HH: Rather than a panel, I asked the dean of the American Presidential Reporting Union, Dan Balz of the Washington Post to join me to start the show. And later, our new ambassador to Germany, Rick Grenell, to join me after the break from Berlin to discuss both the President and the world. Dan Balz, welcome, great to have you this morning. Dan, I want to first start by noting from May 3rd, you had a story titled Trump And His Attorney Didn’t Tell the Truth. If Giuliani is right, will that change anything? And then on Friday, May 11th, you had a great story about the voters that you have been investigating in the middle of the country, Loyalty, Unease in Trump’s Midwest, and whether or not those voters who gave Trump a chance will remain all in, others growing weary of the chaos. Dan, welcome, when did you start on this most recent story about the voters in the Midwest?
DB: Hugh, thank you for having me on. I appreciate it. I started on that story in January of 2017 without a game plan. I wanted to understand better what had happened in 2016, I think as most reporters did, and a lot of Americans did. I wanted to understand better the people who had put Donald Trump into office. It’s a part of the country where I grew up, so I had some familiarity with it. And I talked to my editor, Steven Ginsberg, about it, and we decided I should just go out and start talking to some people without necessarily knowing when or what we would write. And that, you know, morphed and morphed into other trips into other parts of the Midwest. I started in areas where I had grown up, and then went into other areas. And eventually, we decided that we would just keep going with a handful of the voters that I had met to see how their views did or did not change over time about the President. And ultimately, what showed up on May 11th in the Post is a 15,000 word story with some great photographs by my colleague, Melina Mara and some wonderful video by Jordan Frasier that looks at what has happened in that part of the country. And I would say you know, it’s very difficult to do a single bottom line, but I would say there’s two realities. One is that there’s some people who voted for him who are as much or more in his camp than they were at the time of the election, and there are others who are very nervous about what they have seen, particularly the turmoil, the disruption, the chaos. Some like the policies and they’re willing to give him more time on that. Others like the policies, but the turmoil, as one of the people I talked to have said, have left them motion sick. And I think that in many ways, they hold the keys to his presidency.
HH: You know, Dan, I read this with such interest. It has arrived at the same time that Salena Zito and Brad Todd’s book, The Great Revolt, arrived. And you’re studying the same people, and I’m from the same part of the country. If fact, Trumbull County, Ohio, is the deepest purple on the graphic that you have accompanying the Washington Post story about counties that flipped from being big Obama counties to big Trump counties. You mentioned Lee County in your article, Iowa, that was a 12 point loss for Mitt Romney, a 12 point win for Donald Trump. Trumbull county, my hometown, was always a, Al Gore won it, John Kerry won it, President Obama won it with 60% twice, and then Donald Trump won it with 55%. Those swing voters, those 20-30% of people, who are they, Dan Balz? What was your opinion at the end of the day when you explained them to our audience watching today who might not themselves spend much time in Iowa or Ohio?
DB: Yeah, well, I mean, let me just preface this by saying there are about 100 counties in the country, you know, give or take, that had voted at least five times in a row for a Democratic presidential nominee that then flipped to Donald Trump in 2016. And in some cases, of those counties, it was six elections in a row, or seven or eight or ten, and in a couple of cases, twelve or fourteen. Half of those counties are in the upper Midwest, in the four states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois. And so that was one of the reasons I concentrated on that. And a lot of them are right along the Mississippi or adjacent to the Mississippi River.
DB: These are, you know, these are Americans. These are working people. These are people who are farmers. They’re small business people. They work in factories. They’re teachers. You know, they’re all kinds of different people. Now Hugh, one of the things that’s still a little difficult to parse out is how many people had voted for, let’s say, Obama in ’08 and ’12 and then flipped, or how much the composition of the electorate changed, how much of the Obama vote did not show up for Hillary Clinton. How much of people who did not come out for John McCain or Mitt Romney in 2012 decided they wanted to come out for Donald Trump? So I think these big swings that we saw in these counties, and in some cases, the swing was 30 points, or in a couple of cases, a 40 point swing. Now these are, you know, these are counties with very small populations. So a small number of people can have a big percentage change. But they come from all walks of life, Hugh, and they, you know, one of the Congress people who represents one of these districts is Cheri Bustos. She’s a Democrat. It’s a northwest Illinois district. She calls a lot of these voters Trump triers.
