Video: 2020 Election Results Defy Conventional Wisdom About American Voters—Daniel Allott

Last month we interviewed Daniel Allott, author of “On the Road in Trump’s America: A Journey Into the Heart of a Divided Nation.” In his travels, he spoke directly to people in some of America’s most politically interesting areas. He documented, for example, the phenomenon of “the shy Trump voter,” as well as explored why America’s most racially diverse rural county, Robeson, voted for President Trump.

Today, we know the “the shy Trump voter” is very real, that Robeson went for Trump again, and that Allot’s research proves valuable in understanding the 2020 US election outcomes. He returns to the show to offer his thoughts on the aftermath, and what can be learned by Republicans and Democrats.

This is American Thought Leaders, and I’m Jan Jekielek.

Jan Jekielek:  Daniel Allott, so great to have you back on American Thought Leaders.

Daniel Allott:  Great to be with you, Jan.

Mr. Jekielek:  Daniel, you were one of the people that I talked to some weeks before the election who was talking about the existence of the so-called shy Trump voters, someone who’s not going to respond to phone polls and things like that. From what we’ve seen, the polls were really, really wrong in terms of predicting whatever outcome is going to happen in the end. Now, why don’t you tell me about this and what your thoughts are?

Mr. Allott:  I think the results were wrong in one direction, so they overestimated Joe Biden’s support in a lot of areas. I think about a poll right before the election in Wisconsin by the Washington Post that showed Biden winning the state by 17 points, and it looks like he’ll win it by less than a point, and you see that in a lot of key areas.

The idea is what I found on the road and when traveling: people didn’t want to admit often that they were voting for Donald Trump, or they didn’t want to talk to an out-of-town reporter or a pollster and tell them that they were supporting Trump or would vote for him, and I think there are a couple of reasons why.

One, often the popular depiction of Trump voter is a bigot, a racist, and somebody who’s fearful and ignorant, and so why would you want to tell a reporter that you support him if you suspect he’s just going to go back home and write a story about how ignorant and racist you are? That gets to the issue of the lack of trust in the media.

There are also people that I encountered who did have some issues with Trump’s erratic nature of his personality, some of the [inaudible] and things like that. They didn’t like him for his personality, but at the end of the day, they were going to vote for him because they agreed with his policies. When I talked to a lot of those voters, they weren’t wearing MAGA hats and going to the rallies, but they really felt he was right on the issues, so they ended up voting for him.

A lot of the areas that I visited, they were former Obama counties in rural Wisconsin, rural Iowa, Southeast Michigan, very important areas, and they all became more deeply entrenched into the Trump camp in this election.

Mr. Jekielek:  Daniel, you mentioned this media perspective, this media stereotype of the Trump voter. What is your experience of the Trump voters that you met, vis-à-vis the stereotype?

Mr. Allott:  I think the main thing that I recall from all the Trump voters is that the common theme was that they wanted a politician who listened to them. And that was the L-word that I heard so often: “Trump listened to us.” A lot of people in Middle America, a lot of people in rural areas, have felt like politicians on both sides, in both parties, have not been listening to them.

I knew that they wouldn’t. I thought they’re socially conservative, it’s the Bible Belt, they agree on all those issues, sexual issues, abortion and all that, and they were appreciative that it seemed like Trump was listening to them and cared about their plight and was determined to renegotiate these trade deals. He ended up winning Robeson [County] by over 10 points again, and which was no surprise to anyone who’s paying attention.

They feel like often their values are mocked, their way of life is not appreciated, the work that they do. Let’s say among farmers, which is historically a Democratic constituency, has trended more to the Republicans and with Trump. They voted for him by wide margins. I haven’t seen numbers specifically about farmers, but I’d be shocked if he did worse among farmers despite the trade war.

