The Unlearned Lessons of Obama’s Guns, God, and Religion Comments

It will take some time to understand everything that went into Tuesday’s Hillary loss. But one of the most striking things we can see in actual results is that in the Midwest, Trump ran up the score in rural areas that Obama had won in 2008, counterbalancing Hillary’s ability to win in key exurbs. Not incidentally, this is the same thing Bernie was able to do in the primaries: win big in places with small populations.

That got me thinking of this, a key moment in the 2008 election — when Obama was caught on tape suggesting forgotten rural voters often cling to their guns, god, and religion.

Here’s how it is: in a lot of these communities in big industrial states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, people have been beaten down so long, and they feel so betrayed by government, and when they hear a pitch that is premised on not being cynical about government, then a part of them just doesn’t buy it. And when it’s delivered by — it’s true that when it’s delivered by a 46-year-old black man named Barack Obama (laugher), then that adds another layer of skepticism (laughter).

But — so the questions you’re most likely to get about me, ‘Well, what is this guy going to do for me? What’s the concrete thing?’ What they wanna hear is — so, we’ll give you talking points about what we’re proposing — close tax loopholes, roll back, you know, the tax cuts for the top 1 percent. Obama’s gonna give tax breaks to middle-class folks and we’re gonna provide health care for every American. So we’ll go down a series of talking points.

But the truth is, is that, our challenge is to get people persuaded that we can make progress when there’s not evidence of that in their daily lives. You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. So it’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.

Um, now these are in some communities, you know. I think what you’ll find is, is that people of every background — there are gonna be a mix of people, you can go in the toughest neighborhoods, you know working-class lunch-pail folks, you’ll find Obama enthusiasts. And you can go into places where you think I’d be very strong and people will just be skeptical. The important thing is that you show up and you’re doing what you’re doing.

Hillary pounced on the comments, accusing Obama of being tone deaf about rural issues. But over the course of the year, Obama worked to win the votes of these people.

Eight years later, this very same disheartened voters, who remain cynical that the government can do anything for them, voted for a billionaire grifter who thinks wages are too high.

That’s a bad enough story. It’s bad enough that giving people access to (too expensive and complicated) health insurance didn’t provide needed relief.

But then Hillary missed the importance of these same rural areas, because the algorithm that did all the campaign’s thinking underestimated it and so Hillary made few or no campaign stops there.

So where did Ada go wrong?

About some things, she was apparently right. Aides say Pennsylvania was pegged as an extremely important state early on, which explains why Clinton was such a frequent visitor and chose to hold her penultimate rally in Philadelphia on Monday night.

But it appears that the importance of other states Clinton would lose — including Michigan and Wisconsin — never became fully apparent or that it was too late once it did.

Clinton made several visits to Michigan during the general election, but it wasn’t until the final days that she, Obama and her husband made such a concerted effort.

As for Wisconsin: Clinton didn’t make any appearances there at all.

Like much of the political establishment Ada appeared to underestimate the power of rural voters in Rust Belt states.

Trump, partly out of desperation, did see these voters.

Hillary failed Obama’s challenge — convincing people that we can make progress when there’s little evidence of it. That said, I think in the White House, Obama failed that challenge as well.


19 replies
  1. bloopie2 says:

    Seems that many voted out of fear: fear that they or their children would be sent to fight yet another foreign “enemy” that doesn’t threaten the US; fear that their tax dollars would be spent on defense contractors fighting far-off wars instead of being invested at home; fear that their government would collude with corporations and other governments, in secret, to give more power to business and less to workers and consumers; fear that even more of their jobs could end up overseas thanks to secret trade deals; fear that more workers would come into the country to compete with them for barely-existent jobs; fear that their government would ensure that those who control the money would never be held accountable; and on and on. Maybe you and I didn’t have all these fears, but lots of people did (and still do).

