Henry Olsen

Henry Olsen is Editor of UnHerd.com’s Flyover Country theme and a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC. He is the author of ‘The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism’.


America’s 2020 Presidential campaign has already started. Over the next eighteen months, contenders for the Democratic nomination will attempt to build a collation of support that is sufficient both to unify their party and topple Trump. How they address the voters in America’s flyover country will be the most important factor in determining their success. And to do that, they will have to show these voters understanding and respect.

Flyover country voters will be the decisive bloc because of America’s Electoral College. Presidents are not elected by getting more votes than their opponents; they win by getting more votes in the Electoral College than their opponents. Each state is allocated a number of these votes equal to the sum of its Senators and Representatives. By custom, with two tiny exceptions, all of the state’s Electoral College votes are given to the candidate who wins the most votes within that state.

Trump is president because he won record high support among people who live in the middle of the country but outside the major cities. This is a part of America most educated elites never visit, places like Johnstown, Pennsylvania or Marquette, Michigan. Dominated by whites without college degrees, their views and values are quite different from those held by educated Americans who live in large cities or their suburbs.

They are the largest voting bloc in many large Midwestern states, and their support gave Trump the crucial Electoral College votes that made him President, despite getting nearly three million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton.

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The recent Democratic sweep of the House of Representatives does not alter this equation. Democrats won the House vote by 8.6% in November. But most of the Democrats’ gains were in placed that won’t shift electoral college votes, places safely blue like California, New Jersey, or Illinois or safely red like Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma, South Carolina, or Georgia. In other words, under the Electoral College system, the votes they gained from Republicans are simply wasted.

The 2018 results clearly showed Trump’s path to re-election. Republicans won either the House vote or a contested race for a statewide office in states with 260 Electoral College votes. If he can repeat those showings, he only needs to pick up one flyover country state to be re-elected. Which is exactly why the Democrats’ attitude toward flyover voters is so important.

Flyover voters live in economically downscale areas. They are not sharing in the large economic gains the cities and suburbs generate – in fact, in many cases they are moving backwards because of their continued dependence upon manufacturing or resource extraction.

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They are also patriotic; their dissatisfaction stems from the idea that America is failing to live up to its values by ignoring them. They are not racist or sexist; indeed they regularly vote for women or racial minorities in non-presidential elections. Just this year many Trump flyover voters supported a gay woman, Tammy Baldwin, for senate in Wisconsin. In Michigan, a majority of flyover voters backed a black Republican, John James, for senate; while significant minorities backed two Democratic women, Gretchen Whitmer and Debbie Stabenow, for governor and senator. Unsurprisingly, these voters keenly resent being labelled by urban and media progressives.

Appealing to these voters will require some deft footwork by the Democratic nominee. Greens within the Democratic coalition want to penalise big manufacturers and resource extractors because of their greenhouse gas emissions. Many progressives advance a view of America that is severely critical, if not hostile, to America’s past. A whopping 61% of Democrats see Republicans as racist, bigoted, or sexist. A candidate that expresses these views to win the nomination will have little chance of appealing to flyover country voters.

Immigration is likely to be the toughest issue. Most flyover voters think illegal immigration is hurting America and that high levels of legal immigration are also problematic. They might not be attached to Trump’s wall, but they do think a de facto open border policy is bad. Yet Democratic enthusiasm is running in the opposite direction, with many candidates already saying they want to abolish the agency – Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) – that enforces immigration laws.

The President knows this, which is why he has focused so much on immigration policy in the last few months. A Democrat who wants to appeal to flyover voters will need to pull away from the progressive herd and show that they understand flyover’s immigration fears.

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Respect is a corollary to understanding. Nothing hurt Hillary Clinton more with these voters than her comment that many of Trump’s backers were “deplorable”. A Democrat who wants to win back these voters should acknowledge this in their acceptance speech, explicitly rejecting the label deplorables.

That person should also do what Hillary would not, tour and visit towns well outside the Midwest’s major cities – they must show their care about those flyover country voters.

Democrats do not need to win flyover country, they just need to avoid getting wiped out there. Just a few percentage points improvement over Clinton’s horrendous showing, combined with the gains in the suburbs Democrats have made under Trump, will be enough to tip the Electoral College in their favour. If the Democrats nominate someone who can treat flyover voters with understanding and respect, they will almost surely regain the White House in 2020.