We’ll be reporting from Cleveland all week and live-blogging each night. Check out all our dispatches from the GOP convention here.
CLEVELAND — “It’s been a rough year for the media experts,” Willie Robertson of “Duck Dynasty” said at the Republican National Convention this week. “It must be humbling to be so wrong about so much for so long.”
“But I have a theory about how they missed the Trump train,” he continued. “They don’t hang out with regular folks like us who like to hunt and fish and pray and actually work for a living. Heck, I don’t even know that they know how to talk to people from middle America.”
There’s been a lot of this talk at the RNC, about “real” Americans and “regular” Americans and how they’re the ones who make America great. When it’s not focused on the media, it’s usually directed at Hillary Clinton.
This real Americans stuff isn’t new; instead, it’s part of the populist tradition. The segregationist governor George Wallace of Alabama, a Democrat, regularly employed this sort of rhetoric. And at a 2008 fundraiser in Greensboro, North Carolina, Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin spoke of the “small towns that we get to visit … in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America.”
These politicians, implicitly and often explicitly, usually have certain people in mind when they refer to “real Americans.” They often mean white people without college degrees — the so-called “white working class.” They usually mean practicing Christians. Their examples usually refer to people in the South or the Midwest — not East Coast elites or West Coast hippies.
If you’re one of these “real Americans,” you’re in the majority in almost every respect. Most Americans are white, most are Christian, most don’t have college degrees, and most live in the South or Midwest Census Bureau regions. And yet, only about 1 in 5 voters meets all of these descriptions.
This helps to explain what seems like a paradox. “Real Americans” overwhelmingly voted Republican in the 2012 election. The differences might be even more pronounced this year. And yet, President Obama won re-election four years ago. And Clinton leads Donald Trump in the polls, albeit narrowly.
We can be more specific about this using the 2012 edition of the Cooperative Congressional Election Study, which surveyed more than 50,000 people.
Overall, about 48 percent of voters in the survey said they voted for Mitt Romney over Obama, closely matching Romney’s actual percentage of the vote.1 Among non-Hispanic white voters, however, Romney’s share rises to 56 percent.2 And among white Christians, it was 66 percent.
Because of the survey’s large sample size, we can home in even further. Among white Christians without college degrees who lived in the South or the Midwest — what we’re calling “real Americans” — Romney won 70 percent of the vote.
We can also consider gender, although it’s a tricky issue in this context. Mathematically speaking, men are a minority of the electorate. But populist candidates (including Trump) tend to attract more male than female support, and they often lionize predominately male occupations or activities. “Real American” men gave 73 percent of their votes to Romney in 2012, and Trump might get an even higher percentage this year.
But putting so many requirements on what it means to be a “real American” means that a lot of people are left out. Overall, “real Americans” made up only 20 percent of the electorate in 2012. And “real American” men were just 9 percent of it.
I still take what Willie Robertson said to heart. Political journalists, in any number of ways, aren’t especially representative of the electorate that they cover. That can introduce any number of biases. At events like the conventions, it can give journalists a tin ear for what’s resonating with the audience and what isn’t. It can also cause journalists to overcompensate. Palin’s performance in the vice-presidential debate against Joe Biden was widely praised by pundits, but polls showed that a clear majority of voters thought Biden did the better job. (Speaking of which, that’s one big advantage of polls: They can reflect the opinions of a demographically representative sample of voters.)
But this is a big, diverse country, and Robertson’s “regular folks” aren’t especially representative of it either. And if Republicans can’t increase their appeal beyond “real Americans,” they’ll lose their third presidential election in a row.