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Those Obama-Trump Counties

What it means that the president held most of them.
November 7, 2020
Those Obama-Trump Counties
Barak Obama (R) and Donald Trump smile at the White House before the inauguration on January 20, 2017 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images)

Though Joe Biden eked out a victory this week, it wasn’t because of the many former Democratic strongholds that unexpectedly swung for Trump in 2016. Of the 206 counties that voted for Obama in both 2008 and 2012 but then went for Trump in 2016, nearly all of them—186 as of this writing—remained faithful to the president in 2020.

For example, Biden lost all 31 Obama-Trump counties in Iowa, an important bellwether. Of the 23 such counties in Wisconsin, Biden lost all but one of them. He lost all but one in Ohio, too. In Georgia, Biden lost all five Obama-Trump counties. The story is the same in Florida and North Carolina.

And although the final results are still rolling in, Trump seems to have widened his margins in some of these Obama counties. Many of the pivot counties in Iowa and Ohio, for example, went even more for Trump in 2020. The New York Times further found that Trump has improved his margins slightly in Obama-Trump areas in Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina.

For Democrats the picture is slightly better in the upper Midwest. Trump won by smaller margins in a number of Obama-Trump counties in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. A few even flipped back into the Democratic fold: Biden edged out Trump in 1 of Michigan’s 12 Obama-Trump counties, and a few in Minnesota, a state that went narrowly for Clinton. Even in these states, though, Trump actually padded his margins in many Democratic strongholds that Obama and Biden won just eight years ago. Why he surged in some (but weakened in others) still isn’t clear.

Biden’s weak showing in Obama-Trump country is a reminder that Democrats will need to reckon with their increasingly strained relationship to the white working class.

Since Trump’s victory in 2016, some Democrats have concluded that the relationship is not worth repairing since these former blue strongholds are simply the home to racist deplorables. That has been a mistake. As we argue in our new book, Trump’s Democrats, citizens in these communities admire Trump not primarily because of defects in their personal character. Rather, they like Trump for reasons that are more cultural than psychological.

After living in three blue strongholds that flipped in 2016, we found that many were Trumpy well before Trump arrived on the national political stage. Some of these communities’ most beloved Democratic leaders are brazen, thin-skinned, nepotistic, and promise to provide for their constituents by cutting deals—and corners, if needed. This is partly because their political culture has been shaped by a working-class honor culture that prizes strong men and a tradition of boss-style politics that is more transactional than ideological.

These citizens also have strong loyalties to hometowns that are confronting serious social and economic problems. Unlike the Proud Boys, most Trump Democrats take more pride in their hometown than their skin color. And while the extent of Trump’s success among black and Latino voters this week won’t be understood until the exit polls have been reweighted—and maybe not even then—just looking at some of the places where he performed well at the polls suggests that his appeal cannot be reduced to white nationalism.

It would also be a strategic mistake for progressives to wash their hands of Trump’s Democrats, especially because they are well represented in many critical battleground states. Biden, after all, won back some of these states by the slimmest of margins despite a pandemic and slumping economy hanging over the head of the incumbent president. Apparently, it really took a plague to drive Donald Trump from office.

But even if Democrats are somehow able to consistently cobble together winning coalitions without these voters, they still have to ask themselves a more existential question: What kind of party do they want theirs to become? More pointedly, do they want to have a broad-based party of the American working class?

If they do, then progressives need to better understand the cultural chasm that divides blue communities in college towns and urban centers from those that lie behind the Democrats’ tattered blue wall.

Republicans, meanwhile, face a different challenge. They need to dispense with Trumpism without alienating the president’s new enthusiasts. To walk that tightrope, they need a far better cultural understanding of these Obama-Trump voters. For Never Trumpers that begins by resisting the temptation to read Trump’s deplorableness back into his supporters.

The party that successfully knits Trump’s Democrats into its coalition may well be the one that holds the balance of power for years to come.

Thanks to our students Kimi Adler, Ana Deckey, Harrison Schreiber, and Sahil Tekchandani for their research assistance.

Stephanie Muravchik and Jon A. Shields

Stephanie Muravchik, an associate fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia, and Jon A. Shields, associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, are the authors of Trump’s Democrats (Brookings, 2020).