Bill Clinton and Barack Obama defeated their Republican adversaries by appealing to the socially conservative but economically populist voters of the Midwest and South. This approach helped them win not only in union strongholds like Michigan but also in rural states like Kentucky and Tennessee that voted for Clinton twice, while Obama was able to take Indiana in 2008 and Iowa during both of his runs.
Much of the conversation about the Rust Belt as a political bellwether has been magnified by Hillary Clinton’s loss of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin in 2016, and Joe Biden was supposed to help alleviate this. But could his moves there be setting the Democrats up for their biggest losses in the region since the 1980s?
While middle- and working-class voters generally have had reservations about the party’s social agenda on abortion and gun control, the Democrats have always been able to hold support among these groups by talking about class economics; in particular the wage depression and asset raiding of corporate America and Wall Street helped Obama portray Mitt Romney as an out of touch bean counter who looked at America’s workers as figures on a balance sheet. Given his record with Bain Capital, most voters found this to be true and Obama swept the upper Midwest apart from Indiana, thereby winning a second term.
It was a great strategy, even though in truth Democrats have similar relationships with firms like Bain, including Obama ally and Romney’s successor as governor of Massachusetts, Deval Patrick and also Senator Cory Booker (D-N.J.).
Donald Trump in 2016 was able to rope in new voters for his Republican candidacy largely by embracing policies that were at odds with Romney’s. He attacked unmitigated free trade and loose immigration standards thereby alienating the party establishment but creating the aura of an outsider despite his own wealthy origins and lavish lifestyle.
Hillary Clinton had difficulty countering these inroads, because her son-in-law’s management of a failed hedge fund and her own history taking massive campaign contributions from CitiBank, Goldman Sachs and other big banks and Wall Street firms. This weak point allowed her primary opponent Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to make inroads against her by winning in Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota.
Clinton’s failure in major union states caused the same voters who rejected Romney to reject her. In 2020, the hope had been that the Democrats could nominate someone who could recover some of those voters. Media figures, for a while, had speculated that Pete Buttigieg or Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) could do it, but by March the race had narrowed down to Sanders and Biden. And to be fair, both candidates had at least historically performed well in the Midwest. His strength in the region was a motivating factor in Biden’s selection by Obama as his running mate in 2008.
In winning the nomination, Democrats were gambling on the possibility that despite Biden’s reputation for being behind the times in many of his attitudes and mannerisms, the nostalgia for the less turbulent Obama years and negative press about Trump’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic would buoy his candidacy in some of these states.
The strategy was simple enough, but somehow Biden and his campaign fumbled it. There are several factors to this, setting aside for this analysis the controversy over his son, Hunter.
In the past, riots and unrest have helped to torpedo the fortunes of certain presidential candidates. The race riots of 1966-1967 helped to erode support for President Lyndon B. Johnson as he attempted to hold together the progressive northern Democrats and the conservative southerners. This and the Vietnam War combined to force him to step aside and decline his party’s nomination in 1968.
In the wake of the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota in May, rioting broke out that engulfed the city, and the rage of Black Lives Matter protesters quickly turned against Donald Trump. Early on, Biden and running mate Kamala Harris asserted their position by contributing to the Minnesota Freedom Fund, which was paying the bail of rioters.
In early June the momentum and public sentiment was on the side of BLM and its supporters. As civil unrest and violence flowed from Minnesota to Atlanta, Portland, Seattle and later smaller towns like Kenosha and Lancaster, however, BLM’s image was tarnished by violence and questions about the funding and ultimate goals of the various activist groups operating under the BLM banner. The media narrative could not reverse or slow the growing consensus among these voters that, while black lives surely matter, Black Lives Matter is not trustworthy.
Of the cities that were most affected by the unrest, three were in Midwestern states that Biden needs to win: Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. The latter two narrowly broke for Trump in 2016, while Clinton held Minnesota by a thin margin. In August, the polling wonk site fivethirtyeight.com attempted to address the question of whether foundering support for BLM would affect Biden, and concluded that they had no evidence to confirm that hypothesis. But state-level events show that there is a relationship.
After the August 23 shooting and maiming of Jacob Blake in Kenosha and the resultant destruction across wide swaths of the city, Biden experienced a trough in aggregate polling in Wisconsin for about a week, bottoming out at 48 percent before eventually recovering. In Minnesota, polls that up until July showed Biden above the 50 percent mark, find him at 48 percent as of this writing. In 2016, Clinton had a 12-point lead in the last Minnesota poll and only bested Trump by 2 percentage points. Make of that what you will.
And both parties are doubtless aware at this point that most of the polls are stabbing in the dark without knowing whether the pro- or anti-Trump enthusiasm will carry the day on turnout.
One thing is certain, however: by August, Biden and Harris were seriously regretting the perception that they supported the riots and were walking it back in tweets concerning the Kenosha situation. This could impact not only their support among BLM-critical moderates but also the radical pro-BLM base that will see these gestures as a display of the candidates’ fickle nature.
Lunchbucket Joe’s NAFTA Duck
Biden’s main appeal is that he has a fabled working-class upbringing and background to connect to small town Middle American voters. He has consistently invoked his origins in Scranton, a factory town in northeastern Pennsylvania. In 2016, Clinton carried Lackawanna County (where Scranton is the largest city), but only by a 49.8 percent-46.3 percent margin. The last time a Democrat had done so poorly was in 1988. Both Clinton and Biden had performed well in Scranton during their primaries.