    Now, can Trump allay those fears, and stop those things from happening? Maybe not, perhaps likely not. But at least he said he would try, and he encouraged voters to give him a chance to try. Hillary? Nah. Many voters (including me) never believed that she would try to stop those things (though I did still vote for her). She can talk all she wants; I won’t believe her. (That’s what the pundits are missing, who complain about voters saying they didn’t trust Hillary as much as they didn’t trust Trump—Trump’s lies are obvious, Hillary was trying to hide hers, as usual.)

    Would another Democrat have done better? Democrats have held the White House for 16 of the last 24 years, and what’s there to show for it? Maybe Trump was the only one (even among Republicans) who could have pulled this off.

    • RUKidding says:

      I agree with what you say there.  Not much to add, except some cynacism.  Obama didn’t do enough, but when he did push a too small stimulus, which, in part, saved jobs and created jobs, what happened?  The right excoriated him and continues to do so to this day, even though (I believe) GM paid back money, etc, and jobs were saved/created.  The great rightwing propaganda wurlitzer went on hyper drive shrieking about the perils of dreaded socialism and Marxism, and we were all duly adjured that the it’s NOT the gubmint that creates jawbs.  Nay, verily, it should be the bidness owners who do that – and that’s why bidness owners need ever greater tax cuts, tax breaks, tax loopholes and tax incentives… despite evidence to the contrary that any of that trickle down crap has ever worked – or at least worked to the benefit of the 99%.

      Along comes Trump promising in rust belt town after rust belt town (I’ve now listened to quite a few out-takes from his many speeches/rallies) that HE will “create jobs” if they elect him POTUS.  Once again: IOKIYAR.  If you’re Democrat, you’re not allowed to create jobs; that socialism.  If you’re a Republican, you’re a business genius who should should be ushered into the White House to of course create jobs.

      So, yeah.  Cynical.  And do I think Trump CAN create jobs aplenty for the rust belt?  Yeah, NO.  What has Trump suggested other than opening up factories to manufacture widgets and steel.  As has been pointed out in various places, the USA actually already has a pretty big manufacturing sector, but these days, such places require far fewer workers due to automation.  What other “jobs” does Trump have in mind?  I certainly don’t know bc I never heard him discuss anything else.

      Secondarily, will Trump even TRY to create jobs?  Well stay tuned…  But color me totally skeptical, as well utterly cynical because, even if Trump is successful (I hope he is), once again: IOKIYAR.  Even IF Clinton attempted to do the exact same thing – and she was proposing another stimulus to create infrastructure jobs – then she’d be excoriated and eviscerated and shrieked at for be so insanely Marxist.

      I have very deep reservations about Clinton for all the reasons stated endlessly in thoughtful websites, most esp her foreign policy issues.  Nonetheless, do I think that Trump holds some sort of magic key that’ll make him wildly successful because he’s allegedly an “outsider”???  Well that’d be nice, but let’s just say:  I’m not holding my breath.

      But it’s true that Democrats have done precious little to address these very real and growing problems with lack of employment, esp in the Rust Belt areas of the country…  not that the Rs would’ve worked with Obama to enable something useful to happen.  But, just saying…  missed opportunities?  Not interested?  Who cares?  Ds have a lot to answer for, and sadly, I don’t see them doing much homework to redress this debacle.  Hope I’m wrong.

      • Bill Michtom says:

        Obama spent no time explaining to voters how a stimulus would create jobs and offered a very weak one that reinforced the R’s arguments against it.

        He followed that with trying to cut a deal with Rs to gut Social Security, for his entire 1st term.

        His foreign policy was expanding wars, the antithesis of creating jobs of value in what we now call ‘the homeland . ‘

        The Dem misleadership has been devoted to banksters and undermining progressives.

        Why would HRC, the essence of that, be a winning candidate?

        • lefty665 says:

          Because she’s not Trump, you know, Putin’s Poodle. Elect Hillary, the Russians are coming, the Russians are coming. Wave the flag, chant USA, USA, USA.

