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2 May 2017

Voices behind the votes: the challenge for the Democrats

Written by: Adam Lynch, Assistant Account Executive at Edelman

Government Affairs

“The silent majority stands with Trump.” That’s what the placards proclaimed, waving in their thousands at Republican rallies across the United States. The polls were telling us the exact opposite – and alongside Trump’s endlessly colourful statements, the “silent majority” line seemed to be just another empty slogan. But three months into the Trump Administration, we now know that it was anything but.

On the one hand, of course, the President definitely didn’t secure a majority: Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by almost 3 million. But in the electoral college, Trump came out top, having won 306 electoral votes to Mrs Clinton’s 232, following victory in several battleground states. For him to do this does indeed point to a silently loyal mass of citizens who came out for him when it mattered most.

So who belongs to this “silent majority”? Before the election and since, the media has been speaking to very few ordinary, genuinely concerned Americans who helped propel Trump to power. That’s why, via a series of Skype interviews, I decided to speak directly with just such a group of Trump supporters – and listened to what they had to say.

The Caldwell family lives in a clean, middle-class suburb on the outskirts of New York City, in the reliably blue state of New Jersey. Their home county is the most heavily Democratic in the state and most of the family is college educated. Outwardly, they’re about as far from the typical Trump supporter as many people can imagine – perfect candidates to hear from as to why Trump’s messages triumphed.

Half of the family describe themselves as Republicans, while the other half said they didn’t like to identify with any party. All agreed, however, that Obama had been a “terrible president”. What could the Democrats have done to attract their support?

Despite most Democratic polls in the primaries saying the opposite, the resounding answer from the family was: pick Bernie Sanders. Sanders’ desire to fight corruption in Washington, as opposed to a “cynical”, “scheming” Hillary, was of far greater appeal. Interestingly, even though the family totally disagreed with Sanders’ “socialist” economics, they admired him far more than Clinton for his unwavering belief in his own principles – enough to consider voting for him.

Further to the subject of corruption, everyone strongly believed Hillary owed too many people “favours” if she made it into office. Conversely, Trump was unlike any other candidate because – you could argue – he didn’t owe anyone anything. Trump financed his campaign himself. The media were against him. Effectively, he had no help from the establishment – and so, when he got to Washington, he would not have to “pay any favours back”. ‘Drain the swamp’ was a strong slogan – something the GOP should take note of.

Underpinning these beliefs was the huge dissatisfaction with Obama and the direction America was headed in, with the top concerns being security and the economy. 9/11 still weighs heavily on the American psyche, especially in the Caldwell family’s part of New Jersey, from which the Twin Towers were once visible. Obama and Clinton’s handling of the rise of ISIS had many people worried. With protest movements and tension high in the news in the run up to the election thanks to stories of police brutality, the main theme that came through is that people feel increasingly vulnerable.

This vulnerability extends to the economy. Despite results on paper seeming quite positive, all members of the family felt they had seen no improvement in their affairs, with some having had their hours cut at work. Part of the blame for this was laid on Obamacare; supposedly, hours have been cut to save companies money. It’s hard to validate this particular claim due to the complexities and confidential information involved, but the argument needs to acknowledged before it can be countered.

So: Trump’s guarantees of law, order and powering up the economy appear to have been particularly resonant. But what about all the fake news? Trump’s comments about women? Or the Twitter tirades in the early morning hours? Everyone interviewed agreed that the media frenzy was unlike anything they’d seen before: poisonous … and inescapable. In such an atmosphere, they said it was impossible to have a reasoned debate, or even know which news to believe.

In the end, most agreed that due to this atmosphere, their news was indeed gleaned from the internet, with information on social media seemingly more digestible after being shared by friends than the constant attacks on TV. Data from Edelman’s 2017 Trust Barometer shows that the Caldwells are not alone: respondents from across the globe reported a total collapse in trust for traditional media outlets. TV news has become a ratings battle in a partisan attempt to cause maximum damage to the opposite side, instead of reporting the unvarnished facts. Even Fox News, which had previously been a favourite of some family members, was unable to escape this heavy criticism.

I also asked whether there were any other details about this election that might be worth remarking on. A niche observation but an interesting one was the absence of lawn signs during the campaign. This was in contrast to all the other elections the family could remember. It seems that the campaign was so bitter, divisive and angry that people were afraid to show their true allegiances. No wonder the polls were so inaccurate.

When taken individually, each of these reasons for voting Trump isn’t farfetched. They represent a genuine level of concern, plus disillusionment with the establishment in Washington. Some have said that Trump voters were stupid or bigoted; but none of this family’s reasons for voting the way they did chime with this. The Caldwells actively sought out news and found the cacophony of angry voices to be overwhelming.

Rather than labelling Trump voters as misinformed, the Democrats need to work out how to remedy each of their concerns clearly and with conviction if they want to succeed in 2020. Nobody says it will be easy; the Trust Barometer has shown that voters are almost four times more likely to ignore information they don’t believe in. But for the Democrats, breaking through the “echo chamber” will mean having to truly listen to their strongest detractors. Only then can the party start to win back trust – and, ultimately, the White House.

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