For a week every summer, tiny Sturgis, South Dakota mushrooms from a town of 7,000 to a metropolis of 500,000. Welcome to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, where hundreds of thousands of largely working class and middle-aged Americans make a pilgrimage during the first week of August to celebrate a particular subset of American culture.
Here, they can enjoy the Sturgis Motorcycle Museum and Hall of Fame, and the sprawling majestic sights of nearby Black Hills National Forest. Harley Davidsons are the bikes of choice, classic rock and country music blare, the beer flows, and the politics runs surprisingly conservative. The mainstream media has picked up on the story, highlighting the degree to which this particular demographic has tilted, almost entirely, to Donald Trump.
Why has this happened? Just a generation, or even a decade, ago, this type of demographic would have been politically divided, split right down the middle. Why does Donald Trump, a brash billionaire who has little personal connection with the rough and rowdy crowd generally drawn to biker rallies, play so well to this type of audience?
Primarily, because the Democratic Party has been on a long and steady decline with both the working class and the heartland.
While both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts lean heavily blue, the “Heartland”, as it’s often called, has been trending red, or Republican, more and more. As bikers ride hundreds or thousand of miles to congregate in tiny Sturgis, SD, converging from the South, the Mid-west, the Rocky Mountains, and the Great Plains, the political undertones are lost on no one.
The mainstream media coverage is predictable: they seek to paint the bikers as hicks and hillbillies: insular, narrow-minded, and unwelcoming of outsiders. This elitist tripe is an extremely good indicator of how heartland bikers broke ranks with the Washington-New York-Boston-Los Angeles-San Francisco Democratic elites to begin with.
The Democrats’ abysmal performance with white working class voters in 2016 was more a matter of style than substance. It really doesn’t come down to the minutiae of public policy: few voters on either end of the spectrum go to the ballot box with a clear and concise knowledge of how the candidates differ with regard to budgetary priorities, tax policies, or regulatory regimens.
Rather, political parties are brands. The higher up the ballot you go, the more personalities matter. The farther down the ballot you go (races for state legislature, municipal and county positions, mayors, city council, local judges) the more the party matters. The GOP brand was already swamping the Democrat brand. The elephants were kicking the donkeys’ asses. Excuse me for that tasteless metaphor.
But it is no less true. Voters are drawn to the “red brand” or the “blue band” much the same way that we are instinctively drawn to Wendys over Taco Bell, or Pepsi over Coca Cola, or a Honda over a Toyota. The branding matters. It matters immeasurably.
Democrats were successful for decades in convincing the masses that they represented the economic interests of the working and middle classes, and that the Republicans were economic elitists who only favored business interests, corporations, and the wealthy.
Lately they have been less successful. Despite the best efforts of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren to be “one-tune fiddlers”, it is clear that this strategy is not working, or at least it is not working very well.
Enter Donald Trump.
The half million people at the biker rally, by and large, are not experts on public policy. They probably know relatively little about the Constitution, the federal budget, how the current tax code works, what the true nature of our current policy is, etc.
Then again, few Americans in general know about such topics, or truly care about such topics.
They go for the red brand or blue band out of instinct, out of intuition, out of a gut sense. Often, that sense can be hard to describe.
For better or worse, Trump will beat the Democrats every time, playing up the theme of economic nationalism.
Working class heartlanders are not voting on transgender bathrooms, or safe spaces, or gay adoption, or historical preservation, or protection of endangered species, or gender-neutral pronouns, or university “speech codes”, or any of the other things that blue state elitists tend to find their way to.
They are looking for a candidate who wants them to have more money in their pocket, who says what he actually believes, and who is not going to let the Stalinist mentality of political correctness pervade his candidacy.
Until the Democrats learn this lesson, they can expect to lose the Sturgis biker community by a 10:1 margin, every time.