The Gallup poll. December, 1979.
President Jimmy Carter — 60%. Former California Governor Ronald Reagan — 36%. So confident was Carter White House Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan of the coming year’s presidential election that he boasted: “The American people are not going to elect a seventy-year-old, right-wing, ex-movie actor to be president.” Hamilton Jordan was a smart guy — and he was also wildly wrong. A little less than a year later the American people — ignoring that Gallup poll — elected Ronald Reagan to the presidency in a landslide — in a three-way race. Reagan won 50.8% of the vote to Carter’s 41%. Third party candidate John Anderson, a liberal Republican who had been defeated by Reagan in the GOP primaries, won a mere 6.6% of the vote. Reagan carried 44 states to Carter’s six plus the District of Columbia.
What happened? How could Reagan go from losing a Gallup poll to Carter by 24 points — then winning the actual election by almost 10 points? Answer? The emergence of what would become known to political history as “the Reagan Democrats.” Who were they? Blue collar, working class, largely Catholic and ethnic, they originally emerged in Richard Nixon’s 1968 and 1972 elections. In which Nixon referred to them as the “Silent Majority.” In 1980, angered by Carter’s handling of the economy, the feckless handling of the Iran hostage crisis, and the left-wing tilt of the Democrats, these voters — many of whom had voted for John F. Kennedy twenty years earlier — returned with a vengeance. Famously, Macomb County, Michigan, which cast 63% of its vote for JFK in 1960, turned around in 1980 and voted 66% for Reagan.
On Tuesday night of this week, Donald Trump appeared in Birch Run, Michigan in Saginaw County. Here’s the headline from the Detroit Free Press:
A lovefest for Donald Trump in Birch Run
The story begins:
BIRCH RUN, Mich. — Addressing about 2,000 very enthusiastic people at the Birch Run Expo Center, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump touched on everything from immigration, China, the military, Obamacare and his Republican opponents.
The crowd, some coming from outside of Michigan, ate it up, giving him frequent standing ovations and breaking into chants of “Trump, Trump, Trump!” and “U.S.A, U.S.A.”
The obvious question. Are Reagan Democrats returning to the center of the American political scene — this time known as Trump Democrats?
A new CNN poll in Iowa has some very revealing stats. The poll notes:
Donald Trump has a significant lead in the race to win over likely Iowa caucus-goers, according to the first CNN/ORC poll in the state this cycle. Overall, Trump tops the field with 22% and is the candidate seen as best able to handle top issues including the economy, illegal immigration and terrorism. He’s most cited as the one with the best chance of winning the general election, and, by a wide margin, as the candidate most likely to change the way things work in Washington.
The poll targets Republicans only. But as in 1980 with Reagan, it doesn’t take much imagination to think that Trump’s overwhelming lead in categories like those with less than a college education or those earning less than $50,000 bodes well for his ability to win Democratic votes in considerable numbers.
A curiosity here is the reaction of Trump opponent Senator Rand Paul, who seems in his wrath at Trump to be channeling the late GOP Establishment champion President Gerald Ford. Headlines the Washington Post of a new Paul commercial attacking Trump:
New Rand Paul video basically calls Donald Trump a closet Democrat
The Post reports:
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul’s presidential campaign on Wednesday released an aggressive attack video questioning business mogul Donald Trump’s conservative bona fides.
“I probably identify more as a Democrat,” Trump is shown saying in the video. “I’ve been around for a long time, and it just seems that the economy does better under the Democrats than the Republicans.” The words imposed on the screen as Trump speaks: “I … IDENTIFY MORE AS A DEMOCRAT.” [The all-caps are all theirs.]
Hmmm. Compare the Paul attack with this story about the 1976 GOP primary campaign in Texas between Ronald Reagan and then-President Ford. Records Reagan biographer Steven F. Hayward in the first volume of his book The Age of Reagan: The Fall of the Old Liberal Order: 1964-1980:
During the Texas campaign Reagan began using a signature line in his appeal for crossover votes: “I was a Democrat most of my life.” Ford and the Republican Establishment professed outrage. Imagine! Seeking Democratic votes! (As if a Republican could win the White House without Democratic votes.)… The idea of “Reagan Democrats” had not yet entered the political lexicon.
Just as Trump is now seen on tape saying he was a Democrat, so too was Reagan cited for the same issue. In fact, as heard here in this YouTube audio tape, there is Reagan captured singing the praises of Harry Truman in a 1948 speech endorsing Truman and also then-Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey who was running for the U.S. Senate — and would later become the 1968 Democratic nominee for president. Listening to the tape of Reagan and he sounds like nothing more than a late forties version of Barack Obama — railing against corporations and Republicans.
One is flummoxed that Senator Paul — as reported in the Los Angeles Times — was not long ago demanding that the GOP reach out to minorities — aka Democrats. Headlined the Times:
Rand Paul in Irvine says Republicans must broaden appeal to minorities
The story drove the point home:
As he traveled through Southern California on a two-day trip, Republican Sen. Rand Paul called on his party Friday to widen its outreach to minority voters, whom he said will help propel the party to victories nationwide.…
“People want know how we’re going to win?” he said. “We’re going to have to be different. We’re going to have to be the new GOP.”…
In a brief interview with The Times before his speech, Paul, who has labeled himself a “different kind of Republican,” said his message of party outreach to minorities has resonated.…
“I don’t care if it’s in an all-white evangelical church or all-Republican gathering, people need to hear it,” he said. “I’m a believer that for the Republican Party to grow, we need to be a broader, more diverse party.”
Amazing, no? On the one hand Senator Paul is demanding outreach to become a “broader, more diverse party.” When Trump does just that — like the 1976 Ford campaign and GOP Establishment suddenly Paul recoils, professing outrage at Trump’s background as a Democrat — precisely the same charge hurled at Reagan by Ford.
You can’t make this stuff up.
There is a long, long way to go in this campaign. But one suspects that Donald Trump — as was true in that blue collar, auto-making state of Michigan the other night — is in the process of demonstrating just what Ronald Reagan once demonstrated to great effect.
Namely? Namely that having once been a Democrat is in fact nothing but an asset for a potential Republican nominee for president. The kind of asset that produces landslide Republican victories.