He did better because the feeling was that he listened to them; he knew what their work was, how valuable it is to our economy, and that their values weren’t being mocked with Trump and Pence as president and vice president. People in rural areas in the middle of the country, they’re pro-gun, pro-life, they go to church usually, and so they align more with the Republican Party, and they felt that Trump listened to them.

I remember talking to people in Robeson County, North Carolina, where Trump had a rally right before the election. This is America’s most racially diverse rural county. Obama won it twice and then Trump won it. It had been devastated by NAFTA, a loss of over 10,000 jobs, the most of any rural county in America. They had a huge [industry]: Converse had their headquarters there, a lot of textiles. That all left after NAFTA was enacted.

 For a long time, both parties had preached free trade, and then Trump comes along and says, “Look, we have to renegotiate. We have to think again because we’re not getting a very good deal on these trade deals.” So he railed against NAFTA, and so we’re going to renegotiate it, and that was music to their ears down in Robeson County, North Carolina.

They voted in overwhelming numbers for Trump, and I had a lot of contacts down there who were telling me [that] during Trump’s presidency, a lot of reporters will come down and the theme of a lot of the reports were, “Are they going to stick with Trump? They’re probably going to go back to the Democrat, maybe to Biden.” They had after all voted for Barack Obama; it’s a very racially diverse area with a very large Native American population.

Mr. Jekielek:  This is really fascinating. Just to tell our viewers briefly, of course, Daniel, you wrote, “On the Road in Trump’s America,” which I think is a very important book. It was before the election. It is now, especially for anyone who wants to understand more about what’s going on in the heartland. But of course, you covered counties that are not just the heartland—you covered a range of them. I’m just thinking, Daniel, right now about some exit polling that I saw, and I probably haven’t seen numbers as detailed as you’ve been looking at, but one of the things that I noticed was, in just about every non-white group, Trump increased his share of vote since 2016. But he actually went down amidst whites, and this is certainly not what was expected according to this narrative, that perhaps these journalists that were coming to this county were thinking.

Mr. Allott:  I think Trump did especially well among some Hispanics. I think there is an opportunity for Republicans, maybe post-Trump, because a lot of racial minorities, especially Hispanics, tend to be quite conservative. A lot of them start small businesses. They’re very entrepreneurial, enterprising. They want fewer regulations, fewer obstacles to being able to start businesses, lower taxes.

And a lot of people I met who were from Mexico or other places in South America said, “I kind of like that Trump was a businessman.” He came from that background, and they appreciated his get-it-done approach to government, and something they tried to do as immigrants to the country and starting their small businesses. He was somebody they looked up to, even though a lot of them didn’t like some of the rhetoric that they heard from Trump.

Then of course, on the social issues, Hispanics tend to be quite conservative. Church-going, a lot of them are Catholic or evangelical, and pro-life, conservative on sexual issues, on same-sex marriage and everything else, so they align with the Republican Party. It’s just that if you can find a candidate who is conservative, and also rhetorically welcoming to minorities, that could be a really good combination for the GOP.

Mr. Jekielek:  Now you’re making me think of this idea of a strategic realignment among the parties or between the parties. This is something that a number of people I’ve spoken with, including on camera—it’s on the class side, so to speak. The Republicans, based on what we’ve seen in the outcomes thus far, seem to be heading towards becoming a working-class party, which is, again, not what is traditionally expected, and also socially conservative, which isn’t necessarily the umbrella they’ve held in the past.

Mr. Allott:  Yes, I think the Democrats are seen, amongst them [the working-class Republicans] as being the party of the elites now. If you look at voting by income, the rich tend to vote for Democrats. So I think there is an opportunity post -Trump for the Republicans to change the calculus of it.

I talked to some conservatives who were saying that if Trump ends up losing, we can just find a candidate who doesn’t have Trump’s personality quirks and character flaws, but embraces the Trump populism and his platform, social conservatism, America First on immigration, on trade, bringing the troops home, more modest foreign policy, that seems to be quite popular. I would say, maybe. 