          Joe McCarthy will be waiting to give her a big hug in the afterlife.

    • John Casper says:


      Bernie would have mopped the floor with Trump. IIRC, Brexit polls were wrong in the same way. Americans didn’t want to admit they were voting for Trump. I don’t think anyone, especially the president elect, saw this coming.

      Trump knows big swathes of the GOP want to replace him with Pence.

      If leaks about Trump paying for abortions surface, it’s “on.”

      Ryan needs some Dem help to impeach him.

      McConnell might not need any Dems to convict him.

      Per ew’s tweets, Dems might be able to work with Trump on “huge” infrastructure, trade, and anti-trust enforcement.

      IMHO, Pence would be a lot worse.

      I’m praying for Justice Ginsburg’s health and that of other SC Justices.

      Another benefit to the Trump presidency is that the other two branches of government might regain their institutional pride and fight the unitary executive.

      Let’s hope his short attention span doesn’t land us in WW3.

      2018 primaries in blue districts will be very interesting.



  2. Bill Durbin says:

    This is the most compelling analysis I’ve seen anywhere. But who will see it? How can we bring a wide, wide audience to Emptywheel and Hullabaloo in an age when journalism is co-opted by corporate ownership?

  3. Anon says:

    I’m tired of hearing excuses about people’s fears of this or that motivating them to vote for trump.  Some of this stuff explains why they didn’t come out for Hillary.  But most people are really really ignorant and uninformed , college degrees notwithstanding, ( hi mom, and sisters, do you recognize yourselves from that?  Of course not, this is the last blog in the world you would be reading if you knew what a blog was) and the level of sophistication to their voting decisions isn’t much higher than an elementary school student body president election.  After 8 years of one party in the whitehouse, they think things need to be shook up.  Or they think the r’s are better for business and somehow that will translate into the economy.  Hillary was more or less another four years of Obama, which after the nail biter of a financial crisis was just about preserving the status quo.  Maybe if Obama hadn’t been the one to save the r’s from themselves with Tarp and letting criminal bygones be bygones,. Then maybe the dems could have set themselves apart from the business as usual establishment. Plus there was a strong element of working class white male nihilism that wants to see it all burn down, and sexism and racism played significantparts in trumps win.  But mostly this is just stupid Americans being themselves.

    ian welsh even goes so far as to say Hillary made this all about her for “I’m with her” without contrasting that with the supreme egotism of her opponent.  And also claims that trump offered hope of some sort.  That argumentc is about as stretched out of shape as Michelle duggar’s lady parts.  Gimme a break.  Not that much thought went into those votes.  I’d say the same about the votes for Obama eight years ago, when even liberals thought all those conservative things he said and did were just head fakes because how could a black democrat not be a flaming liberal.




  4. Bitter Angry Drunk says:

    I think the Brexit analogies come the closest to explaining it. Trump won with a shade fewer votes than Romney got in 2012, but Clinton got like 6 million fewer votes than Obama in 2012. Republican voter suppression efforts are certainly an issue, but it ain’t all that. A lot of people are desperate, but a lot of people were desperate in ’08. The desperate chose Obama then. But I think a lot more people are simply disillusioned now, and just didn’t bother given the choices they had. That’s reflected in the shortcoming in Hillary’s total. We have about the same number of racists and crazies as we did at the end of Bush’s second term (when he had around 30 percent support). This isn’t about the Deplorables. It’s about the Desperate and the Disillusioned.

  5. Desider says:

    Russ Feingold, a pretty solid Democratic veteran, lost Wisconsin yet again – and he obviously was in Wisconsin with a 70-county tour and relied on similar polls that showed him well ahead up to the end – when Wisconsin got flooded by outside PAC money and then the Trump effect. Did he beg Hillary to show up, sending out an SoS? (like that ambassador in Benghazi according to the heart-rending GOP version)? Or did he too think all was safe and gave the green light to focus elsewhere?

