Democrats are worried. A centerpiece of their convention last week focused on inspiring personal stories from average working Americans of every color and creed talking about why Trump needs to go. They projected confidence that they had a lock on everyday, working-class Americans.
They were wrong. Some of the most poignant and powerful moments of the Republican convention this week have come from Americans from myriad backgrounds offering compelling reasons behind their support for Donald Trump’s second term.
Many of these GOP speakers hail from key presidential battleground states and were there to talk about practical pocketbook issues, keeping their jobs and businesses on the right track. They weren’t as focused on the big racial justice themes that have been grabbing most of the headlines this summer amid violent protests, as so many of the Democrats’ convention speakers tried to hammer home.
Republicans had plenty of speakers to do that too, a whole list of African Americans, including some Democrats, ready to make the case for Trump, but they also didn’t take the more basic bread-and-butter issues of jobs and the economy off the table.
Even amid race riots and a norms-upending global pandemic, and in some ways because of it, it’s still the “economy, stupid” for many voters struggling to make ends meet or to maintain their hold on their version of the American Dream.
That was true in 1992 when the message landed Bill Clinton in the White House, and four years ago too, when Trump’s appeal to Rust Belt workers was credited in part with his 2016 surprise victory.
It may be more so today amid a jobs-killing pandemic that’s drawn a bullseye on small businesses and their employees. Many of these pocketbook voters believe Democrats are pushing a socialist agenda and will never look after the economic interests of Main Street in their Bernie Sanders-led march to the left.
If small businesses, including farms, are the backbone of the nation’s economy, won’t their owners and employees play a similarly critical role in determining a nation’s president?
Republicans this week showed they are counting on it.
Maine lobsterman Jason Joyce, Wisconsin dairy farmer Cris Peterson, Ohio trucker Geno DiFabrio, and Wisconsin’s John Peterson, the owner of Schuette Metals, are just a handful of the carefully selected voters who provided firsthand testimonials of Trump’s trade policy and overall handling of the economy.
Joyce, the lobsterman, kicked it off the first night by generally crediting Trump for rolling back regulations, and more specifically for negotiating a deal in which the European Union agreed to lift its tariffs on lobsters in exchange for the U.S. cutting duties on some European products.
“As long as Trump is president, fishing families like mine will have a voice,” he said. “But if Biden wins, he’ll be controlled by the environmental extremists who want to circumvent long-standing rules and impose radical changes that hurt our coastal communities.”
Maine has voted Democratic in the last seven presidential elections, although the 2016 race was much closer than expected, with Hillary Clinton edging Trump in the state by just 2.9% over Trump. It’s now viewed as trending purple, with blue portions near the coast and red areas in the inland rural areas. Sen. Susan Collins, one of the last centrist Republicans, also is running in the election fight of her life against Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon.
Geno DiFabrio, a Youngstown, Ohio, trucker, appeared in a video with Vice President Mike Pence praising President Trump’s handling of an area General Motors assembly plant closure.
Pence spoke with DiFabrio and five others outside Abraham Lincoln’s boyhood home in Indiana.
“Geno is a truck driver from Ohio who heard politicians for years make empty promises about defending American jobs only to see those promises broken again and again,” Pence intoned. “But in 2019, when GM closed its plant in Lordstown, Ohio, President Trump refused to stand by and watch it happen.”
The issue of the GM plant closure is a political sticking point, and one that Joe Biden has already said he plans to focus on as he sells his own economic agenda in Ohio. During a 2017 rally in Youngstown, Trump told attendees not to sell their homes because manufacturing work would be coming back to the state’s Mahoning Valley. But the Lordstown plant closed permanently in 2019, giving Trump’s detractors new ammunition that he broke his promise to bring manufacturing jobs back to the Rust Belt.
But Pence and DiFabio stressed that Trump played a critical role in ensuring that GM sold the plant to an electric truck startup, Lordstown Motors, and agreed to lend it $40 million to underwrite part of the plant purchase. The new company has only 70 full-time workers and 100 contractors right now but hopes to build up to 5,000 employees once the plant is fully established. The GM plant, before it closed last year, had 1,700 workers.
“There’s no other president that could have done it,” DiFabrio said of the role Trump played in getting GM to help finance the plant’s transition. “There’s no one that has even tried to do it. President Trump’s a doer. He appreciates every one of us, and I know he does. I’ve seen it.”
Trump performed far better than previous Republican candidates for president in the traditionally Democratic, blue-collar Mahoning Valley and the area helped him notch an 8-percentage-point win in the state in 2016. Biden currently leads Trump by 2.3 points in Ohio, according to the RealClearPolitics average of polls.
Speaking on the second night of the GOP convention, Cris Peterson, who runs a dairy farm with her husband Gary, pushed back on the Democrats’ narrative that Trump’s China deal has crushed Midwest farmers.
“More than any president, he has acknowledged the importance of farmers and agriculture,” said Peterson (pictured above).
She recalled that when Trump first won the presidency in 2016, her state was in a “Great Depression” for dairy farmers. Then her barn burned down a year later. She and her family said they committed to rebuilding the operation in 2018 with confidence that Trump’s trade policies would eventually help it not only survive, but thrive.
Peterson also gave Trump high marks for his work to keep the food supply chain up and running amid COVID-19 disruptions.