DB: These are people who were in one way or another fed up with the status quo for a variety of reasons. I don’t think you can say it was a single reason, but for a variety of reasons they decided that they would take a chance on Donald Trump. And they are measuring his presidency month by month given things they like and things that make them uncomfortable.
HH: You know, Dan, one of the things I have noted, I’ve read every book about this election. Mostly, they’re about the campaigns, not the voters. Your article and Salena’s book are about the voters. I’ve noticed a common theme, and that is about status and about feeling a lack of respect, a lack of association with the big four – Los Angeles, Silicon Valley, New York-Manhattan and of course, Washington, D.C., an alienation but not an anger, just a sort of ‘hey, we’re here, we’re not racists, we just have been left behind.’ You picked that up, but that also tentative nature of attachment to Trump, how has that changed with a week’s events, do you think, that sees the hostages coming back from North Korea with Mike Pompeo, that sees the President ripping up his predecessor’s agreement with Iran, and sees Israel on the ropes fighting back against Iran, against rocket barrages. Are those voters following it day to day like that an applauding when he does something good, and booing when he says something wrong? Or are they all in with him?
DB: Well, some are following it day to day, and a lot of them aren’t. I mean, they have real lives, and they, you know, they pay attention, but they can’t follow all the ins and outs of everything, and they form impressions. One thing I would say is it is very risky to make any, you know, predictions or projections based on one week. This was a week in which the President was, you know, was the dominant character in the world. And there are a lot of things that Trump voters will applaud, and there are maybe some things that Trump voters are a little bit nervous about, but we don’t know. I mean, one of the things that kept me going back over a longer period of time than I had any, you know, expectation of doing was that there were so many intervening events. I made a trip in January of this year thinking that that would be the wrap up event and came back with some interesting impressions and some very good interviews. It took me a while to figure out how to assemble all of this material. And by the time I had done that, so many things had happened that we felt another trip to the Midwest was warranted. So this is an ongoing story, Hugh, and the President, as you know, has an ability to dominate the news in ways that are helpful to him and in ways that are not helpful to him. And I think these voters are measuring that, but not coming to a firm conclusion, at least the voters who I would describe as in the kind of the conflicted category.
HH: Let me make two observations, Dan, about your story and about Salena’s book. The people that you interviewed, the people she interviewed, they hate being called racist, because they don’t think they’re racist in the least, and they really, really hate that more than anything else. But also, they expect Trump to deliver. And if he doesn’t deliver in terms of jobs and economy, they’re not going to stick with him. Do you agree with those general consensus points of view?
DB: I definitely agree with the second part, and a number of the people who are in my story make those expressions about the issue of race and racism, this feeling that they have all been stereotyped. Having said that, I do think that you know, that there were elements of race that played into the 2016 election, and I think that’s, you know, that’s been pretty clear that there were things about the Obama presidency that exacerbated racial divisions in the country. And things that the President said as a candidate helped to stoke those. But when you talk to individuals, particularly the individuals I talked to, they resent being painted with a broad brush. And so that, you know, that’s part of what we were trying to do. I mean, one of the, you know, you mentioned that campaign books, and I’ve, you know, I’ve written them myself, often tell the story of the inside game. I don’t think that’s unimportant, but I’ve always thought that the voters are very important, and that we tend to understate and underplay what they are thinking at any given time. And I think that was what we set out to do, and I think Salena tried to do the same thing in her book.
HH: It’s a great piece, Dan Balz, as was the piece on the President and the truth earlier in the week. I appreciate them both. I appreciate the work you put into them. I recommend it to everyone to go and track them both down. Thanks for joining me this morning.
DB: Thank you, Hugh.
End of interview.