The campaign press is obsessing over white working-class Trump voters — again

The campaign press is obsessing over white working-class Trump voters — again
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Election '20

As 2020 campaign coverage shifts into high gear, the press is already reviving a beloved 2016 storyline: White working-class voters from Midwest, and specifically men, are the voters who matter most.

There’s the collection of blue-collar Trump supporters; the interviews conducted inside roadside diners and saloons; and the plainspoken oaths of loyalty offered up to the president. The trusty props are all being dusted off for the 2020 campaign season, as journalists document Trump's "tight bond" with Midwestern working-class voters. In recent weeks, The New York Times alone has published fresh looks at white blue-collar Trump voters from Colfax and Osseo, Wisconsin, and from Lordstown and Youngstown, Ohio.

The recent flood of coverage actually hangs on an interesting news hook, which is that Trump's incoherent trade tariffs are making life difficult for so many of his Midwestern supporters, particularly farmers who overwhelmingly supported him in 2016. Trump won Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin by tiny margins, which means he could lose them the same way in 2020. But instead of fresh insights, so much of the Midwestern white working-class voter coverage has been a numbing repeat of what we've seen nonstop since 2016, which is blue-collar voters in virtually all-white counties in red states announcing that they really, really like Trump. And yes, there's a cult-like devotion to him, despite policies that are ruining Midwestern businesses. (Typical headline: "There’s No Boom in Youngstown, but Blue-Collar Workers Are Sticking With Trump.") "He does really seem to be fighting for us,” an Iowa farmer recently toldCNBC. "Even if it feels like the two sides are throwing punches and we’re in the middle, taking most of the hits."

The Trump-voter journalism genre seems to be a way for the allegedly liberal media to signal to conservatives that it’s willing to present them in a flattering light—over and over and over. And yes, the entire Trump-voter newsbeat was invented out of whole cloth. During President Barack Obama’s first term, newsrooms weren't fanning out to Atlanta and Chicago and Los Angeles to stock up on quotes from black voters who loved the new president. Back then, what Obama voters thought of the new president simply wasn’t considered to be newsworthy by the political press. Yet today, what Trump voters think of Trump has been deemed wildly important, and is covered relentlessly.

Specifically, the media continues to almost blindly obsess over white men losing manufacturing jobs, which is an employment trend that has been unfolding in the United States for close to half a century now. It's a painful process, for sure, but it's not new. On the flip side, why don't we see an endless parade of articles about the sea of American women who have lost retail jobs in recent years, often in urban centers, and the political ramifications of that?

What's also strange about the media's unending fascination and borderline glorification of white male voters is that a majority of them haven't voted Democratic in nearly half a century. That means white working-class voters aren't swing voters, which are typically the type that most interest journalists, since they're the ones who can tip an election. To justify the saturation coverage, though, some journalists pretend these people represent key electoral constituencies.

"The path to the White House next year runs through places like Lordstown," the Times recently announced. But does it? I don't think most election observers consider the Buckeye State to be in play for 2020. So I'm not sure why campaign reporters seem to be camped out there, getting not-so-fresh takes from white working-class Trump supporters.

Reporting from Wisconsin and interviewing a voter who works in a plastics factory, the Times stressed that Trump was maintaining that swing voter's loyalty. I'm sorry, but blue-collar white middle-aged men from Wisconsin who live "pay check to pay check" in no way represent "swing voters" in America today. They just don't. That's like publishing a voter roundup of middle-aged black women in South Carolina and suggesting they'll be swing voters come 2020. (Hint: They will not.)

The fact is that Democrats have captured the White House four times in the last 27 years without winning white male voters, twice with Bill Clinton and twice with Barack Obama. Of course, if Democrats lose too many white male voters, then their chances of winning the presidency slide. But it's not as if that voting bloc represents a cornerstone of the party's coalition. So why the media obsession? And why the complete focus on blue-collar white men?

It might be that, demographically, white male voters look a lot like the journalists covering the presidential campaign, who could have a natural tendency to focus on them and to believe their votes are the most important. In addition, the voting bloc has become closely associated with Trump, which seems to have spiked the media's interest in it.

Note that coverage of white working-class voters is also often overly rosy when it comes to Trump's chances for reelection. In a recent campaign dispatch in Wisconsin, the Times stressed over and over that the state, which Trump won by just 22,000 votes, seemed to be trending his way, in part because of white working-class voters. Completely omitted from the story was the fact that, since taking office, Trump's net positive rating in Wisconsin has fallen by 19 points.

It's true that most political journalists never saw Trump's 2016 victory coming. Ever since then, they've been trying to make up for that oversight by relentlessly focusing on hardcore Trump supporters, and specifically those who live in the Midwest. But it’s past time to break that obsession and take the temperature of the rest of the country.

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