What Dems Need to Know about Upper Midwest Voters: Perspective from a Campaign Consultant

Politics Features Demographics
Share Tweet Submit Pin
What Dems Need to Know about Upper Midwest Voters: Perspective from a Campaign Consultant

I used to work in politics, and back in 2002 I met a guy named Reed Millar who was a young Democratic campaign worker doing the hard work of knocking on doors, calling voters, and organizing campaign volunteers. Reed and I became friends and kept in touch over the years, and today I’m a largely-ineffectual political pundit while Reed has gone on to do lots of great work on the ground game to mobilize voters for Democratic candidates and progressive causes.

Today Reed Millar is running his own business, Bespoke Consulting, a campaign and advocacy strategy firm focused on planning and managing organizing programs. He has worked in politics for more than 17 years on dozens of campaigns and organizing projects in most of the 50 states. He is from Pennsylvania and currently lives in Minnesota, and has worked with the Democratic parties of Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, giving him special insight into the Upper Midwest region that unexpectedly drove Trump’s electoral college victory.

Reed’s expertise is in GOTV (get out the vote) organizing, a discipline of campaign tactics that is focused on identifying and building relationships with voters and mobilizing them to get to the polls. He has managed GOTV efforts in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan, among others. In 2012, he led a team that won a Pollie Award for a GOTV canvass in Milwaukee, WI, which helped drive turnout for Obama’s re-election and the election of Senator Tammy Baldwin, America’s first openly gay Senator.

During the 2016 election, Reed worked for Bernie Sanders in four states during the primary, and then volunteered at the Democratic National Convention in July to help the Clinton campaign and the DNC reach out to Bernie supporters. He was in Michigan doing GOTV work in November and was in Flint, Michigan on Election Night. Reed has a keen strategic mind and is one of the best-informed, biggest-hearted people that I’ve met during my time working in politics. I talked with Reed about what went wrong for the Democrats in this election, especially as it relates to the Upper Midwest white working class voters who went for Trump, and how progressives can move forward for 2018, 2020 and beyond.

You were on the ground in Michigan in November, which was one of the “blue wall” states that everyone thought would be likely to go Dem, and instead Trump won it. What was the experience like in Michigan leading up to Election Day? Did you feel it coming, like maybe this was going to be a loss? Or was it a huge shock?

On a number of occasions, since Clinton won the nomination, my heart had been filled with dread and I thought, “Oh no, we are going to lose this thing.” That included the first day of the convention, which should have been about unification, but was scripted like it was written by people that had never met a Bernie voter; when FBI Director Comey revived the email scandal; when I heard how late resources were coming to some vital states; and when on Election Night after 6 p.m. I wasn’t hearing any reports of long lines at the polls—indicating that turnout was going to be lower than we had expected.

But like most everyone, I had largely convinced myself that defeat was nearly impossible. Trump’s campaign was a long series of train wrecks and they just seemed dedicated to doing everything wrong. I saw signs of trouble but I figured someone must have this all figured out. It turned out they didn’t.

I was watching CNN on Election Night and a reporter said someone on the Trump campaign had said that it would take a miracle for them to win. Even they were convinced Trump was going to lose right up to the minutes before they won.

So no, it wasn’t a shock. I had convinced myself Clinton would win but I knew enough to see this as a real possibility, and the moment I saw some county-by-county results in Pennsylvania on election night…I knew this election had gone off script.

Obviously there’s been a lot of analysis and postmortem, but from your immediate perspective, as someone who lives in Minnesota and has worked in Iowa and other Upper Midwest states, why did Trump win Michigan and so many of these other Midwestern states?

Well, given that Hillary won the popular vote by a healthy margin, I think we first have to acknowledge a degree of strategic incompetence in losing the electoral college by such a margin. When you hear that Hillary Clinton never did an event in a state like Wisconsin and only came to Michigan in the final weeks, and didn’t fund robust organizing and persuasion campaigns in a number of these states, you have to acknowledge that the outcome would likely have been different if a number of mistakes hadn’t been made. Without on-the-ground feedback on volunteerism—like feedback on how many volunteers were ready to work or how many were defecting to Trump—the Clinton campaign was in the dark about the growing problems on the ground until the final weeks. Without spending the summer developing relationships with volunteers and updating voter lists, they were underprepared to address issues once they could see them.