    Yes, Hillary made some mistakes – losing Michigan twice seems likely to have warranted more visits, though she lost Ohio & PA too despite major efforts – but she lost Wisconsin by only 27K votes, Jill & Gary siphoned off 137K votes, with 16K voting Other. She’s been fighting her own team ever since she wrapped up the primaries – still a lot of peevish petulants out there. I’m sure Donald will cave to their $15/hour minimum wage demand from her $12/hour the way Hillary did, or extend Obamacare to universal coverage. And the horrid horrid emails, the “all those investigations, must be something there” untrustable streak in her….

  6. lefty665 says:

    “Hillary failed Obama’s challenge — convincing people that we can make progress when there’s little evidence of it. That said, I think in the White House, Obama failed that challenge as well.”

    You got it. The tag is Obama’s facetious comment during one of their debates “You’re likeable enough Hillary”  Not even yellow dog Dems were enthusiastic about voting for her.

    If you find good poop on Ada that would be an interesting post. I expect she’s going to come in for considerable criticism.


  7. P J Evans says:

    What the HELL was she supposed to do when she was ignored if not vilified by the media, and Comey was leaking stuff right and right to take her down (he was openly backing the shitgibbon)?

    And it was WHITES WITH MONEY, especially WHITE MALES, who were voting against her, people like so many of those posting here. (Who were pushing Bernie and putting down Clinton right up to Election Day. (Why do you think I’ve been around less? I don’t need people insulting the candidate because perfection ain’t there.))

    • lefty665 says:

      Scatological slurs don’t further the conversation. Trump’s vote resembled Romney’s but was slightly smaller. Hillary failed to hold Obama’s coalition, and even fewer people turned out for her. White women voted against her, 53% for Trump.

      Hillary’s failure was her own as EW has pointed out.  The measure of how profound that failure was is that people who were her likely constituencies preferred Trump. To the extent that gender and Comey played a part it appears it was minor and secondary, as in “Oh, and that too”.

      I have cast three non Dem votes since ’68. Two were for 3rd party presidential candidates, the other for Senate. While no longer a Party member, I have voted for nearly 50 years as a proverbial yellow dog Dem. Tuesday I was pleased to vote for a woman for president, Jill Stein. She stood for things I believe in. In ’96 I voted for Perot when I was disgusted by Bill’s triangulations. Clintons of both genders have driven me away from home. Hillary lost because of her own very real failures, not those of voters. Hillary’s failures have long been obvious to me and to many others. Hiding behind gender bias instead is both wrong and delusional.

      If gender is paramount to you, back a woman with at least a shred of integrity next cycle. The time to start working on that is now.  I personally decide who to support on the basis of the things candidates believe in, ability and character.


  8. Kathleen says:

    Went to a Trump rally north of Dayton Ohio this oast summer just to talk with those who were attending. I stood outside although I did have a ticket that I had gotten on line to go in but could not bring myself to do it. So I stood outside engaging those in line in many conversations, I first let them know I was a Sanders supporter and a Dem since I could first vote 45 years ago, No problem for people, I then asked why they were in support of Trump. Many were unsure but wanted to hear him speak and get a feel in person, Many had lost jobs at GM, Delphi some were working at Wal Mart after job losses, Probably talked with 40 or so people…jobs, jobs, jobs was the theme. Two guys that I walked with to their cars were also very interested in what Sanders was saying and his voting record, One guy in Osh Gosh overalls had lost his roofing business due to what he felt was illegal immigrants, Although he did not have anger towards the workers, We went over how it was done by contractors, The other guy had a handicapped daughter at home and he and his wife could not get make I think more than 14,ooo a year or they would lose their daughters insurance coverage for her disabilities.

