An ideological shift, not in the electorate but in Republican party messaging, might explain why the blue wall went red in 2016.
In 2016, President’s electoral win was facilitated by the collapsing of the so-called blue wall. The reliably Democratic states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, along with Rust Belt Ohio, swung right and handed Trump 64 electoral votes, an integral step of his path to electoral victory.
At the time, this seemed to have significance beyond the 2016 election. Could this be a geographical shift in the electorate, the creation of a new voting bloc that would greatly bolster the Republican path to electoral college victory?
Fast-forward to 2020 and the answer seems to be, no. While none of the results have been certified, it seems pretty clear that Joe Biden carried Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. With Ohio swinging for Trump, it seems the current president can still number parts of the Rust Belt among his supporters, but the blue wall has returned.
If 2016 wasn’t a geographic shift, how, then, can the election results for that year be understood?
One answer may be that 2016 was not a geographical shift, but an ideological one.
In a political world where the president is the symbolic head of the party and, as Congress continues to default on its Constitutionally-delegated responsibilities, often the person who sets a party’s policy agenda, Trump may now be the prototypical example of a Republican. But at the time of his nomination, he was anything but conventional.
His economic agenda, in particular better resembled the party platform of his opponent than of the conservative wing of the Republican party, whose free market policies had reliably been the dominant voice in the GOP’s economic policy at least since Ronald Reagan.
But Trump was a populist, albeit a weird one. Historically, populism’s agrarian roots look on manufacturing as a corruptive force, responsible not only for destroying their economic opportunities but traditional cultural norms, as well. Trump’s populism, though, promised to restore American manufacturing, pitting it against the wealth-stealing, job-crushing aggression of hostile foreign powers.
At the heart of Trump’s everyman promise to watch out for and improve the welfare of middle America was an idea antithetical to what, once-upon-a-time, was the defining characteristic of ideological conservatism: government intervention in private markets.
Whether in the form of tariffs (or exemptions to tariffs for friends of the administration) or bailouts for farmers, Trump’s campaign promise to reverse the economic downturn in the blue wall states he carried in 2016 involved actions more typical of a Democrat president.
Hillary Clinton didn’t run on this message in 2016; but Joe Biden did in 2020.
One of the major party candidates’ campaign promised to “mobilize the talent, grit, and innovation of the American people and the full power of the federal government to bolster American industrial and technological strength and ensure the future is “made in all of America” by all of America’s workers.” You’d be forgiven for thinking this was a statement from the Trump campaign, whose trade mantra in his first term was “free, fair and reciprocal trade” and who pursued trade wars because he claimed “unfair trade deals that sacrificed our prosperity and shipped away our companies, our jobs, and our Nation’s wealth.”
But the statement above actually came from Biden’s campaign. Where Trump’s plan for a resurgence in American manufacturing rested on tariffs, Biden’s invoked taxes by another name, specifically, what his campaign termed a “Made in America” tax assessed against manufacturers who offshore their production. According to the president-elect’s campaign, “Biden will establish a 28% corporate tax rate, plus a 10% Offshoring Penalty surtax, on profits of any production by a United States company overseas for sales back to the United States.”
Again, this messaging is not that different from the public berating Trump gave to companies like Harley-Davidson and Ford who threatened to move manufacturing overseas. The current president threatened to tax Harley-Davidson “like never before” if they built a new manufacturing plant in Thailand.
Not only is the rhetoric similar — explicit threats made to private economic actors who don’t behave as Trump and Biden, acting in their official (or soon-to-be official) capacity see fit. But the language is remarkably similar as well. It’s the language of economic nationalism: sympathy for small business, for middle America, and contempt for big business, especially if it moves overseas. It then becomes an enemy of American prosperity and becomes fair game for what, effectively, are economic sanctions.
Why is the near carbon-copy of Biden’s 2020 messaging to four-years of Trump’s presidency important? Because it might help explain the apparent collapsing and subsequent rebuilding of the blue wall.
The 2016 results represent not a geographical reconfiguring of the electorate, but a temporary shift. Trump moved the left-wing economic interests of those states into the Republican party. But Biden, whose words are backed up with a near fifty-year relationship with voters in the same region Trump captured in 2016, brought them back into the fold in 2020. Trump’s economic nationalism, more at home with the Democratic idea that government is a more equitable and efficient distributor of resources than private actors, had no competitors.
But Biden challenged Trump’s messaging in 2016, not only reiterating it, but perhaps mastering it: where Trump balked at class-warfare, Biden capitalized on it, emphasizing the same messaging as Obama: that big business prospers at the expense of middle-America.
In other words, Trump’s economic nationalism, borrowed by Republicans for four year returned home to the Democrat party in 2020. And this may help explain the behavior of the blue wall, which temporarily went red in 2016. A temporary ideological shift, not with voters but with party ideology, moved economic interventionism to the right for a single election.