Many Democrats believe that courting Trump voters in 2020 is a fool’s errand. Trump’s approval rating has hovered around 40 percent for the duration of his presidency—through every scandal and embarrassing press briefing—so it’s understandable why some might deem those voters unreachable. But after digging deeply into Trump’s coalition for The Democratic Strategist, Andrew Levison found that the president’s support among Republicans is shakier than we think, and that Joe Biden can exploit Trump’s vulnerability without turning off progressive Democrats, thereby striking an ideal balance.
Levison argues that there are three distinct coalitions of Trump voters—passionate backers, cynical allies, and “ambivalent or troubled Trump supporters.” The first group agrees with Trump on the issues and approves of him personally—“the kind of people who attend Trump’s rallies and raucously shout their approval.” The second group may find Trump personally obnoxious, but are willing to align with him to advance a conservative agenda. Polling indicates that about two-thirds of the 46 percent of Americans who voted for Trump fall into these two categories. It’s the third group, however, that’s intriguing.
According to Levison, close to one third of Trump voters support him tepidly: “These are people who have significant objections not only to Trump’s behavior but to some aspects of his agenda as well.” These voters may consider themselves solidly Republican, but their doubts about Trump create an opportunity for Democrats.
Trump’s 2020 strategy is not to move to the center, but rather to rely on a hyper-partisan group of voters. Therefore, Levison writes: “Democratic strategy regarding this group should be precisely the opposite—to sharply increase and intensify the doubts of the Trump-skeptical GOP Republicans and weaken their willingness to support Trump and the GOP despite their misgivings.”
What’s the best way for Democrats to do that? For starters, it would be a mistake to assume that all reluctant Trump supporters are necessarily “moderate Republicans” who are fiscally conservative but socially “middle of the road.” As Levison notes, many are staunch conservatives but object to is his corruption and lack of traditional patriotism.
These voters simply don’t like the president profiting financially from his office, promoting family members to high positions of power, and demonstrating a stunning lack of patriotism and respect for American government. His admiration for Vladimir Putin and ties with Russian plutocrats have disturbed many conservatives at a time when only 18 percent of Americans have a favorable view of Russia.
More than anything, though, Trump’s Achilles heel among reluctant supporters is his lack of decency, which was best illustrated by his sneering disrespect of John McCain. Trump disparaged McCain’s military service, saying that McCain was not a war hero because he got captured. Even after McCain died, Trump still attacked him, calling his vote against repealing the Affordable Care Act “disgraceful” and saying he was “never a fan of John McCain” and “never will be.” Polling at the time of McCain’s funeral showed that almost half—45 percent of Trump’s own supporters—who were aware of the controversy considered the president’s behavior deeply offensive.
From these observations, Levison surmises the existence of a sizable group of voters he calls “McCain Republicans”—i.e. conservatives who are turned off by Trump’s corruption, unpatriotic actions, and disrespect for men like McCain. Levison asserts that Biden can drive a wedge into Trump’s support by speaking directly to this group of voters, highlighting what they dislike most about the president. The goal isn’t necessarily for Biden to win over McCain Republicans, although he would likely gain some of their votes. It’s to remind them just how far Trump has taken the GOP away from the core values that McCain stood for.
While McCain was a conservative, he was also principled, racially tolerant, and willing to work with Democrats where he found common ground. He famously served as a pilot during the Vietnam War and survived being taken prisoner for five and a half years after his aircraft was shot down over Hanoi in 1967—and he refused early release because his father was a four-star admiral, unless his fellow prisoners would be let go, too. McCain and his wife Cindy adopted a daughter from India after visiting a Bangladeshi orphanage in 1991. And McCain had consistently spoken out against oppressive foreign leaders and undemocratic regimes, taking strong stances against Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un. In other words, McCain was everything Trump is not.
By speaking to those voters’ affection for McCain’s character and brand of public service, Biden may convince some reluctant Trump voters to stay home in 2020, or, better yet, help Democrats hold onto the Trump voters who switched sides and powered the 2018 blue wave.
According to the data analysis firm Catalist, Trump voters who supported Democrats were the driving force behind Democrats’ across-the-board victories two years ago, with changing voter choice accounting for close to 90 percent of the shift in the party’s favor. If Democrats can hang onto most of the Republicans who voted blue in 2018, they will control the White House and both houses of Congress in 2021.
Fatefully, the strategy of reaching out to McCain Republicans is perfectly suited to Joe Biden. The two were personally close. Biden once called them “brothers who were somehow raised by different fathers.” The men shared a bond that transcended their political differences. After McCain was diagnosed with glioblastoma—the same type of cancer that killed Biden’s son Beau in 2015—the Biden and McCain families became even closer. Biden comforted McCain’s daughter Meghan on The View in late 2017 and later gave a eulogy at McCain’s funeral.
Biden and McCain were also known for reaching across the aisle to advance good legislation when possible. McCain partnered with Democrat Russ Feingold to pass the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act, and joined other Democrats to push for increased transparency in political advertising. He also worked with Democrats on immigration reform, and famously voted against the Republicans’ attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Biden was largely responsible for convincing Republican Senator Susan Collins and former Senators Olympia Snowe and Arlen Specter to support the 2009 stimulus package after Obama took office.
Winning elections is about playing up favorable contrasts. If Biden accentuates how his personal relationship with McCain differed from Trump’s—and how McCain’s brand of conservatism differs from Trump’s—it may cause reluctant Trump supporters to acknowledge that Biden is simply the better human and public servant. If Biden can get voters to realize that they are choosing between one man who loved and respected McCain, in spite of their differences, and another who ridiculed McCain at every opportunity, he may be able to hang onto or even expand on the Democrats’ 2018 gains.
Some progressives will balk at the idea of Biden mentioning McCain and courting Republican voters, arguing that he needs to appease the Bernie wing of the Democratic Party instead. As Levison notes, Biden was criticized in June of 2019 after wistfully describing how he used to work civilly with conservatives, including arch-segregationist senators James O. Eastland of Mississippi and Herman Talmadge of Georgia. That criticism was valid.
Of course, Biden cannot realistically expect to work with Republicans like Mitch McConnell the same way he could with McCain and other less deceitful and duplicitous conservatives. What makes the pursuit of McCain conservatives so savvy, though, is that it need not come at the expense of a progressive platform. As Barack Obama has suggested, Democrats should not embrace a false choice between appealing to liberals versus moderate Republicans, or black voters versus white working-class voters. Biden can do all of the above.
The former vice president can still offer the most progressive platform of any major party candidate in history while running a campaign that emphasizes public service, compassion, and a willingness to work with political adversaries where possible, limited as those opportunities may be. Those values transcend party division. If Biden can expose the fault lines between die-hard Trump supporters and more principled McCain Republicans, he can lay the foundation for widespread Democratic victories in 2020—including at the very top of the ticket.