But one thing I keep thinking of over and over again, that Trump never got enough credit for was the charisma that you get with Trump, a guy who’s a uniquely charismatic politician, the only person in America, maybe other than Barack Obama, who can regularly fill 20,000-30,000 seat stadiums anywhere across the country. Who else among the Republicans can do that?

So if you could take whoever is going to pick up the mantle of Trumpism, whether it’s Mike Pence, or Nikki Haley, or Donald Trump Jr., and say, “Nikki Haley doesn’t have all the baggage that Trump has and the character flaws, but if she embraces the platform, can she win?” But she’s not Trump, and she doesn’t have that same attraction, just that unique thing that once in a generation a politician will have. Obama had it, and Trump has it in a similar way—different people but they could draw people to the polls in ways that other people can’t. So I would say, there is an opportunity but it’s going to be difficult.

Mr. Jekielek:  Daniel, what do you make of the turnout? Basically, it’s unprecedented, as far as I can tell. Just huge numbers compared to even 2016 and certainly in the past.

Mr. Allott:  I think, really, the ability for people to vote from home and by mail was a big part of that. Also, I think you get to see how divided we are. People were very, very riled up about their candidate and voting against the other candidate, and maybe you’ve seen it on your social media feeds like I have. One side is very upset, the other side is excited, and they feel like it’s existential.

“This is the most important election of our lifetime,” which is something we hear every election, including midterms and off-year elections, but people really felt that this time. “Which direction are we going?” I know several conservative friends who feel like the country and civilization is ending, as we know it, and I think part of that is the media tends to really focus on the outrage and getting people riled up in order to get their eyeballs on their content.

But there’s some truth to it. We have two parties that really embrace very different platforms and different views of America and America’s future, so it stands to reason that people want to get in on that and vote.

Mr. Jekielek:  Daniel, when we spoke, I guess it was about a month ago, about your book and so forth, you mentioned that this platform that you were describing as the prospective future Republican platform, it seems to be a lot more popular than is represented in the media in general.

Mr. Allott:  Sure, and I think the media is focused quite a bit on how the Republican Party has changed under Trump, and before Trump, under the banner of the Tea Party, but not as much attention has been paid to the Democratic Party and how the Democrats have changed, really since Obama was first elected.

They’ve really moved quite a bit to the left if you look at their platform and the things that even Joe Biden is advocating, things like the Green New Deal, and free college, and single-payer health care. Now, some on the left have said [that] we need to expand the Supreme Court, we need to abolish the police and all that.

Those things, if you look at the polling, aren’t very popular. Open borders, too, is another one. They really weren’t on the table for Democrats at the national level when Obama was president and to the point where Obama, last year, was counseling his party, “Look, we’ve got to be grounded in reality. We can’t move too far to the left. We’re moving too fast for the public.”

So I met a lot of people who felt like they were more at home in the Republican Party. Parties are always changing along the ideological spectrum. In Howard County, Iowa, which was one of these Obama-Trump counties. It was unique though in that [it is] the only county in America that voted for Obama by more than 20 points in 2012, and then for Trump by more than 20 points. So it flipped in four years, 41 points.

And I just looked at the vote totals [for 2020], and he actually got more than 20 points, Trump did. I think he’s close to 30 point victory in Howard County. It’s a very rural place. Agriculture is very heavy there and a lot of former Obama voters feel like they were left behind.

This man, Joe Walker, that I talked to, a registered Democrat, still registered Democrat, always voted for Democrats including Obama twice, but he told me in 2017, “I feel like where the Democrats were 30 years ago, that’s where I still am. They’ve moved away. Republicans have moved too, but now I’m standing still, and here come the Republicans, and I align more with them now.”

A lot of people in rural America and Middle America, and even in the Rust Belt, feel that way, that they’re being left behind by the Democrats. Even if they are not 100 percent comfortable with everything Donald Trump is doing, they feel like they just can’t vote for a Democrat right now.

