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Will Grass Roots America Stay Tuned In?

- January 2017

What do Trump Supporters Do Now?

Donald Trump stunned the nation – at least the “establishment” – not just by winning the Presidency, but by the completely unconventional campaign he ran to get there. In 2016, Trump replaced advertising, polling and a get-out-the-vote effort with Twitter and well-attended rallies. And he promises to keep his base active and engaged – one tweet at a time – and has formed a grass roots political organization to accomplish the mission. Will he succeed?

Barack Obama’s 2008 election was also history-making, at least in part because of the leading-edge sophisticated technology deployed by his campaign organization, dubbed Obama for America (OFA). After his 2009 inauguration, President Obama morphed Obama for America into Organizing for America; after the Obama 2012 re-election, OFA morphed yet again into Organizing for Action.

OFA’s mission, in all its incarnations, was to build a powerful organization that could deliver grass roots support for the Obama legislative agenda – particularly health care reform – and electoral support for President Obama’s re-election in 2012 and Democratic Congressional candidates.

While President Obama’s re-election campaign was successful, it can hardly be argued that OFA delivered on the rest of its mission. Obamacare passed without a single Republican vote and remained very unpopular right through the 2016 election. President Obama was never able – if in fact he tried – to build a consensus in support of his policy initiatives, instead relying on Executive Orders and agency regulations to push his agenda. And since he campaigned for Secretary Clinton last year on the message that the election was a referendum on his presidency, a strong argument can be made that Secretary Clinton’s defeat was also a rejection of the Obama agenda. If so, OFA clearly failed in its grass roots policy mission.

Even more notably, OFA did not deliver success for the Democrat Party in the polls: the Party’s loss of seats in state legislatures, governors’ mansions and the U.S. Congress since 2008 has been just as dramatic as Hillary Clinton’s defeat for the presidency. One critic on the left even wrote after the election that Obama had “destroyed” the Democrat party.

So why did Obama for America/Organizing for America/Organizing for Action fail to deliver? Some Democrats complain that Obama failed to reach out to and deploy OFA and its resources; that he was from the beginning a go-it-alone President, concerned about his own interests and not those of the Democrat Party to which he often seemed only distantly connected.

The Obama parallel to President-elect Trump is obvious. He is not a Republican Party loyalist or activist – he was a registered Democrat until 2009 and actively supported and contributed to a number of Democrats in the past. It would be hard to argue that Trump owes his election to the GOP since the Party establishment was almost unanimous in supporting someone else for the GOP nomination, and much of the GOP establishment remained in the #NeverTrump camp throughout the election.

So will and can a President Trump do what Obama failed to do and keep his base motivated? And will his distance from the GOP make him a go-it-alone executive or will the president and the GOP in Congress forge an effective governing partnership?

So far the president-elect has made it clear he is willing to reach out to and stir up his Twitter followers – going around the Washington establishment and the media. A Trump tweet is credited with forcing the House Republicans to quickly reverse an ill-advised attempt to roll back the power of an ethics panel on the first day of the new session of Congress.

If President Trump does continue to attempt to stir up public opinion on issues through his Twitter following, and through his just-formed outside grassroots political organization, what are the long-term consequence? Will House and Senate Republicans be afraid to oppose Trump initiatives with which they disagree –tariffs on US imports and specific retaliation against U.S. companies manufacturing abroad come to mind – for fear of a condemning tweet from the President? Or will there be a point at which they have strong enough disagreements on an issue or issues that they openly oppose him?

Will the President-elect continue to tweet on every issue that comes up, or reserve his version of OFA to try to build grass roots support for major issues and initiatives? Senate Democratic Leader Schumer has vowed to block a Trump Supreme Court nomination who is unacceptable to the Democratic base. But there are 10 Democratic senators running for re-election in 2018 in states that Trump carried. Can the President-elect build a grass roots campaign in those states strong enough to convince those Democratic senators to support the nominee?

Perhaps the bigger unanswered question is whether the disgruntled population of Trump supporters that rocked the country and sent shock-waves through the “establishment” will stay engaged and active. Will they be willing to do more than just cast a vote in a presidential election?

Just as important, will Trump supporters support everything the president-elect proposes? And what about things he does NOT do? It’s too early to tell if his base will support all Trump initiatives. And every indication so far is that Trump’s supporters do not expect him to do everything he said he would do, and so far they don’t seem to care if he veers away from firm and hard-edged campaign promises like building a Mexico-funded wall, deporting illegal aliens, or banning the immigration of all Muslims.

