Trump Bets Race Tweets Energize GOP While Independents Unmoved
(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump’s attacks on four minority congresswomen have stoked a backlash in the media and condemnation in Congress. But he’s betting the political benefits are worth it -- and that the comments fire up his base more than they drive away independents.
One reason: Trump’s insults raise the profile of the most liberal members of the Democratic Party, playing into his hopes of making the 2020 campaign in key battleground states like Wisconsin into a referendum on socialist policies. Polls show that the term “socialism” is a big loser for Democrats.
As the controversy enters its sixth day -- fueled by a week of tweets, recriminations and chants of “Send her back!” at a rally in North Carolina Wednesday -- it’s become clear that Trump sees a winning strategy.
“I’m not relishing the fight. I’m enjoying it because I have to get the word out to the American people,” the president told reporters before the rally.
Nowhere are those voters more important than Wisconsin, one of three “blue wall” states -- along with Pennsylvania and Michigan -- that Trump won in 2016. If all else remains the same, Trump must win at least two of those three states to be re-elected.
The Trump campaign is following the 2016 playbook: Turning out supporters with a volatile mix of blunt attacks, volatile insults, appeals to white identity politics -- along with touting the strength of the economy since the election.
In 2016, 59.5% of Wisconsin voters were white and did not have a four-year college degree, according to an analysis by demographer Bill Frey of the Brookings Institution. The only states with a higher percentage -- West Virginia, North Dakota, South Dakota and Iowa -- lean more to the GOP and have fewer electoral votes.
Trump won Wisconsin’s 10 electoral votes by flipping 22 counties won by Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, largely in the rural northern and western parts of the state.
“It’s an area that’s overwhelmingly white. Wisconsin is not an incredibly diverse state to begin with,” said Charles Franklin, the director of the Marquette University Law School Poll.
And those are the kinds of places where Trump’s comments about the Democratic freshmen women, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts -- who call themselves the Squad -- are most likely to resonate, he added.
The lawmakers have come to symbolize the leftward tilt of the Democratic Party, and the president’s attacks are designed to both stir racial resentment and stoke fears of a socialist movement.
“These women don’t look like white northern Wisconsin folks,” Franklin said. “Just as important, it’s painting the modern Democratic party as being identical to these young women who are to the left wing of the Democratic party.”
The danger for Trump lies in the narrow margin by which he won Wisconsin in 2016. He carried the state by just 22,748 votes -- less than 0.8% of those cast and underperformed among suburban voters.
But the tweets, perhaps shocking to suburban sensibilities, may not be enough to rock those voters from their satisfaction with the economy -- consistently their first or second-most important issue -- and their fear of socialism.
A report last month by Public Opinion Strategies, a Republican polling firm, suggested opposition to socialism as the key theme of the 2020 campaign.
Asked whether the country would be better off if it were more socialist, 77% of Democrats agreed, the polling firm said. But 83% of Republicans and 56% of independents disagreed -- and they felt more strongly about it.
Majorities of key demographic groups, including suburban women and battleground state voters, also opposed socialist policies. Those are voters -- about 13% of the electorate -- who might disapprove of how Trump conducts himself but agree with the some of the policies he’s pursuing, the report said.
“It’s a balancing act between motivating your base, motivating critical blue collar voters, without alienating those other voters,” said Neil Newhouse, the author of the report.
As with many Trump controversies, however, it may be forgotten by Election Day.
“Is this the straw that’s going to break the camel’s back? No,” he said.
Scott Walker, Wisconsin’s former governor, told Bloomberg Television that attacking the Squad distracted from what should be the president’s core message. “Any day he’s not talking about the contrast between him and his opponent, socialism versus free enterprise, is a wasted opportunity,” he said.
“This is going to be probably the closest state in America, and the decisive state in the presidential election,” added Walker, a Republican who was defeated for re-election last November. “If the president is able to define those running on the left side of the spectrum as embracing those socialist policies, I think he wins.”
In Waukesha County, the suburban Milwaukee county that is Wisconsin’s third largest and second wealthiest, Trump in 2016 received 63,764 fewer votes than Republican Mitt Romney did four years earlier.
“If this is a strategy, it’s one that goes to winning over the areas he won last time with bigger margins and bigger turnouts -- even if it risks alienating the more educated professional Republicans in the Milwaukee suburbs and the Fox Valley region,” which includes Appleton and Oshkosh, Franklin said.
Like all states, Wisconsin is getting better-educated and more diverse, but more slowly than the fast-growing southern and coastal states, solidifying its status as a battleground.
Racial rhetoric has long been a part of Trump’s appeal to white voters. An early proponent of the false “birther” conspiracy theory that Obama was born in Kenya, Trump has also claimed a federal judge was biased because he was Mexican-American, that the Mexican government was sending rapists to the U.S., and that Muslim-Americans in New Jersey cheered the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“It seemed to work well enough last time that he was able to win enough votes in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania,” said Charles Tien, who studies racial politics and elections at Hunter College in New York. “He’s appealing to white voters, and the research on racial resentment shows that the more racially resentful a person happens to be the more likely they are to vote for Trump.”
To measure racial resentment, researchers ask people whether they agree that blacks and immigrants should try harder to “work their way up” in society, or if generations of slavery and discrimination have made it more difficult for blacks to get what they deserve. How voters answered that question in 2016 was a strong predictor of support for Trump.
A USA Today/Ipsos poll Wednesday showed a similar divide. Almost two-thirds of Americans thought that telling minority Americans to “go back where they came from” is a racist statement, with a big partisan split: 85% of Democrats and 67% of independents agreed that such a comment is racist, compared to 45% of Republicans.
Younger, female, single, non-white and more educated voters were more likely to see Trump’s comments as racist.
Republicans and Fox News viewers were the only groups that agreed with Trump. And for those Republicans, there’s a flip side: 70% said people who call others “racist” usually do so in bad faith.
Those numbers could be just fine for Trump campaign officials, who say they’re not looking to win over new supporters.
“It’s not about trying to go out there and try to find some voter and change his mind,” Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale told Fox News Channel this month. “It’s about getting the ones that support the president now and get them to show up to the polls and vote.”
And Trump’s advisers proved in 2016 what chief strategist Steve Bannon said: “If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.”
Indeed, Trump on Wednesday accused Democrats of playing the “race card” and said they were “now wedded to this bitterness and hate.”
--With assistance from Josh Wingrove.
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