Mr. Jekielek:  Let me ask you a little more about this, in fact. So what do these results that we’re seeing now say to the Democratic Party, from your perspective? I’ve been watching a lot of very interesting commentary. I’d love to hear yours.

Mr. Allott:  I think it says, if you want to compete in Middle America, in rural places, among religious voters—I haven’t seen the polling on how evangelicals and church-going Christians have voted, but I would be shocked if Trump didn’t do really, really well among that group—if you sincerely want to win back some of those voters, especially as minorities seem to be somewhat fleeing the Democratic Party or at least open to voting for a Republican, you’re going to need to think about what can we do for whites in the Midwest, in places like Iowa.

Moderate. Moderate some of your policies. People don’t want abortion on demand. They don’t want eight-year-olds being allowed to have transgender surgery, which is something that Joe Biden advocated during the debates. It’s these cultural issues. I talked to a lot of Democrats. I remember talking to the head of the Democratic Party of Erie County, Pennsylvania, really thoughtful, helpful guy, and really smart.

But he kept saying, “We’re trying to convince our voters, our residents, to not be distracted by the non-issues,” and what he meant by non-issues, he said, “[Inaudible] and they’re distracted by these issues.” I said, “They’re important to these voters. That’s what matters most to these residents.”

Guns, pro-life—it’s still very important. So if the Democrats are going to continue to dismiss those issues, and move too far to the left on them, then they’re not going to have a chance, I think, at winning over religious voters, rural voters, and people in Middle America.

Mr. Jekielek:  I remember back in 2016, immediately after the election, especially on the Democratic side, there was a lot of shock in the media. A lot of people were saying that we need to soul search, we need to understand these Middle Americans. That didn’t seem to last very long. I think maybe some people went out and read “Hillbilly Elegy,” which is an excellent book that, again, also I’d recommend to anyone to understand those voters. But is 2020 a reckoning for this and does that soul searching still need to happen? What do you think?

Mr. Allott:  I think, I would hope so. I think you’re exactly right that we need more reporters who are willing to go out and report for and in the entire country, and not just parachute in for a day. I know how it works, and I’ve had to do it in the past where you basically write half your story before you get there.

You know what you’re looking for. You say, “I want a Trump voter who regrets her vote, I want this and that. I talk to the head of the party, get a little bit of color, it’s a rainy day, whatever,” and then you go home by the end of the day, and you’re not there long enough to get the truth.

You talk about these quiet Trump voters who don’t talk to pollsters. This is why. I was really taken aback at how often people would say “People came here. It was an important place; it was an Obama-Trump county, so we had a lot of attention after the 2016 election, but they got the story wrong.” I heard that in Erie, Pennsylvania; I heard it in Robeson County, North Carolina, and Trempealeau County, Wisconsin.

People said, “We’re very weary of the media because they seem to come in with an agenda.” I think it just takes a degree of modesty and humility when approaching an interview subject or a new place to say, “I’m going to spend the time to listen, to observe, before I start drawing my conclusions.” It does take time, it takes resources, and I think it starts with having news outlets that are willing to spend the money and the time to have reporters really embedding themselves, to really understand, and also hiring people who come from the entire country.

A lot of newsrooms are full of people who tend to lean left, a lot of them went to the same schools, they grew up in the same places along the coasts, not all the time but usually. They’re all on Twitter which is a very insular environment—maybe they have no clue what it’s like to be on the farm. How about hiring some talented young people who grew up in rural areas?

I think newsrooms are doing better at diversity in terms of race and gender, which is great. How about ideological diversity? How about geographic diversity, hiring people from all over the country so as to better understand and represent those values and priorities? If you’re an outlet that claims to be the paper of record for the entire country, then you need to do that. It’s human instinct, human nature, to try and fit people into a narrative: This is what this person’s story is, they’re aggrieved because their way of life has gone away, and they’re going to be a minority in their own country, and they feel like American values are gone. Maybe there is a lot of truth in that, but how about some complexity?

