Trump’s Nonvoter Strategy: Revisited

In 2016, Trump tried to turn non-voters into voters. Will he try again in 2020?

In July, 2016 I published an article in Truthout magazine in which I argued that Donald Trump’s campaign for the presidency was a grand gamble based on attracting non-voters (that is, voters who had sat out at least two previous general election cycles) to his movement and turning them into voters in the general election. A few weeks later, FiveThirtyEight obtained a Trump campaign memo that showed, among other things, that I was right.

Following and writing about Trump’s campaign in the summer of 2016 was both fascinating and deeply frustrating. Fascinating because I was watching a billionaire reality TV star trying to engineer a political revolution unprecedented in American history, and frustrating because the mainstream press had largely missed the fact that Trump was after non-voters.

Trump’s gamble, it turns out, paid off, but not because he turned angry white male non-voters into voters in the general election; it paid off because the campaign he created – and the toxic political environment it led to – was consistent with two other objectives: (1) ensuring that his base was fanatically motivated, and (2) suppressing the vote among constituencies that would have likely favored Hillary Clinton. Indeed, a study by the Pew Research Center shows that it was people not voting for Clinton (or anyone else) that turned the tide of the election as much as it was turnout for Trump.

But the fact remains: Trump tried to mobilize non-voters. He failed, but he tried. And that he tried is significant. It is unprecedented in modern American presidential campaigns, and still might be a sign of what’s to come. We should take note. That a presidential candidate – a candidate who defied all conventional political wisdom about himself and won – made non-voters a priority in his campaign is enough to begin examining their potential role in future elections more critically.

The Non-Voters

We still know very little about the non-voter strategy from 2016. Did Trump simply confirm for he, his team, and the Republican Party that non-voters are unreachable? Or does Trump still believe that some of them can be brought into his movement and turned into voters in 2020?

Presumably only Trump and a few advisers know the answers to these questions, but one thing is clear: non-voters could fundamentally alter the political landscape of the United States. There were more non-voters than there were voters for either major candidate in 2016.

As a group, non-voters lean left, yet have little interest in politics. Many say they’re too busy to vote. But about a fifth of them are political; they care about current events, but are disillusioned. They think American politicians are corrupt. This group of non-voters also tend to be older, less educated and white. Among them are some far-right extremists; conspiracy theorists, white nationalists, angry white men terrified of “globalism.” This, I believe, is why Donald Trump did a number of things during the 2016 campaign that made most political observers scratch their heads, from appearing on The Alex Jones Show, to refusing to disavow white supremacists, to retweeting an anti-Semitic meme. His campaign was trying to expand Trumpism and attract new voters – new voters that had sat out previous elections because the Republican Party wasn’t extreme enough for them.

And it appears Trump is still at it. He has shown little interest in governing since being inaugurated; rather, everything he does as president seems designed to maintain the fanaticism of his followers and, more importantly, expand the populist political movement that he created. In 2020, he could once again go after non-voters. He doesn’t have anything to lose doing so, so we shouldn’t be surprised if he does. And this possibility raises the question – a question that hasn’t been seriously examined by either major party – Can non-voters be converted into voters? Could either party succeed in a concerted effort to reach them?

Non-voters have been largely ignored by the political establishments of both parties, so no significant time, effort, or money has been put toward finding out if there are interventions which might change non-voter behavior. Political scientists have looked at the issue somewhat, but within the context of how elections usually proceed in the United States, not in our current context in which the president is the leader of an ideologically pure, relatively broad based, populist political movement. And that might make all the difference. Creating an ideologically pure, broad based political movement and then enticing the forgotten into that movement, giving them hope, protection from their enemies, and, most importantly, a sense of belonging is the playbook that political revolutionaries from George Washington to Lenin have used to topple governments and forge new nations. Perhaps it might work for recruiting non-voters to the Republican Party in 2020 and beyond.