One of the keys to the erosion of Democratic support there was the Obama Administration’s support for the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). This free-trade agreement was unpopular enough that Senator Patrick Toomey (R-Penn.) flipped on it in order to avoid getting swept out of office. Like Clinton, Biden bears the increasingly difficult burden of trying to appeal to working class and union voters even though he supported the TPP as vice president and voted for NAFTA as a senator.
In September, Biden was even crossed up by CNN interviewer Jake Tapper, who got Biden to admit that Trump’s USMCA trade deal was better than NAFTA, and that he had initially supported NAFTA but that George W. Bush had not carried out his “commitment to NAFTA.”
But for voters who chose Trump in 2016, Biden’s words may appear to be Monday morning quarterback talk from a washed up has-been. The real estate mogul and TV star, Donald Trump, rode a wave of NAFTA resentment to victory in Michigan and elsewhere four years ago. In order to win back some of those voters, Biden could have attempted to outline a return to the Democrats’ old-school, pre-Bill Clinton protectionist platform, but it is arguable whether that would have worked. None of the so-called lunch-pail or lunch-bucket Democrats who have tried to embrace that image have succeeded, whether it was Hubert Humphrey in 1968, Al Gore in 1992, or Biden himself in 1988 and 2008.
Tanking with the B Team
In order to appeal to traditional Republican swing voters, Joe Biden has attempted to go after Trump on the economy and COVID-19, even running attack ads concerning the shutdown of BIG-10 football. But in the midst of this controversy, Trump was engaged in a campaign to cajole the college conference that includes schools in all of the key Midwestern states into holding a football season.
Thanks to the public pressure of Trump and college football media figures such as Fox Sports personalities Clay Travis and Joel Klatt, the BIG-10 announced a vote on a new season in mid-September which eventually passed leading to a newly rescheduled season that began October 24.
While it is unknown whether Trump’s actions may have swung those races yet, it is unlikely that with not only the BIG-10 but now also other conferences like the PAC-12 and MAC coming back that it can still be used as an argument against him.
To appeal to the suburban or small town college football fan Republican vote, assuming that is a coherent constituency, Biden has enlisted a small subset of the NeverTrump coalition: three former GOP governors. But this choice of “Republican” Biden supporters may represent a trio of snapshots of Biden’s slipping grasp of Midwest politics.
- Tom Ridge served as governor of Pennsylvania from the late 1990s until being appointed the first Secretary of Homeland Security after 9/11. For anti-war Democrats, Ridge’s time in the second position evokes memories of the worst abuses of the George W. Bush Neocon era, including in 2005 when he waffled over whether American security officials could practice torture and if it was justified. In 2010, Ridge’s lobbying group was also paid to advocate fracking in the Marcellus Shale Formation. Fracking supporters now call Ridge a turncoat for backing Biden.
- John Kasich was governor of Ohio from 2011 until 2019, and was the scourge of unions for supporting Senate Bill 5 that would have created “right to work” conditions in all Buckeye State workplaces. The law was repealed through a ballot measure by a 31-point margin not even a year into Kasich’s first term. Thanks to depressed voter turnout and a lackluster opponent, Kasich won reelection by an overwhelming 64 percent to 33 percent margin in 2014. This led to his 2016 presidential bid, which became an exercise in comic delusion. Kasich only carried his home state, and that state only due to an effort to block Trump from the ballot. When Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) withdrew after the Indiana primary, Kasich claimed he would continue to seek the nomination at the open convention, before withdrawing two days later. The same month he left office in 2019 after stonewalling his legislature’s Heartbeat Bill, Kasich signed on as a paid contributor for CNN.
- Rich Snyder served as governor of Michigan from 2011 until 2019. His tenure was tarnished irreversibly by the Flint crisis in which both municipal and state incompetence led to the city’s water supply becoming so toxic that 115 people were allegedly killed by illnesses resembling Legionnaires Disease.
The record of each of these new “Biden Republicans” is more likely to aggravate the sentiments of union and environmentalist Democrats than it is to gain any “conservative” votes that hadn’t already abandoned the GOP in the previous four years. In his last year in office, Snyder had a 35 percent approval rating and has never shaken off the legacy of his conduct surrounding Flint. Biden’s announcement that he would consider appointing Republicans like Kasich, tech CEO Meg Whitman, and lobbyist Charlie Dent to his cabinet has elicited groans from Democrats who see this as a repeat of Obama’s betrayals of progressives during his first term.
Moreover, all of these figures represent bygone eras of the political paradigm; Ridge from the Clinton-Bush eras and the other two from Obama’s. Has the Midwest, indeed has America at large, not changed in the past 20 years? The decision of Snyder and Kasich to support Biden invalidates their reasons for running for office in 2010, which were fueled largely by opposing Obamacare, because Biden is now vowing to pass his own revamped version of it called “Bidencare.” These people seem shallow and craven given today’s politics.
Like in college football, much energy in politics is directed at poll numbers and rankings that, at the end of the season, leave many disappointed and cynical. As of this writing, the RCP poll averages show Biden winning in every battleground state in the Midwest. If he succeeds in getting into office, many voters will wake up not knowing where his administration will lead the country on fracking, trade, or healthcare. So if the predictions do ring true, will a Biden victory lead to an early and brutal hangover?