That’s one thing I always found in talking to people, I was taken aback every time. I had my own biases my own prejudices. I’m talking to a young immigrant from Iraq who’s Muslim and I think, “She’s probably not a big Trump fan,” and so maybe I try and say some things along those lines, and then she’ll surprise me and say, “Oh, I love Trump.” Then I’m talking to an older white farmer in Iowa and I think, “This is going to be a very [inaudible] pro-Trump [inaudible].” [Inaudible]

The story is much more complicated. There’s always a lot of nuances and so just taking the time and making the effort to make sure that nuance is part of the story.

Mr. Jekielek:  Now, it’s interesting to your point. I just saw data today as well that Trump also gained, amongst Muslims, I think I saw, it was a 35 percent or something like this. It’s, again, not what a lot of people expected.

Mr. Allott:  In my book, I follow a couple of Muslim immigrants from Iraq who’re living in Erie, Pennsylvania—Trump supporters. Not 100 percent Trump supporters but they actually appreciated the travel ban that was put on initially, including Iraq. A lot of people I found from Pakistan to Iraq and Syria, meeting them very organically, I wasn’t trying to meet certain types of people, they all said, “I like the travel ban but I wish more countries had been part of it. What about Saudi Arabia? What about this country?”

It wasn’t very often that people said, “I’m really offended that he hates Muslims” or “hates our country.” I think about the man from Haiti I met who when Trump disparaged Haiti and some other countries, calling them “blank-hole countries,” I said, “Were you bothered by that?” He said, “Not really. It made me want to go back and improve our country.” So I think a lot of people in the press and in Washington, D.C. especially, are more sensitive to some of the rhetoric than people are out in the real world, out in the middle of the country.

Mr. Jekielek:  Daniel, one of the key findings from your research that ended up in your book is that people are extremely, extremely tribal. We discussed this a little bit earlier. I’m just hoping that you can actually speak to that in a little more detail from the results that we know.

Mr. Allott:  The results from the election, to me, reinforced my most important finding which is that very few people have actually changed their minds about Donald Trump. Among the hundreds that I talked to, with very few exceptions, those who supported him in 2016 plan to [support him] this year, and it looks like they did again, and those who opposed him four years ago, oppose him now.

And it’s not to say that people’s views of the president didn’t change, but where they did, they changed in one direction and became more deeply entrenched and extreme in their views. So if they kind of liked Trump before, now they love him; if they didn’t like him before, now they hate him. If you look at a lot of the areas I went to, all nine of the counties voted, seven of them were red, they voted for Trump, and all but one were Obama-Trump, they became redder.

They became more pro-Trump. They voted for Trump by larger margins. The two that went the other way, Orange County, California and Salt Lake County, Utah, which historically are Republican places, they became bluer. They voted for Biden by pretty comfortable margins, and part of that, a lot of it, has to do with the rural-urban divide and that’s probably the most important divide in American politics. It’s about geography, it’s not about race or class, I think. So it gets to that tribalism. Because of the nature of the media and social media, and people become more deeply entrenched in whatever view they hold, and including of President Trump.

Mr. Jekielek:  Daniel, when we spoke last, you also mentioned that you felt this election was a lot essentially about personality, because these platforms that the Republican Party had being popular in your view. What’s your take about what you saw from the data now?

Mr. Allott:  I think it’s been reinforced. I haven’t seen any data in terms of why people voted for Trump or Biden. It’ll be interesting to see in the coming weeks and months, those people who maybe hadn’t voted [before] and voted for Biden [now], why they did. But I can tell among the people that I was in touch with, those who didn’t vote for Hillary but then voted for Biden, or maybe voted for Trump [in 2016] and voted for Biden [now], which there weren’t very many, it was all about personality.

They liked a lot of what they saw from Trump in terms of his policies, but they’re exhausted with politics, as most of us are—just the drama and the controversy that tends to swirl around the Trump presidency. They wanted to return to some sort of normalcy, more of a typical president, and that was what they found in Biden.

