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August 23, 2017

Donald Trump won by motivating the ‘I don’t give a damn’ vote

“A couple of days after the election, I started on a journey of trying to figure out what happened.” With those words, Wisconsin state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout began to explain her quest to find out the truth behind Donald Trump’s astonishing victory in her district in rural western Wisconsin, a district Barack Obama had won handily in 2012.

The conventional explanation for how Trump nabbed Wisconsin, a state no Republican had won in 32 years, focuses on the lack of enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton among black voters in Milwaukee and Trump’s strength in places such as Trempealeau County, one of 22 Wisconsin counties that went for Obama in 2012 then for Trump in 2016.

But Trump flipped Wisconsin by 8 points and Trempealeau County — which Vinehout represents — by 26 points by motivating thousands of new voters to register and go to the polls on Election Day. Pouring over election data in the days and weeks after the election, Vinehout discovered that many of those new voters reside in Trempealeau County. She said:

“This was a story nobody was telling around the state or around the country. I started doing more research and looking around the state at what the patterns were, and I realized the story nobody’s telling is that there are two different sets of people that came to the polls in 2012 and came to the polls in 2016.”

Vinehout found that many of these voters had never voted before but came out to vote for Trump in family groups. She believes there are lessons here for Democrats. Instead of placing voters on a political or ideological spectrum, she said, put them on a continuum of engagement, “from really engaged to ‘I don’t give a damn.’” She continued:

“We need to take the people that are in the ‘I don’t give a damn’ category and move them a little bit closer to civic engagement and get them to vote. The people that do vote but don’t do anything else, move them a little bit closer and get them to put up a yard sign, etc. I think when we look at that, at that continuum, we’re then fighting over 30 to 40 percent of the electorate, not 3 to 4 percent of it.”

For Democrats, much of that 30-40 percent can be found in the rural Midwest.


This video was originally featured as a part of the Washington Examiner’s series The Race to 2020: The people and places that will define a presidency. You can read more about Trempealeau County, see more videos, or use the form below to get email updates about future updates.

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