In The Atlantic last September Salena Zito came up with a pithy couplet that may sum it up in very few words: The press takes Trump literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.  If his voters did not take his campaign promises literally, how motivated will they be to stay actively involved in the political process as the tactics of governing must replace the rhetoric of campaigning?

Last December, Amy Walters of Cook Political Report published an interesting and in-depth analysis – “What do Trump supporters want?” – based on a post-election focus group conducted in Cleveland. While this was just one focus group, the findings are likely representative of the larger Trump base.

Her conclusions, based on that focus group, confirm that Trump supporters want change, aren’t looking for unity, and they like his “style, his swagger.” They “don’t see a need for him to throttle back from the person they saw on the campaign trail” – although they would like him to tweet less.

But there are some warning signs for the President-elect in the focus group results. They expect him to produce a better economy and bring manufacturing jobs back to America. And if that doesn’t happen? As Amy Walters wrote:

There is a breaking point for these Trump supporters, however. If the economy tanks - or the jobs don’t appear - they will be less forgiving of their “change maker-in-Chief.”

Given the deep polarization in the country, and the fact that Clinton won the popular vote, Trump’s hold on his base is going to be more important than ever. If he loses them, he has no net to catch him.   

President-elect Trump’s campaign was a solo flight. He now has time and opportunity to build the working relationships that will support him even if his grass roots base – like OFA – does not stay mobilized. Will he do so?

Stay tuned. We’ll tweet an update.

What Does the Democratic/Liberal Base Do Now?

The new lead voice for Congressional Democrats, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), has indicated he will be a very different leader than was Harry Reid (D-NV). Schumer is known as a deal-maker, not an obstructionist, and there are high hopes that some civility will be restored to the Senate with Reid’s welcome retirement and Schumer’s election as Democratic leader.

That said, no one underestimates Senator Schumer’s willingness to fight for his Party, nor his skill in waging the battles the Democrats choose to fight. That was made clear early as the Democrats initiated a vociferous defense of Obamacare in the face of GOP determination to finally repeal it. Senator Schumer has made their new catch-phrase, Republicans Will “Make America Sick Again,” a part of every sentence. And he starts out his role as leader of the loyal opposition with a mostly unified caucus.

But there are potential hazards ahead for national Democrats as well, and the Congressional Republicans may well have a sense of déjà vu.

After the 2010 elections, the newly-strengthened conservative Tea Party GOP base felt alienated from the Congressional GOP Leadership and expressed their frustration and anger by waging primary challenges to GOP incumbents while their allies in the House and Senate obstructed and opposed Leadership-supported legislation.

Supporters of Senator Bernie Sander’s (D-VT) presidential campaign and Senator Elizabeth Warren’s (D-MA) liberal ideological crusade, frustrated by what they saw as an unfair Democrat establishment tipping the scales for Hillary Clinton’s campaign, are threatening to take a page from the Tea Party handbook.

Barely a week after last November’s election, Politico reported that those organizing opposition to the Trump election were turning their attention to Democrats rather than focusing on the GOP president-elect. According to Politico’s report, one of the protest organizers said their plan was to build “a tea party of the left” and that their “big goal is to support primary challenges against those Democrats who negotiate with Donald Trump.”

One of the groups involved, called “AllofUs,” is led by a former Sanders campaign operative who said of the GOP Tea Party that “it gave people in the Republican Party who are upset with the establishment an identity . . . You could be a tea party Republican. We think there’s a lot of power in that.”

The left-wing groups face the same challenges that the Tea Party faced – they have a fragmented movement composed of a variety of state and national groups which operate independently of one another without a single organizational structure to coordinate their effort. That lack of a national structure and mission in the Tea Party enabled the GOP establishment to organize support for incumbent candidates on a one-at-a-time basis, as a result of which there were no successful Tea Party primary challenges in the 2016 election.

Nonetheless, the Tea Party was notably successful in picking off GOP-establishment-supported candidates in previous primaries, and the Freedom Caucus in the U.S. House still routinely challenges the House GOP leadership, denying Speaker Ryan the united conference that would ensure him the votes necessary to enact his legislative priorities.

It’s too early to tell whether the left-wing protestors will concentrate their fire on Trump, or attempt to push the Democrats to the left as the Tea Party pushed the GOP to the right.

In its December 21st edition, New York Magazine laid out the issue in stark terms for Congressional Democrats:

… the $64,000 question is whether something like the tea party will arise on the left. There is certainly enough passionate opposition to Trump out there to provide the fuel for a big grassroots fire. It could manifest itself in simple opposition to Trump’s agenda and base of support, or could instead mainly operate to ensure Democrats don’t compromise or fold … Beltway insiders of every persuasion may be looking nervously over their shoulders for ambushes as the New Year begins.