Written for the Morning Consult; Published February 18, 2020
With the June 2016 release of his much-lauded book “Hillbilly Elegy,” J.D. Vance may have unwittingly explained how Donald Trump would shock the world by winning the presidential election a few months later. He wrote:
“There is no group of Americans more pessimistic than working-class whites. Well over half of blacks, Latinos, and college-educated whites expect that their children will fare better economically than they have. Among working-class whites, only 44 percent share that expectation … Whenever people ask me what I’d most like to change about the white working class, I say, ‘The feeling that our choices don’t matter.’”
If Hillary Clinton’s campaign had understood – and acted on – this insight, perhaps she would not have lost states such as Pennsylvania and Michigan and, ultimately, the election. Going forward, political media buyers need to appreciate that any complacency about Midwest audiences could prove strategically disastrous.
In “Hillbilly Elegy,” Vance reflects on the lessons of his family’s Appalachian roots and his Middletown, Ohio, upbringing. He is of course a remarkable talent — having struggled through high school, to go on to the Marines, Ohio State University (finishing in two years), Yale Law School, and later to work with Steve Case’s Rise of the Rest Seed Fund, a venture firm focusing on the untapped potential of the Midwest.
If there is an important lesson I, and I believe many others, have taken from Vance’s book, it’s that a large portion of Midwesterners long felt that they were not being heard on the national political stage, notwithstanding their sizable voice in the states that determine an Electoral College outcome.
Donald Trump entered the 2016 primaries with a full head of steam thanks to nearly 100 percent name recognition, per Gallup, developed over more than a decade of weekly exposure – and highly positive branding – on the powerful NBC Network. Initially uninterrupted cable-news coverage – spurred by his “Apprentice” celebrity — of his rallies didn’t hurt.
This brand recognition, coupled with Trump’s exhaustive schedule of personal appearances throughout the Midwest especially close to election night, proved potent. However one feels about Trump’s 2016 messaging, the fact remains that he reached out to Midwestern audiences regularly and with the bravado of a seasoned salesman.
And then there’s what I’ll call the “fear factor” Vance cites – the fear of the future shared by so many working-class white Midwesterners.
Fear of course is a great motivator. In combination with a frustration over not feeling heard, it can drive citizens to the polls – as it did in 2016 for a certain class of voters instrumental in propelling Trump to the presidency. As for Hillary Clinton’s supporters, some no doubt voted out of fear of Trump, but many apparently were too complacent to get to the polls. With 2016 turnout among registered voters topping out at 60 percent per a Morning Consult report, clearly the front-running candidate in any election is the couch — and it is indeed a formidable competitor.
Given this, you might imagine both the Democratic National Committee members and the 2020 presidential hopefuls would be careful not to repeat some of last cycle’s catastrophic mistakes — such as Hillary’s much-discussed failure to visit the formerly blue state of Wisconsin in the run-up to the general election.
But this cycle, the DNC has steered many of its recent presidential debates to CNN and MSNBC. Great networks, to be sure – but also ones that are often preaching to the choir. Why not seek out voters on the couch watching cable networks with a strong Midwest footprint in battleground markets? Why not speak more directly to these audiences sooner?
And who are the most likely voters among these Midwestern audiences? In the 2016 presidential election, more than 66 percent of Americans ages 49 to59 (and more than 71 percent of those 60+) voted, vs. less than 44 percent of those ages 18 to 29, per a U.S. Elections Project analysis of Census Bureau data. And these more likely voters overlap with TV consumption of election coverage: Sixty-eight percent of Pew survey respondents over 50 who followed the 2016 election returns said they only did so by watching TV.
Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar have the momentum coming out of Iowa and New Hampshire, and the all-important Super Tuesday contest on March 3 – including states comprising 40 percent of the U.S. population according to census data as noted by Brookings – will feature substantial numbers of the kind of voters Vance cited (and the party arguably neglected) in 2016.
Whoever you want to win the 2020 election, we should all be able to agree that no candidate should carelessly cede valuable territory or neglect any audience. (And, for that matter, they hopefully will reach out to these audiences respectfully, intelligently and with civil discourse.)
Friends and colleagues closely connected to the 2020 race assure me that the Democratic Party and its nominee will not make the mistakes of 2016 and under-address TV-viewing Midwesterners. Only time will tell.