There seems to have been this assumption that with Trump’s negatives, the Democratic base voters had nowhere else to go. Some of the early analysis of the election I have seen pointed to us losing votes from three groups: working class white voters that moved to the Republican Party, young voters (millennials) and African American voters not turning out in the same way they did four and eight years earlier for Obama. Those three groups have been a large part of the Democratic base since the 1960s. None of them seem to have been inspired by Democrats this year and all three are feeling economic pressure even as the economy recovers.

I am no expert on message, but I have talked to a lot of voters over the years and it seems that part of why the Clinton campaign lost votes all over the country was that they failed to connect with these core constituencies that had real concerns about our economy, our politics, and our involvement in the wars of the last 13 years. The persuasion message was focused on Trump’s negatives and talking points about Secretary Clinton’s experience, which didn’t seem to address any of that.

In the upper midwest the lack of campaign resources and the lack of a populist message combined with an economy that has been particularly bad for all three of these key voter groups, along with shifting demographics in the Upper Midwest that are leaving the region older and whiter as the young and the poor leave to find work.

Why did Donald Trump win? I think it boils down to establishment politicians not listening to people and assuming they knew how they would vote.

What has changed in those states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa in the past few years that went for Obama twice, but went with Trump? Is this a regional phenomenon and if so what is driving it?

A lot more research needs to be done to give a definitive answer on that, but there are a few trends that probably contributed. Some of it was national, where Clinton received nearly 5 million fewer votes in 2016 than Obama did in 2008. In terms of the region, it seems that the Upper Midwest’s economic struggles have effects on who votes: 1. Economic hardship seems to both increase political volatility and depress turnout, 2. Young and poor people move away, leaving older populations in regions with little growth, and 3. Without economic growth, immigrants don’t come to your region. All said, you end up with an older, whiter voting population.

How much of a “fluke” is Trump? Is he a political mastermind who has reshaped politics forever, or is this more of a Black Swan event where he faced a badly flawed opponent and got the most out of a dwindling, unlikely coalition, but probably cannot repeat this result in 2020? Do you feel like Trump now has an entrenched base of hardened loyalists in the Upper Midwest, or is it bad to read too much into such a close, shocking result? How winnable do you feel these states could be for the Democrats in 2020?

Trump is neither a fluke, nor a genius. But rather the two parties have avoided populist messages for so long that the back door of our political system was wide open and pie was on the table. It didn’t take a genius to wander in and make himself at home. With Hillary’s popular vote victory, it’s also hard to pin this on her unpopularity. It’s more about her campaign’s lack of understanding of which voters needed extra attention and motivation to support her and what they were concerned about.

The anti-establishment mood of American voters, especially in the Upper Midwest, is nothing new. If you look at the candidacies of Pat Buchanan, Bill Bradley, Howard Dean, Barack Obama, Ron Paul, Bernie Sanders, and now Donald Trump, you see larger and larger blocks of voters looking to get outside the political establishment to find a voice for their concerns about the government and the economy. Since Richard Nixon, virtually every candidate with more Washington experience has lost. The Clinton team seemed to have missed that trend entirely and ran on “experience” in an anti-experience climate, all while assuming the Democratic base would be safely in their column despite the evidence to the contrary.

I have seen evidence of this trend firsthand. In late 2008 I was eating breakfast in a spot in rural Pennsylvania and the conversation next to me was about how the U.S. should drop a nuclear weapon on the Middle East. I know, wow! But despite their troubling foreign policy views, when the conversation shifted to whom they had voted for, they had voted for Obama. They described why they voted that way by saying: “I think we just have to keep voting them out and putting new people in until somebody gets it right.”

