The wealth gap and two other anti-Trump themes: How Dems can woo young voters in critical states

Oh, the fickleness of Trump-era news cycles! I was going to write about how the Democrats could defeat Donald Trump in part by wooing young voters in critical Electoral College states. And then along comes the Ukrainian bombshell raising serious questions about whether Trump will even be around to run against.

But let’s suppose Trump’s political and PR fixers can deflect the accusations well enough for Republican senators to disregard the probable impeachment findings in the House. What’s more, even if Mike Pence or someone else is the GOP Presidential candidate instead, the young could still matter. So how can the Democrats win over enough young Americans, especially in places where their votes will most count?

Polls say far more young people will vote in the 2020 elections than in previous years. But the popular vote by itself will mean squat—it’s the Electoral College, of course, that matters. Democrats should woo young voters everywhere but lavish special loving care on those in Electoral College swing states that put Trump over the top in 2016. Just 107,000 more votes out of the 14 million in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania—and 120 million in the U.S.—could have sent Hillary Clinton to the White House. The trick is to remember that issues appealing to young voters in Michigan may not always be the same as the ones of greatest importance in Louisiana. Or they may require special geographical twists for optimal results.

Ahead, in no particular order, because the political landscape is ever shifting, are three anti-Trump themes to use with young voters in mind in the upper Midwest and Pennsylvania. I’m simplifying. Swing states exist outside the region. But this is the part of the country where geographical sensitivity might make a major difference in winning over the young.


The percentage of young people living with parents is the highest in 75 years. Half of Americans born in the 1980s earn more in inflation-adjusted dollars than their parents–compared to 92 percent of those born the year before Pearl Harbor. Donald Trump now owns the economy or at least has claimed to. Haunt him with the old Reaganism: “’Are you better off than you were four years ago?”

So what might this mean in campaign commercials aimed at the sons and daughters of factory workers in places like Ohio and Michigan?

    1. Whether it’s bringing broadband to the rural Midwest or growing jobs for young people in new fields like solar energy and electric cars, Democrats need to talk up concrete proposals. Depict Trump by contrast as a trog of a claimed billionaire caring only about his fat-cat donors from the oil and coal industries. Mix hopeful economic and environmental messages. But geographical sensitivity, please! A Brookings Institution study tells how median household income in Democratic congressional districts zoomed between 2008 and 2018, while income in Republican districts—so many of them in the American heartland—declined. A headline over a Washington Post column gets it right: “Our deepening economic divide is fertile ground for Trump’s demagoguery.”
    2. Remember, the upper industrialized Midwest has traditionally been union territory. Accurately portray the current crop of Republicans as union-busters and call for the inclusion of union representatives on the boards of the very largest corporations. Vow to reverse the anti-organizing measures that have blighted American companies. A Nation article gives hope that unions may actually be starting to come back among the young. In ads and commercials, sell the idea of unions. It is no small coincidence that the decline of the Democratic Party overlaps with the rise of government-tolerated union-busting. Time to update the Labor Management and Reporting Act of 1959 (also known as the Landrum-Griffin Act), tilted in favor of corporations. Refresh young people in union history, and remind them of all the risks taken and sacrifices made toward a middle-class lifestyle. Time to reclaim it!
    3. Go after the student loan issue and related ones. Remind young people that many factory workers could once afford to send their children to four-year colleges without sacrificing retirement security or taking out onerous loans. But today? Outstanding student loans now total a whopping $1.6 trillion and may help bring on the next recession. The Trump administration is complicating matters by, for example, making it harder for young people to enjoy loan forgiveness for public service work. Betsy DeVos, Trump’s secretary of education, is a callous plutocrat from Michigan–the very face of the problem.
    4. Don’t forget the tariff wars. Trump is the villain. It could take years for certain agricultural and manufacturing markets to recover from the damage Trump has done–everywhere in the U.S. but especially in Midwestern agricultural and blue-collar areas. Imagine all the family farms in peril. Granted, farmers are a smaller percentage of the population than in the past. But they have friends and relatives.

Democrats can make all those points for young people while still attacking the Republicans on general economic issues that are not geographically related. Consider the Robin-Hood-in-reverse tax cuts that enriched the super-wealthy at the expense of the rest of us. Donald Trump’s attack on Obamacare, which allows young people to be covered on parents’ health insurance policies up to their 26th birthdays, is yet another assault on young Americans everywhere.


As a hyper-loathsome villain, Trump is at his most cartoonish on climate change and other environmental issues even though his cruelty toward migrants comes close.

