Dana Milbank: There’s no such thing as a Trump Democrat

People tend to forget how they voted in previous elections, with more recalling they voted for the winner than actually did.

Washington • Do you believe in mermaids, unicorns and fairies?

If so, you may have taken interest in a new mythical creature that appeared during the 2016 election: the Trump Democrat.

It has become an article of faith that an unusually large number of people who voted for Barack Obama in 2008 or 2012 switched sides and voted for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton. It follows that Democrats, to win in the future, need to get these lost partisans to come home.

But new data, and an analysis by AFL-CIO political director Michael Podhorzer that he shared with me, puts all this into question. The number of Obama-to-Trump voters turns out to be smaller than thought. And those Obama voters who did switch to Trump were largely Republican voters to start with. The aberration wasn’t their votes for Trump but their votes for Obama.

It follows for Democrats that most of these Obama-Trump voters aren’t going to be persuaded to vote Democratic in future; the party would do better to go after disaffected Democrats who didn’t vote in 2016 or who voted for third parties.

In the aftermath of Trump’s surprise win, the commentary quickly focused on the “Obama-Trump voter.” Nate Cohn of the New York Times said, “Democrats have to grapple with the importance of the Obama-Trump voter.” NBC’s Chuck Todd said “one of the big surprises of this election was the emergence of the Obama-Trump voter.” Priorities USA, the super-PAC that backed Clinton, concluded that Democrats must win back Obama-Trump voters.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) asserted that Trump is “expanding the Republican tent. We used to call them Reagan Democrats. Now they’re Trump Democrats.” Donald Trump Jr. embraced the “Trump Democrats” claim at a rally. And many Democrats have bought into this thinking. Not long ago, according to McClatchy News, the Democratic political firm Global Strategy Group concluded that Obama-Trump voters “effectively accounted for more than two-thirds of the reason Clinton lost.”

There was some justification for thinking this. Data from the American National Election Study survey found that about 13.4 percent of Trump voters had backed Obama in 2012. A University of Virginia poll found that 20 percent of Trump voters had supported Obama at least once.

But such polls have a flaw: People tend to forget how they voted in previous elections, with more recalling they voted for the winner than actually did. A poll released in June by the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group, a nonpartisan collaboration of analysts and scholars, avoided this problem because it re-interviewed the same respondents queried in 2012; they were asked who they voted for in real time.

Democracy Fund found a fairly ordinary crossover vote in 2016: 9.2 percent of Obama voters supported Trump and 5.4 percent of Mitt Romney voters supported Clinton. That was a “typical” and unsurprising degree of partisan loyalty. “The 2016 election did not create more instability, in the aggregate, than others,” it reported.

And those Obama voters who did cross to Trump look a lot like Republicans. The AFL-CIO’s Podhorzer analyzed raw data from the Cooperative Congressional Election Study, out in the spring, and found that Obama-Trump voters voted for Republican congressional candidates by a 31-point margin, Republican Senate candidates by a 15-point margin and Republican gubernatorial candidates by a 27-point margin. Their views on immigration and Obamacare also put them solidly in the GOP camp.

“Democratic analysts who are looking to solve the party’s problem by appealing to this small group of Obama-Trump voters are pointing themselves to a group that by and large is a Republican group now,” Podhorzer told me. “The bulk of Obama-Trump voters are not fed-up Democratic voters; they are Republican voters who chose Obama in 2012. As such, few are available in 2018 or 2020.” Democrats should instead appeal broadly to working-class voters, he said.

In 2008, a larger-than-usual number of Republican voters went with Obama during an extraordinary time, when the economy was in free fall and an incumbent Republican president was deeply unpopular. ANES polling found that 17 percent of Obama voters in 2008 had been for George W. Bush in 2004, compared to the 13 percent of Trump voters, the same survey found, who supported Obama at least once. These people aren’t Obama-Trump voters as much as they were Bush-Obama voters.

This is important, because it means Democrats don’t have to contort themselves to appeal to the mythical Trump Democrats by toughening their position on immigration, or weakening their support for universal health care, or embracing small government and low taxes. What Democrats have to do is be Democrats.

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.

(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group