I’ve had over 450 conversations with folks on my road trips. On the recent one over May-June, I specifically explored voting intentions for 2024.
I was curious if those who voted for Donald Trump in 2016 voted for him in 2020, and if they intended to do the same in 2024. I’m assuming he’ll be the GOP nominee. Republican primaries are ‘winner take all’ so, with a large field, Trump will barge through as he did in 2016. And, in any case, his poll numbers soar in relation to the number of indictments.
I was given many reasons for supporting the former president. Voters are both pushed and pulled to him. Pushed to Trump by the alleged ‘Biden crime family syndicate’, Democrat profligacy with ‘their’ money, and woke policies. Pulled to Trump by his business approach, promise to ‘make America great again’, and strong leadership.
One of his die-hard MAGA (Make America Great Again) supporters in Mississippi told me about her despair after the 2020 election: “We’re political prisoners, it’s a set-up of Democrats and the FBI to cover up the coup of 2020. Biden is an illegitimate resident in the White House, they stole the election. I have followed so much the ways they’ve stolen the election.” She and her husband listen to X22 Report every night. She had originally been attracted to the populist message when Rush Limbaugh addressed the CPAC (Conservative Political Action Committee) conference in 2009.
I was told by some that it was the late Rush Limbaugh who shaped their political beliefs. Their continuing support for former president Trump is now reinforced by Talk Radio, podcasts, and friends who think along the same lines. It was the exception for anyone to tell me of friends who have different political views. If they do – and are still friends – they don’t discuss politics. All this reinforces, rather than challenges, their entrenched political views, whether left or right.
People who surprised me most with their support for Trump were ones who I had thought might be more critical in their perspective. I was told by a friend who I grew up with in Illinois that “the Democrats are ruining the country, Biden is a criminal, and we need a strong leader like a monarch to sort this country out”. Trump is seen as that strong leader and has laid out his agenda for how he will reshape America should he win in 2024.
While Trump’s behaviour is not a negative factor in the view of his MAGA supporters, it is for his opponents, especially Republicans who are alienated by him. Some of the most passionate critics of Trump who I met are life-long Republicans. Said a friend from college days in Indiana: “He’s a slimy narcissistic mother****er who’s committed treason, should be tried for treason, and I’m a registered Republican, I hate the man, never swore at the TV till his presidency.”
I met people who had voted for Trump in 2016, particularly because “Hillary’s a crook”. These voters were both pushed to Trump by their hatred for Clinton and pulled to him by his support for broken communities across middle America that had suffered from globalisation and immigration. But some told me they’d had been repelled by his behaviour and voted reluctantly for Biden in 2020.
Others turned from Trump after Jan 6. Said a lady in Idaho: “Since the Jan 6 hearings, I’ve seen a lot of Trump signs go down, some may have had their eyes opened to Trump, that they weren’t aware of or couldn’t see and can no longer deny.” Republicans told me that they’d prefer another candidate but, should Trump be the nominee, they’ll need to think hard: “I voted for Trump last election (2020), held my nose, liked his politics, but didn’t see a choice.”
Between Trump’s diehard supporters and passionate critics are many who are being pushed away by Trump but not pulled to Biden. Trump’s characterisation of radical left Democrats bringing socialism to America resonates with some voters, as a couple on a park bench in New Orleans told me: “The Democratic Party wants to have control of people, that’s what socialism is, take people’s money and do with it what they want to do with it.”
As much as the Biden administration touts its legislative successes, I didn’t hear much about these having a positive impact on voter intentions. The benefit of infrastructure investment takes time. Instead, the narrative I heard on Talk Radio is all about Hunter Bidon’s laptop and the alleged bribery of President Biden, now the subject of House hearings.
While Trump’s message is clear, Democrats are struggling to make an impact with theirs. Trump’s dog whistles of socialism, ‘Crooked Joe’, and economic carnage were reflected back to me by his supporters I spoke to. And I heard these messages repeated by callers to Talk Radio as I recently drove 34,000 miles across America. The well-meaning Democrats I met in Richland Center, Wisconsin know they now need to stop playing soft ball and pick up the hard ball. I was told by another Democrat that “liberals are way more scared to speak their mind now.” While I saw many signs for ‘F*** Joe Biden’, I never saw the equivalent for Trump.
The Dobbs ruling came out just before I started my road trip. It was a daily topic of conversation on radio, television, in the press, and with those I spoke to. I was told by a woman that her “friends are devout in their faith, but since Dobbs and media coverage, they’re beginning to question, and find themselves in trouble.” The Supreme Court decision turned out to be a game changer for liberals, galvanising women to make their voices heard in the midterms.
I also contributed to the conversation myself. When I was in my hometown of Peoria, Illinois, I was invited onto local radio – the Greg and Dan show on WMBD. We talked about my road trip and observations, which you can listen to here.
My feeling from these road trip conversations is that Trump has had his day. He and the MAGA movement have won little since 2016. The former president continues to hold the stage, but his bellicose message falls on fewer ears. Some voters saw through him after 2016, many more after Jan 6. Yes, his core vote is strong, but his capture of the middle ground has been undone by Dobbs. Voters in Kansas, Wisconsin, and now Ohio have voiced their concerns. Dobbs may yet prove to be a pyrrhic victory for pro-lifers like prohibition was for the temperance movement.
2024 is therefore Biden’s to lose. Yet, as British prime minister Harold Wilson observed, “a week is a long time in politics.” Like Clinton, Biden could stumble, literally. The indictments may impact Trump’s vote, leading to a stronger candidate. The indictments could backfire and make Trump stronger. The economy may well go sour next year. A third party candidate could sap votes from Biden. The checks and balances may break. And the structural inequality in American politics means that the bar is set lower for Trump and the Republicans. All or a combination the above.
There is a rich vein of literature on the effectiveness of leadership. Americans will read for years to come about Trump’s contribution to the science and practice of leadership – but most likely as a one-term president and long-term candidate. Yet the movement he gave name to will continue and will need to be accommodated.