The Democrats should go all out on the Green Deal vision and push for clean-up deadlines much earlier than what Joe Biden has in mind. Al Gore and like-minded people for years have gotten it right. The clean-up effort is a chance for economic growth in solar and other areas. Don’t wimp out! Tell how Trump’s policies, by contrast, would increase the number of pollution-related deaths in the upper Midwest and elsewhere.

What’s more, damage from climate change won’t just threaten New York, L.A. or Miami–a point that campaign ads and commercials could make. Two scientists at the University of Michigan write: “Rapid changes in weather and water supply conditions across the Great Lakes and upper Midwest are already challenging water management policy, engineering infrastructure and human behavior.” As reported in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, high water levels in Lake Michigan “almost completely submerged two of the sandy beaches that line the city’s lakefront. Condo buildings and other properties that abut the water are shelling out for reinforcements of their own.” Of course, events could unfold in the other direction, with the Great Lakes at least temporarily receding. But either way, weather extremes caused by climate change could inflict many billions in damage.

Among Democratic voters inside and outside the Midwest, climate change may be as big an issue as healthcare. With the number and severity of storms and other unpleasant surprises multiplying, even nonDemocrats may feel the same. Certain young Republicans are begging Trump to reverse course on environmental and climate change issues.

“Recent surveys,” reports the activist publication Grist, “suggest that Generation Z and Millennial Republicans care about the climate much more than their elders–and, get this, maybe as much as younger Democrats do.” In a mere five years, the number of 18-34 Republican voters concerned about human-created climate change increased by 18 percent. Today 67 percent worry. Do Americans of any age—Republicans or Democrats—really want their grandchildren to hate them?


With Trump in the White House, are you sleeping better at night? That’s the question Democratic campaigns need to ask young people and parents–at full volume, in social media, on TV, in newspapers, magazines, everywhere. The environmental and economic threats stand out, but other reasons also exist, particularly those pertaining to his fitness or lack of it for the Presidency. What to say about a commander-in-chief who leaned on the Ukrainians to investigate Joe Biden if they wanted military aid?

Young people will be wondering about the gap between the ugly reality of Trump and the presidency as depicted in school. Politicians in the Midwest are hardly angelic (just look at the horrid governors that super-rich GOP donors helped install in Wisconsin and Michigan before the voters caught on and revolted). But traditionally Wisconsin has been a reform citadel rather than a center of divisive politics. Trump is a scary letdown for many young people there and elsewhere. That’s especially true of nonwhites in places like Detroit who know he is a genuine bigot-in-chief, enamored of police brutality. Target ads and commercials accordingly!

In a coincidentally related vein, John Della Volpe, director of Polling for the Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School, mentions the sheer stress of politics in Trumpian times. He says that “for the first time, we now have evidence that the state of our politics is contributing to the mental health challenges millions of young Americans already face. To empower young voters, to persuade them to vote requires candidates willing to share and align their values with this emerging generation—and understanding the stress inherent in our politics today is a critical first step.”

While the stress can come from confrontation between generations, classes and regions, not just the craziness of an orange-haired wack job, let’s consider the Trumpist and GOP policies and practices which have aggravated this and which could be the target of youth-oriented campaign ads and commercials in the Midwest and elsewhere:

—Gun violence. In 2019 so far, at least 1,219 people have been injured and at least 335 have died in mass shootings–a total of 1,554 victims. “Do we really want a president in the pocket of the National Rifle Association?”

—The Supreme Court and federal judges. “Should elderly bigots deny you the right to abortion when you can’t afford to have a child? Trump is shamelessly kowtowing to the anti-abortion crowd in his judicial appointments.”

—Increased chances of nuclear war. “How safe are we with a narcissistic nut in the White House?”

—Anti-LGTBQ bigotry, especially in judicial appointments. This on top of the contempt for nonwhites!


Of course, the most wisely chosen issues in the world won’t help if the Democrats stint on voter registration or pick the wrong candidates

The Democratic presidential favorite, as I write this, is still Joe Biden, 76. Significantly, the Harvard researchers have found that 18-29-year-olds overwhelmingly distrust the baby boomer generation of politicians–saying they just “don’t care about people like me.” Biden is even older than the boomers.

Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders might be exceptions to many young people’s age-related fears. Biden isn’t, and he’ll have to keep that in mind in coming up with stands on various issues. In an earlier Georgetown Dish column, I mentioned the possibility of Kamala Harris as a running mate for Biden to create some racial and gender diversity. At 54 she may still not be young enough for optimal results, and I wish she were far more progressive. Still, as a pragmatic way to complement Biden, she is probably a better possibility than alternatives.

Image: Creative Commons-licensed from DonkeyHotkey.

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David Rothman

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