That slack-jawed yokel look on my face is because I just came back from a wedding and some visits in flyover country, which turned the last few days into a highly unscientific survey of old friends and new relatives. I crossed three states during my travels and talked to dozens of people about politics. It was easy, as the media had already slugged my pickup line into the same category as weather, local sports, and whether the buffet chicken was any good: “whattya think, is Trump’s craziness gonna lead to big gains for the Democrats in the November midterms?”
I grew up in Ohio, and have written about the flyover voter ahead of the last election and in a book. Now once again these voters matter. As a bug-eyed Doc Brown preaching from his stool at the open bar would put it, 2020—and the future itself, Marty—depends on 2018! If Democrats flip the House by taking 23 seats away from Republican incumbents, they can block appointments, investigate everything in a Benghazi-like loop, and even impeach Trump, paving the way for Elizabeth Warren’s victory dance.
But for that blue wave to reach shore, a bunch of Republicans need to vote Democrat and the New Democratic Base, young people and a list of minorities longer than a CVS receipt, must vote in numbers never before seen. The second part of that plan has its own questions. But my recent travels make it pretty clear that depending on Republicans to vote Democrat because they no longer support Trump is out to sea.
I met plenty of people as ideologically committed, albeit 180 degrees to the Right, as their East Coast vegan socialist cousins. But most of those I spoke to could be better described as light purple voters. More than a handful enthusiastically voted for their first ever Democrat in 2008, then backed away from Obama in 2012, before returning to the Republicans, albeit Trump, in 2016. The idea today is that Trump’s boorishness will send them back to Democratic candidates.
Or maybe not. The endless stream of Trump atrocities large and small talked about on Sunday morning TV is not what voters were talking about. Everybody knew about Stormy but nobody cared; they had processed Trump’s affairs in 2016 and that makes them old news even if they’re still on Rachel Maddow every night. In response to the daily bombings of hall monitor gossip, one person said, “I get it, I don’t like what he says all the time either, but let the man try and do his job. Enough already.” It’s like buying outrage in bulk at Costco: at some point you realize a five-pound shaker of nutmeg is too much to deal with and you hide it in the garage.
Out here candidates are not described as fierce or nasty. Social media is for kids and cats, marches for folks who don’t have to work a weekend job. Racism and pronouns matter, but only after figuring out how to pay for health care. Anything else stinks of indifference from those whose pensions didn’t disappear in the last merger. There is a sense that being black, brown, gay, Muslim, or female is not by itself a qualification for office. To some it seems that men, old people, straight people, entire regions of the country, are being excluded or deemed unworthy. It isn’t status anxiety, really, but a sense that what used to be a difference of political opinion now makes someone illegitimate as a person—“deplorable” came up more than once.
So it’s not all about Trump. And when it is about him, most support the part of Trumpism that affects them financially.
Democrats campaigning against the economy? It matters, however modest and fragile, that under Trump median household income has risen 1.8 percent and poverty has declined .4 percent. A voter will support anything that brings his nose above water. Economists misunderstand it as a bad thing that most middle income families are only now clawing back to 2008 levels: the actual middle income families see that as a pretty good thing. I heard the word “results” a lot. “Optimism” about the future now counts as much as “hope” once did.
Telling people economic progress is a result of the former administration is a punch line. It is hard to overstate how deeply these Americans despise the Obama response to the 2008 financial crisis. Many saw the values of their homes, the largest investments they will ever make, dramatically decrease. They don’t own much stock outside of flaccid IRAs, and so they benefited little from a recovery that first bailed out Wall Street. Obama’s decisions still aren’t done with them 10 years later, because their retirements are dependent on home prices rising enough so downsizing sales can cover them late in life.
When people are excluded from the most important decisions affecting their basic livelihoods, they lose faith. That bitter lived experience fueled distrust and an ideological drift that manifested itself in electing Trump. And that distrust hasn’t dissipated enough for them to vote Democrat again. Many of the people of color I met felt the same way as their white neighbors. Having started at the same place in the factories and fallen together into poverty, they ended up in the same dismal state as whites. A big difference, however, is that black frustration often shows up as low voter turnout, while whites vote Republican.
These are a practical people, who, in one Kansas author’s words, “speak a firm sort of poetry, made of things and actions.” It wasn’t racism or Russian Facebook ads; ask and these people will give you specifics. While darkly certain all politicians will hand them the dirty end of the same stick, the people I spoke with at least felt they understood what the Republican candidates would give them. With an eye on the 2008 bailout, they seemed less sure of the Democratic side.
I didn’t see what The New York Times thinks it sees: “Democrats Embrace Liberal Insurgents.” I didn’t find many looking for the local version of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, though I found a lot who asked me, “Alexandria who?” People told me that if someone promises Medicare for all, they need to also hear how she plans to deliver it. Because unlike folks who tweet about it from Brooklyn, they tried—and in many cases, tried and failed—to get health care instead of just insurance out of Obamacare. They remember that not fixing the system was part of the Democratic platform and question changes of heart that coincide with changes in polling.
You don’t have to always understand it but you do have to realize there are truths at work here. Social Security, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and housing assistance are a way of life now. One can accept food stamps but still think handouts are for the lazy. People can feel cheated working for minimum wage at a Walmart full of junk made overseas without being anti-immigrant racists. Trump understands all this better than the Democrats now speaking for their party, and that makes his voters ignore a lot of other things.
So polls asking whether a midterm voter supports Trump, or approves of his performance, may be asking the wrong question. If Democrats insist on November being Trump versus Trump, a referendum on the first half of his term to see if he gets to play out the second half, all without themselves bringing something new and real forward, they may not like the answer that voters give.
Peter Van Buren, a 24-year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People and Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan. He is permanently banned from federal employment and Twitter.