The Memo

The Memo: Suburbs spell trouble for Trump

President Trump has a problem with suburban voters — and it could have profound consequences for his chances of reelection next year.

An NBC News analysis Monday noted that Trump has been “underwater” with suburban voters in five out of six NBC News–Wall Street Journal polls conducted this year.

{mosads}That finding comports with other surveys that show Trump performing poorly with some of the key voting blocs that populate the nation’s suburbs, notably white women and white college graduates. 

Those dynamics make Trump’s path to reelection a steep one, experts say.

“We are a long way off from November 2020, but my general sense is that it is going to be very tough for him to reverse the Democratic trends in the suburbs,” said Terry Madonna, a professor of public affairs and a polling expert at Franklin & Marshall College in the electorally crucial state of Pennsylvania.

Trump won the Keystone State by about 44,000 votes in 2016 — less than 1 percentage point. He rolled up similarly narrow margins of victory in Michigan and Wisconsin, two other states that had been thought to form a reliably Democratic “blue wall.”

{mossecondads}The margins were so narrow that any shift in the suburbs could swing those states back into the Democratic column, even if Trump were to retain the enthusiasm of his base.

Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, said the movement in the suburbs means “there are a number of places where it will simply boost the Democratic share of the vote. In places like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan, that could be critical to offsetting the working class and rural vote [for Trump].”

Most Republican strategists acknowledge the problem exists, but there are divergent opinions as to its cause.

Some argue there had been a gradual move away from the GOP among suburban voters even before Trump rose to prominence.

The consensus is that those voters, even if fiscally conservative, may have been put off by some of the more socially conservative views expressed by Republican candidates.

The 2013 GOP “autopsy” report that followed former President Obama’s defeat of GOP nominee Mitt Romney the previous year, for example, asserted that “the Republican Party needs to stop talking to itself. … Devastatingly, we have lost the ability to be persuasive with, or welcoming to, those who do not agree with us on every issue.”

Trump’s 2016 win — a shock to many within his own party — looked like a rebuke to such ideas and a validation of his “red-meat” appeal to the white working-class conservative base. 

But as his reelection looms, some GOP strategists believe his style and combative approach are having a destructive effect on his chances, and on the broader electoral hopes of his party. 

GOP strategist Liz Mair noted her own experience traveling to different states where “one of the things I notice a lot is that there is an overwhelming sense of exhaustion. People are tired. People feel like Donald Trump the reality TV star was fine when we had ‘The Apprentice’ one or two hours a week. But now it’s 24/7, week after week.”

Mair added, based on anecdotal evidence, that in their day-to-day lives “a lot of suburban women feel they have quite a lot piled on, and they just don’t need the extra dose of daily drama” that Trump injects.

Other Republicans worry about the impact of particular policies with moderate suburban voters. 

Doug Heye, a former communications director for the Republican National Committee, asserted that the separation of parents from their children at the southern border was “viewed extremely negatively” by the voters in question.

Trump loyalists say this is all unfair. They point to how wrong the conventional wisdom was in 2016, when the first-time candidate swept aside 16 more experienced rivals to win the GOP nomination, and then defeated Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton against the odds.

The president and those close to him also believe that the strength of the economy will be a key asset with suburban voters as he seeks a second term.

To be sure, much will also depend on whom the Democrats choose as their nominee. 

But there is no real doubt that there are serious signs of erosion for Trump and his party in the suburbs.

Exit polls in 2016 showed Trump winning suburban voters by 4 points over Clinton. In the 2018 midterm elections, those voters split evenly between Republicans and Democrats. 

In 2016, Trump won white college graduates by 3 points — 48 percent to 45 percent. In 2018, that group went for Democrats over Republicans by 8 points, 53 percent to 45 percent.

Clinton won white college-educated women by 7 points in 2016. Two years later in the midterms, her party expanded that advantage to 20 points. 

“The evidence was crystal clear in 2018 that there was a significant shift in the suburbs,” Murray, the Monmouth University expert, asserted. 

Trump allies argue that it will be different once his name is again on the ballot. 

But the evidence to support that thesis is scant. In a Quinnipiac University poll conducted late last month, 57 percent of white college graduates said they would “definitely not” vote for Trump next year, while only 30 percent said they definitely would. A further 12 percent said they would “consider” voting from him. 

In the most recent of the NBC News–Wall Street Journal polls, conducted last month, he was 3 points underwater with suburban voters as a whole. 

Virtually no one expects Trump’s tone or political persona to change — love it or hate it. But that makes it difficult to see any plausible way he can drive up his numbers in the suburbs.

His best chance, according to some GOP strategists, is to hope for an equally unpalatable Democratic opponent. 

“A lot of this does depend on what the Democrats do. They have an infinite capacity to botch this,” said Mair. “They better be careful.”

But one thing’s for sure: Virtually everyone is in agreement that the suburbs will be a crucial battleground. 

“You just can’t rule out the pivotal role that the suburbs are likely to play,” said Madonna. 

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.

Tags 2020 elections Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Mitt Romney polls suburbs
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