carolina and Nevada. Now, on the eve of Super Tuesday, he is sitting on top of gargantuan poll leads, commanding 49 per cent support among Republican voters, with four rival candidates still in the race.

Philip Bump has pointed out, in an analysis in The Washington Post, that if John Kasich dropped out and all his voters went to Marco Rubio, he “would go from trailing by 33 to trailing by 27”. Trump even enjoys a 40-point lead over Ted Cruz among Tea Party supporters. The “poorly educated” narrative is wearing thin, too, with Trump commanding around 46 per cent support among Republicans with college degrees.

Panicking Republican mandarins are clutching at security blankets, babbling about Texas (“We’ll head them off at the pass!”) and brokered conventions, but the dawning reality is that unless there is an astonishing reversal in Trump’s fortunes tomorrow it is all over for the aisle-crossing grandees who sold out conservatism.

So, the last firewall against Trump (in the jaundiced perception of the GOP elite) is Hillary Clinton. But even that final bulwark may be vulnerable. Enter the Reagan Democrats, the socially conservative Democrat supporters who came over to Ronald Reagan in 1980 and crossed over again for George H W Bush. Their chief psephological interpreter Stan Greenberg, in his classic study of Reagan Democracy’s seedbed in Macomb County, Michigan, finally concluded in 2008, when support for Barack Obama there mirrored the rest of the country, that they had “become normal and uninteresting”.

But today? Donald Trump, back in August 2015, went to Michigan and addressed a crowd of 2,000 in Birch Run, headlined in the Detroit Free Press: “A lovefest for Donald Trump in Birch Run”. Even then he knew there were rich seams of votes to be mined in such places. On trade issues, his pitch is clearly designed to attract angry Democrats. In states that do not allow crossover voting in primaries Reagan/Trump Democrats cannot help Donald; but crossover voting is allowed in eight of the states voting tomorrow.

Trump doesn’t need the Reagan Democrats to win the GOP nomination, but he needs them to win the presidency. They could do it for him. If you are an angry blue-collar socially conservative Democrat, do you identify with Wall Street-funded, Beltway, socially liberal Hillary Clinton, or with Donald Trump? Even the attack adverts highlighting Trump’s Democratic past do him a favour with that constituency. Months ago, in the American Spectator, Jeffrey Lord pointed out the folly of this, reminding readers of Ronald Reagan’s classic appeal to crossover voters: “I was a Democrat most of my life.”

Today’s polls chart a seismic change wrought by Trump over weeks rather than months. They also show his appeal reaches across most demographics, including Hispanics. He is not “far Right”, more poujadiste, and in many respects looks like a computer-realised candidate designed to attract conservative Democrats. Hillary, on the other hand, has been around an awfully long time and exudes a sense of entitlement voters may find repellent. Only the conversion of one final electoral demographic stands between America and President Trump.

Gerald Warner is a political commentator.