How can Democrats win back trust of disaffected Trump voters?

Democrats' new 'Better Deal' offers an economic message to woo back working-class America. But some contend that it's not just 'the economy, stupid,' as Bill Clinton's campaign strategist so famously quipped.

James Lawler Duggan/Reuters
Democrats huddle before unveiling the party's 'A Better Deal' plan in Berryville, Va., on July 24. From left to right: US Rep. David Cicilline of Rhode Island, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, and Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia.

Daren Ware believes in single-payer health care. He’s also a longtime union member, voted for Barack Obama for president, and lost his house in the last recession. But he’s still not listening to anything Democrats have to say about the party’s new economic agenda. 

“I did see something about their new message about creating jobs,” he said. “And I just laughed. Like, ‘Now you’re seeing that you guys are looking stupid, and the country is more against you than for you.’ So now they want to try and reverse that.”

Mr. Ware is a commercial painter in Warren, Mich., who voted for Donald Trump last year. He’s just the kind of voter that Democrats want to woo back with their “Better Deal” message, released last month in preparation for the 2018 midterm elections. It’s a play on the “New Deal” offered by iconic Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt, and focuses squarely on the economy.

But some Democrats contend that it’s not just “the economy, stupid,” as Bill Clinton’s campaign strategist so famously quipped during Mr. Clinton’s successful bid in 1992.

There’s also a cultural disconnect between the largely urban and suburban party of the coasts and the disaffected voters in rural America and in white working-class areas such as Michigan’s Macomb County, where Ware lives. That county, just north of Detroit, flipped for Mr. Trump last year, and helped put Michigan in the Republican column.

Indeed, Ware, sitting inside his Ford F-150 pick-up truck at a strip-mall post office, says times are good right now. But he can’t stand the way Democrats tear down the president and he chafes against career politicians like Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi of California.

“Unfortunately, our brand is toxic,” says David “Mudcat” Saunders, a former Democratic strategist in Roanoke, Va., speaking specifically of rural parts of the country. Democrats are “branded with anti-rural culture” and are seen as wanting to take away guns, not caring about faith, and giving jobs to Mexico and China, he says. And then there’s the “patronizing,” elitist tone.

“Stone by stone, they’re building a wall [with voters] that would make the Trump wall look like a paper fence,” says Mr. Saunders. Yet he and other Democrats are pleased that they’re at least getting a message out. That they’re for something, and not just against Trump. It’s a first step on the long hike up to the summit of trust needed to win elections – a journey that won’t be completed in a day.

First up: 2018

The first big challenge is 2018, when Democrats need 24 seats to take back the House. The 23 seats held by Republicans in districts that went for Hillary Clinton are natural targets. But they probably won’t win them all, and need to gain some seats where Trump also prevailed. Right now, Democrats have identified 79 potential take-back seats held by Republicans, many in the heartland.

In the Senate, it’s a game of defense, with 10 Democrats trying to retain seats in states won by Trump, some of them crimson. Meanwhile, 38 governorships are up for grabs.

First and foremost, Democrats need to come back strong on economic trust, says Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. “That’s literally the most important thing we can do.”

Democrats have never won an election when they’ve been behind Republicans on the economy, she says. Just before last year’s balloting, Democrats were 17 points behind Republicans on economic trust and they remain behind, though the gap has narrowed considerably, she says.

Hoping to address that, the Democrats’ “Better Deal” emphasizes higher wages, lower costs, and preparation for 21st  century jobs. It advocates a $15 minimum wage, less expensive living through lower drug prices and paid family and sick leave, and tax credits for employers that start retraining and apprenticeship programs. Last week they unveiled another plank in their program: new trade policies.

Out of touch with blue-collar lives?

Ms. Lake would have preferred that the agenda be coupled with political reform, such as campaign finance, which was a big part of the Bernie Sanders message. And while she acknowledges that Democrats have sounded condescending, “the economic message is the best way to bridge the cultural divide,” she maintains.

“We seemed out of touch with blue-collar lives and we didn’t seem to get that this economy was really hard for a lot of working people,” she says.

The “Better Deal” has gotten mixed reviews – some see it as warmed-over policies, others cite the name as too close to a Papa John’s pizza slogan, and abortion-rights groups are angry that it makes no mention of their cause. Indeed, the plan specifically leaves out controversial social issues to give freer rein to candidates in more culturally conservative areas.

Democrats are not suddenly going to become a pro-life, pro-gun, or anti-same-sex-marriage party to meet the cultural concerns of voters, says Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, which handicaps elections at the University of Virginia.

“Being liberal on the big social issues, that’s just part of the Democratic identity now. But the party should be open to individual candidates who don’t hold all those opinions, because I honestly believe that to win the House, Democrats are going to have to win several Trump districts,” says Mr. Kondik.

Republicans have their own issues. “They have a lot of problems with nonwhite voters who feel like Republicans are hostile to them,” says Kondik. Trump has not helped them with that, he adds. “There are perceived blind spots in both parties.”

One way Democrats are trying is by putting up candidates who fit a more conservative-seeming mold, such as former Marine Lt. Col. Amy McGrath, who is running in Kentucky’s 6th district. Her video campaign announcement, which features the bomber jacket-clad veteran – the first woman to pilot an F-18 in combat – walking down a tarmac telling her story, went viral.

Fielding Democratic veterans “says something to the point that we need to connect culturally,” says Emily Parcell, a consultant who worked on the Iowa presidential campaigns of Barack Obama and Mrs. Clinton. “It helps to show that not every Democrat is the liberal boogeyman that [Republicans] would have you believe.”

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