ALTOONA, Iowa — Hidden beneath the hoopla at a major organized labor gathering, which had become a de facto Democratic pep rally, were two quiet supporters of President Trump.
The men, union activists, were on hand for an Iowa Federation of Labor convention that featured a procession of top Democratic presidential contenders. Nearly all entered and exited the modest events center ballroom in Altoona, just up the road from Des Moines, to standing ovations, as they argued that Trump had failed the union households that helped propel him to office in 2016.
But the Trump-supporting labor organizers, who spoke to the Washington Examiner outside the ballroom on condition of anonymity as their colleagues whooped it up with the president’s would-be challengers, affirmed their support for the incumbent in 2020. They said fellow union members were preparing to follow suit, despite a trade dispute with China that threatens their livelihoods. Such sentiments could sink the eventual Democratic nominee in this key battleground.
“There’s a lot of affinity for him” among the rank and file, said one of them, explaining that he and his colleague were withholding their names to avoid antagonizing labor leaders and dragging their employer into a political controversy. Both described themselves as “former lifelong Democrats” and said the prevailing sentiment among voters such as them was that Trump is doing his best to honor his commitments, trade included.
“He’s attempting to follow through,” one of them said. “If it was today, I would vote for President Trump.”
That view runs counter to union leaders and appeared to be a minority viewpoint inside the convention, a regular gathering of the Iowa AFL-CIO. The state firefighters union endorsed Joe Biden, and it was evident that the umbrella labor federation was moving toward endorsing Trump’s Democratic challenger, once crowned. Labor leaders argue that Trump’s agenda is punishing workers and failing to deliver on key promises, especially on trade.
But the top brass appear to recognize that conservative, rank-and-file union households might view Trump differently and are cautious about predicting that this key voting bloc is poised to return to the Democratic fold after many workers backed Trump. “My crystal ball gets a little fuzzy,” said Ken Sagar, president of the Iowa Federation of Labor, although he speculated, hopefully: “A lot of people probably are having buyer’s remorse.”
A significant portion of rank-and-file union members in rural and exurban counties defected to Trump in 2016, boosting him to a 9-point win over Democrat Hillary Clinton in Iowa, usually a closely decided swing state. The results were similar in Ohio. In Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, Rust Belt battlegrounds that a Republican nominee had not won in decades, an infusion of blue-collar support put Trump over the top. In 2012, GOP nominee Mitt Romney lostunion households by 18 percentage points, per national exit polls. Four years later, Trump cutthat margin in half.
The president is under fresh pressure in the suburbs that could derail his 2020 campaign. But holding the fervent support of a large number of union members could deliver a second term. Indeed, even as Democrats flipped two suburban-based Iowa congressional seats that had belonged to the GOP in midterm elections, Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, narrowly won reelection by replicating Trump’s 2016 success in the state’s predominantly white, working-class counties.
JoAnn Hardy, Democratic chairman of Cerro Gordo County, a battleground that voted for Barack Obama twice before siding with Trump, conceded that her party’s message could be a tough sell in her rural community. “Somehow we have to convince people that they are deserving of being taken care of by their government,” she said. “It’s not socialism.”
Back at the labor convention in Altoona, labor leaders applauded as the Democratic presidential candidates griped about Trump’s management of the National Labor Relations Board, about his administration’s healthcare policy, the lack of a concerted infrastructure program, and trade. There was little dispute that Trump is waging trade battles as promised, but labor leaders insist that the president is mishandling the issue and jeopardizing union jobs.
For all of those reasons, labor officials say, rank-and-file members “certainly should” abandon Trump. But their optimism was tempered, as if to confess that the president’s connection to union voters remains strong.
“The things that Trump has done since he got elected was not a fulfillment of those things they were hoping for. That’s for doggone sure. Because everything he’s done has not been to support the folks who are represented here today,” said Randy Schultz, a business representative for a public employee union who lives in tiny Sigourney, Iowa. “Anybody who puts the blinders on, you know, they’re not being realistic.”