    Having worked for and run several Get Out the Vote campaigns in southeastern Ohio for the Dems heard the “loss of jobs” story over and over again. Real distinction between people over 40 and under. Those who had experienced the constructive results of being in unions etc, So many of them had kids who were serving and some dying in Iraq. Salt of the earth folks who want to believe but have lost jobs and hope

    • bmaz says:

      Yes. Exactly. Think that is what Marcy saying as well. Those people are real, and they are hurting in a very real and tangible sense.

      Ironically, this is exactly the class the old Democratic party was supposed to represent. They, rightly, do not feel that anymore. How  can you blame them? I sure can’t. Trump doesn’t represent them either, of course, Hillary would be light years better for them as bad as she is, than Trump. But easy to see how they became so disaffected.

      • Kathleen says:

        Indeed,  Hillary would have done better by them,  However with Nafta, Cafta hard for people to believe Clinton’s, Then the Hillary for the TPP until she was against stance did not  help

        If Trump does not deliver to what looks like to be his base,  One term President for sure,

    • lefty665 says:

      You, bmaz and Marcy are right on the money, or lack of it. Many of those with jobs today have traded middle class wages for Wal-Mart greeter pay and the like; and the employment stats are cooked month in month out. People know that they have not been part of a wonderful recovery, but that the stock market is at record levels so somebody has.

      The Dems have not given a damn for a long time, at least since ’92. Real wages for 90% of workers have not gone up since 1978.  Obama and Timmy Geithner used the mortgages and assets of many of the people you describe to “foam the runway” for the too big to fail banks. There is no reason for most of America to vote Dem today, and we saw that on Tuesday, much to elite amazement.

      Trump is a false prophet at best, but when he does things like publicly tell Ford (to the effect) “You close these plants in Michigan and move them to Mexico and I’ll put a 35% tax on the vehicles when they come back across the border”, it is not a surprise that workers who have been screwed listen to him. He’s not touting NAFTA. Like you say, “Salt of the earth folks who want to believe but have lost jobs and hope”.

      My wife is from Cambridge, so we too have had a feel for the economic devastation on the west side of appalachia. It has been ugly and is getting uglier.

      Thanks for your post.

      • Kathleen says:

        As my WWII Teamster father (now deceased) said over and over again the last four decades  “both parties sold the American workers down the pike”  I would always add “the global pike”

        Spent many hours with him and his union friends (almost all of them WWII or Korean war Vets) in the nursing home he ended up in (we tried to keep him at home but he was really stubborn and defiant).   Many of these places are really not so bad, the saddest cases are of course the people who are abandoned,   Anyway learned a great deal about these old die hard union members of that era,  Surely the greatest generation as Tom Brokaw has written,  I tear up thinking about these mostly old guys that I talked with,  Hard working, humble kind of folk,  Well back in the day they also might  beat your ass if you were a union scab.


        George Carlin one of my gurus explains it best

        ” a system that threw them overboard 30 fucking years ago”

        • lefty665 says:

          Another of Carlin’s lines about the rich/elites: “They’re members of a club and you ain’t in it” May be out of the same routine. John L. Lewis when asked what he wanted in a negotiation responded “More, more and more”.  Don’t hear much advocacy for workers like that these days. Certainly not out of Hillary.  Trump is likely an empty hope for folks, but he was talking to the right issues and the Dems have not been for decades.

          Nursing homes are tough, but the difference is involvement.  In the end my dad needed more services than we could provide at home. My wife would spend mornings with him, and me evenings on my way home from work.  Between us we spent a lot of time with him, and we all enjoyed it. You do what you have to do and what you can do.

          I miss him terribly, but I’m almost glad he’s gone. The way we’ve screwed the world would be profoundly distressing to him.  He went in the Army in 1942 and stayed for a career as civilian DoD. It was an amazing group of people.


  9. bloopie2 says:

    Sometimes the choices are horribly stark. Having lots of civil rights, and an ‘inclusive’ President, and all kind of other goodies, doesn’t put food on the table. I would guess that many of the people you met are parents would sacrifice everything — not simply “working two jobs” but literally giving up everything — for their children.

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