Donald Trump’s reputation took a battering during the shutdown. He said he would own it, and he did. He took the blame and then he took the hit when he agreed to end the partial federal closure without winning funding for his border wall.
So what was the point?
A new set of polling figures reveals the point with hard numbers. It turns out that while his stand was broadly unpopular across the country, his no-nonsense stance resonated with one critical cohort of voters – people in key battleground districts, those that voted Trump in 2016 but swung Democratic in the midterms. They gave him the win on the wall and border security.
The Public Opinion Strategies survey, conducted for the Republican National Committee, provides some comfort for the president that he retains his knack for connecting with the concerns of people overlooked elsewhere.
The data were collected in 10 districts in Minnesota, New York, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Maine, Virginia and New Jersey. In those locations, voters were more likely to support the president’s position on border security.
‘By a 53 percent-43 percent margin, voters in these Dem-held congressional districts support “building a border wall or barrier to improve security between the US and Mexico,”’ conclude the authors.
And when it came to the shutdown and deals on the table, a majority (50 percent-43 percent) believe that Democrats should have accepted Trump’s offer of three years of protection for dreamers in exchange for $5.7 billion in funding a border wall.
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I am not surprised. Included among the districts was Pennsylvania 8, which includes Luzerne County. This is blue collar, rust belt territory, where employment lags well behind the national average, brought down by decades of decline and the double whammy of losing first its coal industry and then the factories that replaced the mines. It’s where the Rust Belt starts.
And it’s where I go when I need to get out of the New York bubble for a dose of reality. The breakfast club at the Bakehouse Bakery and Cafe in Kingston keeps me straight. Never mind Trump’s Twitter rage or missteps, the diners tell me over their breakfast bagels, just keep an eye on the border and immigration. That’s what matters, they say, as they explain how the economy cannot come with more mouths to feed. Their three priorities can be summed up as: Jobs, jobs, jobs.
That is why most of the people I talk to there supported Barack Obama in 2012 but backed Trump in 2016. They were the people missed by broad-brush polling that focused on national trends and failed to find the dissenting pockets that ultimately decided the election.
None of this means Trump is on course to repeat his feat. The new poll also reflects the challenge he faces. Respondents gave him a 49 percent approval rating – hardly stellar, if better than the population at large.
But by now you know it is foolish to write off Trump, to declare his presidency dead. If anything, there is a tendency to go the other way. Even previous denialists, including my liberal New York friends, talk openly about a second term.
And there is a whole new genre of journalism dedicated to revising each apparent presidential blunder in terms of its strategic genius. If Trump were to catch his penis in his zipper, there would be a rash of hot takes setting out how his everyday mishap illustrated a knack for connecting with the problems faced by the average man…while distracting from whatever chaotic interlude had just leaked from the White House.
The battle over the wall and the poll of key battlegrounds does, however, show that Trump knows his base and has a simple, identifiable message. There is a path somewhere in there to re-election if he can just remember there is more to America than its border and those 10 key battlegrounds.