“The press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.”
That keen insight from a little-known Pittsburgh-based reporter named Salena Zito became the defining observation of the 2016 election cycle. While the rest of the media, mostly located in enormous urban jungles like Washington and New York, uniformly downplayed Donald Trump’s chances at beating Hillary Clinton, Zito was crisscrossing Middle America finding that the reality on the ground didn’t match reporters’ narrative.
Zito is unrepentantly different that most political reporters. Her Twitter account lists her location as “Main Street, USA.” She never flies, instead motoring around the country in her Jeep (currently with 300,000 miles). She avoids chain hotels, instead opting for the hotel in the middle of the town, where she takes the time to learn the rhythms of life there. And she’s known for showing off her American-flag bedecked cowboy boots before appearing on air.
“This isn’t a criticism of [reporters’] life choices: If you want a job in political journalism, for the most part you have to live in Washington or New York,” Zito told the Columbia Journalism Review. “Their idea of someone who voted for Trump is someone who is Republican, is odd, and is angry….They think they’re this stereotype, this thing.”
Zito has become an expert at breaking through the convenient narratives and easy stereotypes that have become crutches of today’s ratings-hungry journalism. By spending time in places that other reporters wont and with people that other reporters ignore, Zito, more than almost any other journalist, has been able to put her finger on the political pulse of the country.
And her sense, developed by talking to real people, is that areas of the country that are commonly thought of as becoming more blue are actually in the process of becoming red.
Recently, she reported on John Persinger, a Republican who is running to be mayor of Erie, Pa,, a town that hasn’t elected a Republican to fill that position since 1961. Despite the fact that Hillary Clinton won all 69 of the city’s voting precincts over Donald Trump, Zito senses that Persinger has a chance to pull off “the greatest local political upset in America this century.”
Persinger has done it by visiting neighborhoods that Democrats have taken for granted and Republicans have written off.
“Look, we tried the old ways; we have had nothing but Democrats running this city and managing the decline,” Jim Baer, a welder and Democrat told Zito. “It is time to place someone young with different ideas and the willingness to listen in charge.”
That feeling extends well beyond deep-blue Erie to the entirety of the state of Pennsylvania. Republicans have succeeded in the one-time Democratic bastion (besides Trump’s win the commonwealth voted for a Democrat in every presidential election since 1992) by appealing to blue collar Reagan-Democrats who feel that the party has not just moved away from their interests, but actively despises their way of life.
The results speak for themselves. President Bill Clinton won 28 of the state’s 67 counties in 1996. President Barack Obama won 13 in 2012. And despite pollsters protestations that the state would once again swing blue for Democrats in 2016, Hillary Clinton captured just 11 counties, some of which were by razor thin margins.
Although the national press continues its attacks on the president, Zito doesn’t feel any change in emotion on the ground. If anything, Democrats’ contempt for Trump voters has pushed more Pennsylvanians into Trump’s camp.
Despite his flaws, Trump voters are waving the flag for their underdog candidate in a show of defiance. Many don’t think he is on the ropes, and they believe he will eventually get results. Customers are still coming into Moyer’s shop, requesting pro-Trump signs for the first time, wanting to show their support. They want to send a message: The establishment may hate the president, but his voters have got his back.
Trump voters aren’t just changing their party allegiance, they’re crystallizing a new identity: as common-sense Americans bound together against seemingly hostile liberals who appear to disdain their way of life.
And the Democrats have done nothing to win over these voters, nothing.
Zooming out again, Republicans’ success in surprising places isn’t limited to Pennsylvania, it’s extending up the eastern seaboard into New England. And, as Zito reports, nobody in Washington seems to have know anything about it:
On Sept. 19, Politico congressional reporter Burgess Everett tweeted that he suddenly “[Remembers Vermont has a Republican governor].” His tweet prompted Seung Min Kim, a fellow Politico reporter who covers the US Senate, to reply that she “[Learns Vermont has a Republican governor].” That, in turn, instigated a response by Wall Street Journal congressional reporter Byron Tau: “[Googles the name of Vermont’s Republican governor].”
The moment was comical but also insightful, underscoring just how little Washington’s political class knows about who holds the executive power in the Northeast.
Here’s the surprising truth: It’s not the Democrats.
Last November, while most of the country was either cheering Donald Trump’s presidential win or making an appointment with their therapist about how to cope with the results, New Englanders in four out of the region’s six “blue” states — Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Maine — woke up the next morning with four Republican governors.
Republican’s success in the Democratic stronghold demonstrates the breadth of appeal that the party has because it is welcoming to a chorus of different voices. After all, there is a reason that Republican Phil Scott can win the Vermont governorship by 9 percentage points at the same time that President Trump got crushed by 29 percentage points. It’s because Republicans’ embrace of ideological diversity and a willingness to listen to the cares and concerns of voters, not just party elites, allows them to compete in every state and in every race.
Somehow the media keeps missing these stories. They assume that the mood in Washington is representative of the mood in the small towns and cities that dot the landscape. They presume that their disdain for President Trump must filter down to the masses and influence every race up and down the ballot. And they speculate that their snobbish views of so-called average Americans is reflective of the majority, utterly failing to recognize that average Americans are the majority.
They’re wrong. And until they actually break out of the bubble and spend some time with the people they pretend to write about, they’ll continue to be wrong.