In 2015, I had two friends working on the Kentucky governor’s race. Their candidate was popular Attorney General Jack Conway. I called both on the day of the election to wish them luck. Both told me the same thing: they were expecting a nice victory that evening.
Conway’s opponent was a self-funding businessman named Matt Bevin who had never served in public office. His biggest claim to fame was losing a primary in 2014 to Mitch McConnell by 25 points. According to Politico, Bevin “was mocked by fellow Republicans as an ‘East Coast Con Man.’” Still, Bevin won the nomination by defeating two establishment candidates.
Conway, for his part, was a known quantity who had unsuccessfully run for Congress and US Senate. He was following the lead of popular Democratic Governor Steve Beshear who had embraced Obamacare and expanded Medicaid. His program drastically reduced the number of uninsured Kentucky residents and had broad support. Regardless, Bevin ran against the program, promising to repeal it.
Like my friends on the race, most of the national political establishment believed Conway would win. When the votes came in, though, Bevin beat the Attorney General by nine points. Most of the polls had missed it, including Conway’s internals.
A few months later, I announced I was running for Congress in a rural district in North Carolina. One of my friends on the Conway team called. He warned that there’s an undercurrent of resentment among rural voters that polling is missing. They don’t really care about policy or politics because they don’t expect political leaders to deliver anything, anyway. In their minds, they’ve been so left behind and left out, that they just want to give a big F-you to the political establishment.
He was right and the Kentucky race portended Trump’s victory. Democrats need to understand these voters. They didn’t vote against their self-interest. They didn’t even really vote for Trump or Bevin. They voted to burn down the system because they see that as in their best interest.
The reason for their pessimism and resentment is multifaceted. It’s not just economic insecurity or racism, though both play a significant role. It’s a belief that parts of the social safety net encourage dependency and that they pay for it with their paychecks. It’s the sense that they are losing their culture. It’s the knowledge that the next generation will likely have to leave home to maintain their quality of life. And it’s the understanding that the benefits of the modern economy are going to other parts of the country. And they believe politicians from both parties have encouraged these trends while ignoring their effects on their way of life.
These people will give Donald Trump a lot of leeway as long as they think he’s fighting for them. They’ll forgive him increases in health care premiums since they believe they were going up anyway. They won’t know, or care, that his treasury secretary worked on Wall Street or the net worth of his cabinet members.
What they will know is that Donald Trump kept 1,000 jobs from going to Mexico when every other politician would have stood by and done nothing. Like Bill Clinton, Donald Trump feels their pain. They’ll excuse a lot of bad behavior as long as they keep believing that. And that’s what Democrats need to understand.