It’s a story that’s become something of a cliche or even a running joke — the big-shot reporter from inside the Beltway hops on a flight to Erie or Youngstown and makes a beeline for the greasiest diner he or she can find, the better to find white, blue-collar 2016 Donald Trump voters to ask if they’re stickin’ with their man. Which, of course, they always are.
I have to confess I have a love-hate relationship with these stories. (I even mocked them last year by parachuting for a day into “the heart of anti-Trump country,” Philly’s own Mt. Airy neighborhood.) Yeah, the stories are easy to satire, but usually when I read them I’m reminded of the real reasons that Trump shocked the world on November 8, 2016, and why we may be condemned to repeat history if we don’t remember how we got this president as we move toward November 3, 2020.
This week, it was Axios that sky-jumped into the dark heart of Erie, Pennsylvania’s rust-worn outpost on the Great Lakes, where Trump got a healthy number of the votes he needed to so narrowly win the Keystone State in 2016. They arranged a focus group of eight voters who’d backed Barack Obama but went for Trump three years ago, and ... guess what? They’re stickin'.
But what I found revealing was the qualities these Erie Obama-to-Trump voters said they wanted in their POTUS, using words such as “assertive,” “negotiator,” “powerful,” and “Christian.” The Axios article notes these are qualities that voters also tend to ascribe to Trump (sometimes ridiculously, unless there’s a branch of Christianity that celebrates non-church-going, philandering and divorce). It occurred to me that the first three are also qualities that people tend to ascribe — again, unfairly — to men.
Why bother to bring that up? The Democratic race is starting to develop some shape, And in the last few weeks, I’ve seen more polls, especially in the key battleground states, looking at how the top Dems stack up against Trump in a head-to-head race. In every such survey, former vice president Joe Biden has the best numbers in November 2020 general election; typically Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Democratic primary runner-up in 2016, also beats Trump in these polls, but not by as big a margin as Biden.
When he’s included, Beto O’Rourke, the Texas ex-congressman who’s struggled to get any traction with the Democratic primary electorate, actually does well in a head-to-head with the GOP incumbent. After these, um, guys, there’s a drop. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who is surging among Democrats, now also beats Trump in some head-to-head polls, but just barely. Ditto for Sen. Kamala Harris, seeking to make history as a black woman in the White House, and mayor Pete Buttigieg, also looking to shatter precedent as a gay man.
Take a look at Pennsylvania, home to those aggression-loving Trump voters and a state that some experts think will decide the 2020 race. Last month, a poll showed that Biden — born in Scranton, and close to the state’s Democratic establishment — would trounce Trump by 11 points in Pennsylvania if the election were held now. Sanders would also beat the president, the Quinnipiac poll found, but only by 7 points, and then there’s that glass cliff. Warren also wins the head-to-head in the Keystone State, but just by 3 points. And Harris-vs.-Trump was a tie.
The numbers suggest there’s a not-insignificant slice of the Pennsylvania electorate that would go for Biden (now at 53 percent overall) over Trump but would not, at least right now, support the leading woman, Warren (a 6 percent fall-off to 47 percent) or the leading woman of color, Harris (getting 45 percent, an 8 percent drop from Biden.) The decline in support from Biden to the top women is similar in other states and in national polls.
There’s two very different ways to think about this, Biden and Sanders are clearly the two-best known candidates in the race (the only two who’ve previously sought the White House) and you could argue that at this early stage their better performance is a function of their high name ID. On the other hand, it’s weird that it’s Joe and Bernie doing the best against The Donald, since Biden is by far the most centrist of the major candidates and Sanders is the furthest left. Other than their potentially record-setting age, about the only thing these two have in common is that they’re straight white men.
Is there a kind of a “bias tax” in the 2020 presidential race? By that I mean, does the current cadre of intriguing Democratic candidates who aren’t your traditional white straight males — including a record-smashing six women — face a deficit against Trump of somewhere from 5-10 percent of voters who aren’t huge Trump fans but who think America’s president should be an aggressive and powerful negotiating man?
And for Democrats (a healthy majority of whom are NOT white men) who’ve said nothing is more important for the future of America than getting Donald Trump out of the White House, how to process this fear that this 5-10 percent could absolutely tip a close election in states like Pennsylvania? Do they follow the party’s stated ideology of fighting sexism, racism and homophobia when choosing a candidate, or do they back a strategy that seems to at least imply that if you can’t beat prejudice, co-opt it?
Clearly, Biden has a big (though shrinking slightly) lead among the Democrats by convincing voters that he’s the only guaranteed winner against Trump. “Biden is the safe choice—or so he appears today,” Larry Sabato, the University of Virginia presidential historian, told me. “He’s a known quantity with loads of experience, and people figure he’s unlikely to go off in a wild direction. The other choices are riskier.”
But do voters think Biden won’t go off in a wild direction because he’s Biden — or because he looks like 43 of the 44 dudes who came before him?
The journalists who go on these Trump Country safaris to Ohio or western Pennsylvania ask a lot of questions about jobs or tariffs or health-care reform, but the interviewees always want to talk about other things. Even though Biden is leading Trump in the polls, these voters told Axios one of the biggest reasons they can’t vote for the former vice president is that they think Biden is pandering...on race. Biden thought he was making an almost universally popular appeal to replace Trump when he centered his launch on the horrors of the 2017 Tiki-torch marchers in Charlottesville. But in Erie, they seem to agree with the president that there’s good people on both sides.
One of the Erie voters told Axios that Biden “twisted it” on condemning the white nationalist marchers in Charlottesville, while a second said flatly that Biden told “a complete lie” about what happened that day and a third dismissed it all as “identity politics.” Said a fourth Erie voter: “I do believe that a lot of the prejudice came out during his (Biden’s) administration with Obama.” So I don’t think there’s any question that there’s a “bias tax’ that hurts non-traditional candidates — the important question is what to do about it.
Within the Democratic primary electorate, Warren has been waging a highly cerebral yet also engaging campaign that is definitely winning hearts — and thus, rising in the polls — but not necessarily minds, because too many voters are too worried that she’ll be “Hillary’ed” by Trump and his mocking crew of supporters. They claim that every four years that Democratic voters “fall in love” but in 2019-20 they’re playing the odds. To use a dated baby boomer analogy, they’re Let’s Make a Deal contestants who’ll take home the bland electric range rather than take a chance on what Carol Merrill has in the giant box, which could be either a new Corvette or a pet goat.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Be bold, Democrats. In 2008, a black man named Barack Hussein Obama sure didn’t look like the safe choice, but he was the right choice because he excited a lot of unexpected voters to get off the couch. In 2016, the safe choice of Hillary Clinton wasn’t that safe — because Democrats didn’t count on the ability of third-party candidates to peel away some votes and of dodgy social media campaigns to keep others at home. Those same unsavory players are salivating at their chance of “Hillary’ing” ... not Elizabeth Warren but Joe Biden, whose past statements on school busing or reproductive rights are getting teed up for Jill Stein III or the Internet Research Agency or whoever,