I also think about Arizona, and this is something that somebody else had mentioned, it reinforces the personality being Trump’s downfall, perhaps, in that he may lose Arizona which is a state he won in 2016, and if he does, a lot of people are saying that it’s because he disparaged the memory of John McCain and got into a fight with him.

Early on, he disparaged McCain’s war service, and said he’s not a hero, and that led to a feud between the two. It led to McCain voting against repealing Obamacare, being the decisive vote. That could have been a huge signature accomplishment for Trump, and I would argue that his personality and character flaws got in the way of that.

If he ended up losing Arizona, perhaps you could argue, again, why go and attack somebody who gave his service to the U.S. military and was captured by the enemy? He did that; whereas you take 1000 people, nobody would have said that. It’s a Trumpian thing to do, and now that could end up being the thing that makes him a one-term president.

Mr. Jekielek:  So irrespective of who ends up president at the moment—we just don’t know, and it might be a little while from what people have been telling me at least—what do you feel are the next steps? We talked about this a little bit but what are the next steps for the Republican Party? What are the next steps for the Democratic Party?

Mr. Allott:  For Republicans, one thing I keep thinking of is how many voters and people I met who told me that they were Trump voters, and that they weren’t Republicans. People who I assumed were Republicans, [but] they would often talk about the GOP as part of this cabal. They group them in with the Democrats and the media, and all these other institutions that they perceived as being the enemy.

I remember a lot of people in the first two years of Trump’s presidency were railed against Paul Ryan, a card carrying conservative, and others, Mitch McConnell as well. So I think the idea that a lot of these Trump voters are won over for the GOP is wrong. I think a lot of them are unique to Trump.

I’ve talked to a few, a lot of them were former Obama voters who felt, “I’m going to vote for Trump again. I like what he’s done. But after that, I’m a free agent. Maybe I won’t vote again, maybe I’ll go back to the Democrats if they elect somebody, or I’ll just won’t vote or vote third party.” So I think Republicans would have some work to do to retain those voters.

I think for the Democrats, they are going to have to decide, are they going to be a more moderate party, that Joe Biden is supposed to be more of a moderate candidate? Are they going to govern that way? They’re going to have to work with a senate controlled by Republicans, Mitch McConnell.

So if he hopes to get anything done, he’s going to have to keep the very activist, very energized, left wing of his party at bay and work with Republicans, and that hasn’t been on the table. It’s always been, “We’re going to resist.” So they’re going to have to work together, and I think for the good of the country, that would be a great thing to see: Republicans and Democrats working together.

Mr. Jekielek:  So you describe here, Vice President Biden becomes president with a Republican Senate. What about a scenario where President Trump becomes president for the second term?

Mr. Allott:  I think a couple of things that he would make a priority, in my mind: our infrastructure and immigration. I’ve heard from a lot of people especially with how well he did with Hispanic voters in this election—much better than other Republicans. I think getting a deal on immigration would really seal his legacy, and I think if he is elected again, he’s not going to have to face the voters.

He’s not really an ideological guy, and so he’s going to want to leave a lasting imprint on these eight years. So I think immigration reforms [inaudible]—Democrats in the House with on and Republicans, even some of the more moderate Republicans in the Senate, and get even amnesty, a pathway to citizenship. I think he could do that.

Infrastructure is … something else that he’s talked a lot about since the beginning of his presidency, and something I heard again and again from people. It’s not a very sexy issue; it’s not one of these big cultural issues that I talk a lot about. I drove 70,000 miles in three years and let me tell you, America’s roads, not just in Michigan but everywhere, are in terrible shape. I think that’s an issue that I know he’d like to work on, and I think people across the country would appreciate.

Mr. Jekielek:  Daniel Allott, such a pleasure to have you on again.

Mr. Allott:  Thanks, Jan.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. 
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