My lesson from that is that unless things start looking better, voters are going to keep voting for the outsider that speaks to their needs. That worked against us this year, but unless Trump is way better at governing than he is at tweeting or casino management, in four years he will be a sitting president that hasn’t really made much of anything better and probably has the Democratic base really ready to vote against him. What we need to have in place is a Democratic party that effectively speaks to voters’ concerns all over the country, but specifically in regions like the Upper Midwest.

Without underplaying the openly racist, misogynist campaign that Trump ran, do you feel like it’s wrong to ascribe “racism” or “sexism” as the only motivator of why people voted for Trump?

For some voters racism or sexism were the primary reason for their votes. I don’t suggest we try to win them over. They weren’t the late-breaking votes that swung this election.

That said, I think the art of persuasion in politics is about finding common ground with people and there is evidence that for a significant number of folks, racism or sexism wasn’t the driver. If we want to reach those voters, we need to have a conversation, and labeling them racist, sexist, or insulting them intellectually is just going to end the conversation. Instead, it’s important that we engage these voters in a discussion of the issues that are central to what really drives them to vote. Mainly I think these voters want to hear more about an economy where they get an ever-reducing share of the rewards for an ever-increasing amount of work, and a government that seems to never take their side in their struggle to maintain their standard of living.

How should the Democrats reconnect with the (predominantly white) voters of the Upper Midwest that they lost to Trump? How much of it is about re-energizing the Democratic base (who stayed home instead of voting for Clinton) vs. persuading the “reachable” Trump voters?

There isn’t a definitive answer to what the right mix is until you know who the candidates are or what the swing states are, and other factors that fluctuate from one election to the next. Like I have said, I think the failure this year was primarily about our base. And some of those working class white folks who voted for Trump used to be part of the Democratic base, and I think we do need to reconnect with them on economics. They should get the sense the Democrats owe their base more than they owe Wall Street.

I also think it’s odd that we haven’t seen polling to test for voters’ “Trump regret” post election. The media, the Clinton campaign, and the Trump campaign all seemed sure Hillary would win so it’s pretty likely a lot of voters cast their vote for Trump as a protest, but assumed that Trump would never take office. They won’t be able to ignore the possibility in four years.

Is there anything else that you wish more people understood about the Upper Midwest voters and the climate of talking with these voters on the ground?

For liberal white democrats who have good educations and good jobs and who live in big, prosperous cities, I wish they understood just how radically different life is in some parts of the country. I had thought I was prepared to see poverty, but everywhere I go it surprises me in how severe and commonplace it is, and this is in many parts of America that just a generation ago used to think of themselves as solidly middle class.

In what we call the “Rust Belt” there are many places where it’s hard to find a job, a restaurant that isn’t a chain, a grocery store, or even clean drinking water. Lives are being wasted to abject poverty, addiction epidemics, and pointless incarceration. If you don’t see that, then it’s hard to understand why just telling people “things are good!” is such a bad message for getting votes out of those regions.

When we are oblivious to that struggle and then we call George W. Bush or Donald Trump idiots for talking in rather “working class” ways, folks that have just an underfunded high school education assume that we are looking down on them too.

What should Democratic voters and liberal activists (not “party leaders” but everyday people who are worried about politics and Life Under Trump) do now? How can people get more involved at the national, state or local level? What do you recommend that people do starting today?

Vote every chance you get, in presidential, midterm, state and local elections. The more votes there are, the less each big money donation means. Donate to candidates that share your values. Demand that the Democrats provide a populist alternative to the far right. We just saw what happens when the people want populism and they aren’t getting it from the left; the vacuum can create a real monster on the right. Support organizations and media outlets that fight the narrative that racism serves any people other than the powerful.

We’re going to be in for a tough fight during these next few years, but liberal white people, especially the ones who have education and income, need to do more to get out of their comfortable bubbles. It’s not constructive for liberal whites to abandon and write off all of Trump’s white working class voters because we’re mad at them for voting for a racist; we need to understand the challenges in their communities and find common ground so we can win their votes next time.