Donald Trump has exposed something at the ballot box we’ve sort of known for a while, but have never had the empirical data to really prove: There is a growing cultural and economic gap in this country.
We experience this gap on some level every day, but a striking example of it has been occurring on the national stage in recent months — namely the presidential election and the preference divide between the populists on one side — Donald Trump and to some extent Bernie Sanders — and more traditional candidates on the other — Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz and John Kasich.
On the GOP side, in almost every exit poll taken in this primary season, Trump has overwhelmingly dominated his opponent with support from less-educated voters.
Where available, the polling has shown Trump with support from voters who have a high school education or less. He does not do as well with voters who have some college education, but he is still besting his opponents, earning over 40 percent of those voters.
Detractors have argued that’s a weakness for Trump — that he’s only able to win over the ignorant boobs with his populist platitudes and unobtainable campaign promises. And for that reason, they argue, when the general election comes Clinton will trounce him.
Dismissing Trump’s success as purely a demonstration of voter ignorance, however, shows a lack of awareness of the economic plight many with little or no college education face. The so-called uneducated are not necessarily voting for Trump because he has the swagger of the 1992 Dallas Cowboys, but because there is real hardship in parts of our society. Those voters are struggling economically and Trump’s rhetoric about “America first” appeals to those hit by the export of their jobs to countries with lower labor costs or stagnant wages created by government policies.
Yes, the moral of that story is to go to college and learn a skill so you’re not faced with this dilemma. But for some, it’s a little late in the game of life to go back to school, and even then — as so many recent graduates who cannot find a job in this economy will tell you — a college education is no guarantee of a stable income.
Those who never saw Trump coming have been blissfully unaware of these struggles.
The most prosperous part of the country over the last decade has been the suburbs of Washington, D.C., where most of the pundit class dwells. While they were dining on their organic haricot verts from Whole Foods and binge-watching “House of Cards,” there has been real pain in parts of the country that have seen entire industries shipped overseas and wages reduced by lower-cost legal and illegal foreign workers.
They call the less-educated part of the electorate “downscale voters.” Those downscale voters are the ones that were duped into signing up for adjustable-rate mortgages or have lost their manufacturing jobs because of the post-2008 economic collapse recovery that has yet to really happen. They fear they won’t be able to set their children up with a pathway to a better standard of living than they had.
Some would argue the cure for that is something along the lines of a Sanders-type of European socialism in the U.S. Sanders remaining in a race for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination that Clinton should have wrapped up months ago suggests the same lack of awareness of the divide for Democratic voters.
The problem with Sanders’ candidacy is that it has been a long-standing tradition among American voters to reject socialism by name, even if it already exists with our entitlement system. That is why a Bernie Sanders would have a difficult time being elected president in the foreseeable future. Times are a-changing, but the country still has a memory of the Cold War and the failures of the Soviet Union’s economy.
The other “outsider” in the race for president, Ted Cruz, in any other cycle might have a shot because he has the backing of many intellectual conservatives. But that brand isn’t the best these days.
For some reason it has been very difficult to sell the tea party ideology to American voters post-2010 midterms. Six years ago, it was the hottest thing around. The pushback against President Barack Obama’s policy endeavors was a political wave that gave rise to Cruz, Marco Rubio and Rand Paul. But the movement was never able to mount any sort of legitimate challenge to the Obama administration and the brand inevitably was maligned by the media as obstructionist, bigoted, racist and homophobic, and on and on.
Even though Cruz isn’t waving the Gadsden flag around at his rallies, he represents that brand. That’s not to say there isn’t merit to a conservative governing philosophy born out of the tea party movement, but Cruz has never really been able to communicate that ideology in a way that makes people say, “Hey, that’s going to improve my standard of living. Let’s find religion in the U.S. Constitution again.”
America’s other option is Hillary Clinton, who has shown she is able to play to various parts of the electorate, be it the elites on Wall Street and Hollywood or downscale voters in minority communities.
So what happens with a match-up of Trump versus Hillary? That’s where the cultural divide will be less clear. Obviously the same party divisions will continue to exist along the lines of race and ethnicity, as they have in elections for the last 60 years.
What happens in those so-called purple states and swing districts that we hear about ad nauseam during presidential elections — the Interstate 4 corridor in Florida, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and Hamilton County, Ohio? At this point it would seem a little presumptuous to assume Clinton would annihilate Trump in those precincts.
How people will ultimately vote is a matter of their perception. Trump’s style is off-putting to a lot of Republicans. However, when it comes to those swing districts in October and November, are voters going to look at Trump’s bombastic style, or will they look at him as a less rigid, more moderate politician compared to Hillary Clinton? That remains to be seen.
But in the meantime, beware of the prognosticators in the Washington, D.C.-to-New York City Acela corridor. Their condescending view of the rest of the country often fails to see what is obvious in “fly over” states. Indeed, they have been wrong about a lot so far this cycle.