Friday, July 12, 2019 | 2 a.m.
What is President Donald Trump going to do to win the voters who rejected him in 2016?
It’s a serious question. Roughly 137 million people voted in the last presidential election. Most of them — about 74 million people, or 54% of all ballots cast — did not vote for Trump. His self-proclaimed “massive landslide” rests on a thin margin of victory in just three states.
Once in office, Trump abandoned the heterodox Republicanism of his campaign for hard-right policies opposed by most Americans. He fought to repeal the Affordable Care Act. When that failed, he pushed for an unpopular upper-income tax cut. He reveled in cruelty toward immigrants and took the side of racist demonstrators in Charlottesville, Va. He governs for his base alone, with no sense or understanding of the collective good.
“I have a base that’s a phenomenal — it’s just a phenomenal base,” Trump said in a recent interview with Time magazine. “It’s a very loyal base, and I’m loyal to them also.” When asked if he should reach beyond his supporters, he answered simply, “I think my base is so strong; I’m not sure that I have to do that.”
As a result, the narrow coalition that put him in office is even narrower. Trump’s approval rating is nearly 10 points underwater; in several recent polls, he loses hypothetical matchups with Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg; and as of April, 52% of registered voters said they “definitely” wouldn’t vote for him in 2020. He still has the economy on his side, but if the president doesn’t try to reach out to voters outside of his base — if he doesn’t try to appeal to Democrats and Republicans who rejected him in 2016 — there’s a good chance he’ll lose re-election.
I am never going to vote for Trump, but there are voters who might, if he would reach out to them. Is there anything he could do to bring them to his side, or will he force them to support the Democratic nominee for lack of a better alternative?
One option is to reject the conservative policymaking of his first term and embrace the more moderate approach he promised as a candidate. Thirty-five percent of Americans identify as “moderate,” and they might be receptive to a Trump who promised to pursue consensus and pragmatism instead of division and far-right ideological crusades.
Trump, for example, could try to cut a deal on health care. Fifty-six percent of Americans favor a “national health plan in which all Americans would get their insurance from a single government plan,” according to an April survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation. A more recent poll from Morning Consult, taken after the first round of Democratic presidential debates, shows 46% support for a “Medicare for All” system that diminishes the role of private insurers but majority support (55%, including 56% of independents and 26% of Republicans) for one that allows you to keep your doctor and hospital.
In theory, this is fertile ground for a compromise, a chance for Trump to deliver the “beautiful” health care he promised during the campaign. He could give up his unpopular and divisive attempt to repeal Obamacare and take the moderate path of Medicare expansion. If Medicare for All is too much, there’s also “Medicare for most,” which would allow consumers to buy into the program as an option on the exchanges. If he wants to aim directly for the center, he could urge Republican lawmakers in states like Alabama, Florida and South Carolina to adopt the Medicaid expansion and extend health insurance to their most disadvantaged residents.
On the economy, Trump could reach out to moderate voters with a minimum-wage increase. In a January poll from The Hill, 55% of registered voters said they would support raising the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour from $7.25. While only 36% of Republicans supported $15 per hour, 70% said they would support a lesser but still significant raise. Only 14% of registered voters want the minimum wage to stay the same, and only 5% think it should be reduced or eliminated. In the same survey, an even larger number of voters — 59% — said that they support a 70% tax rate on the amount of income over $10 million. By adopting both policies, Trump could claim the middle and grow his coalition beyond its current confines.
Finally there’s immigration. Trump has made draconian border policies the centerpiece of his administration, at the cost of alienating much of the public. He is trapped in a bubble, unable to see the facts: that a large majority of Americans support a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants, oppose a wall along the southern border and disapprove of how the federal government has treated migrants attempting to cross into the United States. Most Americans, likewise, would allow refugees from Central American countries to continue to seek asylum.
Here is another opportunity to claim the middle. The president could abandon his harsh immigration policies and adopt the measured, more humane approach favored by most of the public.
As it stands, all of this is obviously unlikely. It’s also striking to see how far the president is from the center of American politics. The most expansive Democratic proposals for strengthening the social safety net are far closer to the political mainstream than the great majority of Trump’s actions as president. And he shows no sign of changing course. Trump is still committed to his base, still obsessed with mobilizing his strongest supporters. This may get big crowds in friendly territory, but it might not be enough to win a second term in 2020.
A majority of the American electorate — liberals, moderates and even some conservatives — want a greater government role in health care, a higher minimum wage, higher taxes on the rich and less punitive border policies. If Trump isn’t going to move to the center, then their only choice should be the party that, no matter its nominee, backs each item on that list.
Jamelle Bouie is a columnist for The New York Times.