“Many people probably don’t realize that our country is one of few in the world that produces nearly all of its own food. Fewer still understand how close our food production and distribution system came to collapsing this past spring,” she said. “But President Trump understood and again took steps to provide the support we needed. President Trump took the necessary action knowing that agriculture is our backbone and strength, critical to our national security.”
Democrats have countered that the milk-making industry has continued to crater during Trump’s term – and they have a point. Small dairy farmers who have struggled to remain viable have given Wisconsin one of the highest farm bankruptcy rates in the nation. Nearly 6,000 dairy farmers nationwide have gone out of business in recent years, a 15% decline.
The RealClearPolitics average of polls shows the race tightening in Wisconsin, with Biden leading Trump by nearly 8 points in late June, and that lead closing to just 3.5 points this week. Polls were notoriously inaccurate in the state in 2016. Clinton held a 6.5-point lead over Trump in Wisconsin so took the state for granted and didn’t campaign there after the convention. Team Biden isn’t making that mistake again.
Democrats have seized on the fallout from the China trade deal to drive home the point that many dairy farmers are on the ropes. Exports of U.S. dairy products have been cut nearly in half because of the trade war with Beijing, and there are new fears that China’s market is now off the table for U.S. milk and cheese products as tensions between the U.S. and China flare over Beijing’s COVID-19 disinformation that helped the virus spread.
That’s why Peterson’s decision to stand by Trump was so critical during the convention. Trump and his advisers argue his trade policy appeals to rank-and-file voters, and polls still indicate that Trump’s record on handling of the economy is his biggest strength against Biden.
In fact, the Republican convention has spotlighted several Wisconsin voters this week. Another is John Peterson, owner of a Schuette Metals in Rothschild, Wis. Peterson praised Trump for negotiating the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement, which he said provides “a more competitive playing field for American companies like ours.”
Trump, he said, “knows when the game isn’t rigged against us, nobody can beat the American worker and the American entrepreneur.”
The convention provided another sign that the Trump campaign is making a play for Minnesota as well. For months, Biden held a big lead in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, but the most recent survey by Trafalgar Group shows Minnesota within striking range for Trump, with Biden holding a 6-point lead over Trump.
Minnesotan Bob Vlaisaljevich showed up to speak at the convention, hailing Trump’s record on trade. He’s the mayor of Eveleth, a town of about 1,600 on northern Minnesota’s Iron Range, an area of iron-ore mining districts around Lake Superior.
Vlaisaljevich praised Trump for imposing tariffs on imported steel as a way to protect the state’s industry.
“He lowered our high taxes. He rolled back the job-killing regulations. He got rid of the bad trade deals and replaced them with deals that put our interests first,” Vlaisaljevich said. “The Trump administration’s policies mean that with the discovery of new mineral deposits, the use of innovative mining processes, and the growth of our domestic and global markets, we have the chance to grow and diversify our economy.”
All of these men and women who endorsed Trump this week appeared genuinely grateful to the president and his team for building up a record-setting economy before the coronavirus struck and sent it into a freefall. The economy has begun to claw its way back in the summer, but Americans are still on edge about their financial futures.
Trump advisers believe that hearing full-throated endorsements from people with similar problems and worries will only help boost Americans’ confidence in his ability to rebuild.
Looking back on the last four days of virtual political programming and pageantry, which ended in a spectacular fireworks display around the Washington monument, Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh said it was the convention’s focus on real Americans that would carry them to victory.
“Our convention was focused on hearing from real people in the real world who have personally benefitted from President Trump’s policies. This was a chance to cement the reality of who Trump supporters are, what they believe, where they come from, and why they support the president,” he told RealClearPolitics.
Americans, he said, saw clearly that President Trump loves his country, is optimistic about its future and “believes fully in its inherent greatness.”
Republicans, he argued, also drew a clear contrast between “the President’s record of accomplishment and Joe Biden’s 47 years of failure and dramatic lurch to the left.”
By the third night, the GOP convention speaker lineup had CNN commentator S.E. Cupp so worried she penned a column telling Democrats to wake up to the fact that real people like Trump, despite what “I may think are unforgivable and disqualifying transgressions.”
“Over the past four years, however, we’ve seen over and over again that Trump’s appeal wasn’t merely the result of a fluke or irrelevant procedural mishap,” she wrote.
“It was real. Supported by real people. For real reasons.”
Cupp is right to be worried. Democrats don’t seem to be following the lessons of 2016 when coal miners in Appalachia and displaced Rust Belt manufacturing workers were instrumental in giving Trump the edge in key states. Biden’s embrace of the Green New Deal early in the Democratic Primary positioned him to win the coasts, but not the heartland, and since then he’s only followed Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez further to the left.
Endless debates on MSNBC and CNN about QAnon conspiracists’ support for Trump or whether Trump fans racism with his inaccurate tweets about NASCAR and the Confederate flag don’t reach these types of voters. These men and women are decidedly not part of the blue-checked Twitterati. They’re spending their time with balance sheets, worried about meeting their next payrolls or working hard to keep the jobs they have.
Trump made a point this week of giving them a voice. It’s the biggest page out of his 2016 playbook, and right now Democrats aren’t positioning themselves to counter it.
Keep up on the latest in national and local politics as Election 2020 comes into focus.