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How Trump is risking his most important voters

Rick Newman
Senior Columnist

Democrats hope to win the White House in 2020 by flipping suburban women who voted for Trump in 2016. But they may be overlooking another key constituency: the farm and factory vote.

Farmers and factory workers helped put Trump over the top in 2016 by giving him victories in key swing states. But Trump hasn’t returned the favor. His trade war with China has hurt farmers losing access to the Chinese market for soybeans, pork and other products. It has also contributed to a manufacturing downturn beginning to hurt many states.

New research by the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics highlights the risk for Trump if the trade war damage persists. From 2017 to 2018, growth in the agriculture sector declined in several swing states Trump won in 2016, including Ohio, Iowa, North Carolina, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Florida. Trump has provided $28 billion in aid to farmers to help offset the damage, but that won’t reopen foreign markets lost to the trade war.

MANCHESTER, NEW HAMPSHIRE - AUGUST 15: President Donald Trump speaks to supporters at a rally in Manchester on August 15, 2019 in Manchester, New Hampshire. The Trump 2020 campaign is looking to flip the battleground state of New Hampshire with the use of a strong economy and appeals to his core voters on immigration and guns. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Manufacturing has fared better in swing states, but the Center for Politics research still found a slowdown in growth in early 2019. State-level data lags national data, which shows a contraction in the manufacturing sector during the last couple of months. So the picture is worsening for factory workers in swing states.

Will this matter? It obviously depends how farmers and factory workers react. They could stick with Trump, which they might do if they prioritize cultural factors such as immigration over economic factors. They could ditch Trump for a Democrat, if they feel they gave Trump a chance and he failed them. Or they could just stay home, which would still hurt Trump if turnout in his favor drops from high levels of 2016.

Source: Center for Politics, University of Virginia

Trump has some control over the farm and factory vote, since he could wrap up the trade war and ease the pain it’s causing farmers and manufacturers. There’s already a “phase one” trade deal with China in the works, which could entail renewed Chinese purchases of U.S. farm goods. But experts doubt an all-encompassing deal is likely, which means the Trump tariffs now in place will stay there, as will retaliatory measures in China. Unless Trump essentially caves to China, the trade war could be an economic depressant all the way up to the 2020 election next November.

Source: Center for Politics, University of Virginia

It’s not clear, however, if Democrats will be able to capitalize on Trump’s vulnerabilities with farm and factory workers. Hillary Clinton fared poorly with these voters in 2016 partly because she didn’t seriously court them. Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat who’s running for president, recently told Yahoo Finance, “We don’t even show up in those areas. You don't necessarily have to say, okay, I'm going to win all of rural America. But you have to be able to get the votes out of it that we need, ultimately, to win. And you can't just do that by ignoring these areas.”

The opening for Democrats is hard to ignore. Polling by Morning Consult shows Trump has a negative approval rating in Iowa (-14 points), Wisconsin (-11), Michigan (-10), Pennsylvania (-8), Ohio (-5) and North Carolina (-3). He won all those states in 2016 and will need most of them to win again. But Democrats need to make a compelling case to farm and factory voters, and not assume they’ll abandon Trump.

Rick Newman is the author of four books, including “Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman. Confidential tip line: rickjnewman@yahoo.com. Encrypted communication available. Click here to get Rick’s stories by email.

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