Opening Keynote 

Wednesday, August 1, 2018


Salena Zito, Author, Syndicated Columnist, and CNN Contributor

What if the Trump election win wasn’t a freak political accident but instead the beginning of a populist realignment? Author, Syndicated Columnist, and CNN Contributor, Salena Zito joins us to discuss the findings from her book based on survey research and an analysis of the “seven kinds of voters” who made up the Trump coalition in 2016.

Notes from session:

Background as a Reporter

  • Lives in Pittsburgh, PA (“The Paris of Appalachia”) and reports on national politics which has given her a different perspective from reporters based in NYC and DC.
  • Journalists have a tendency to turn tweets into the end of the world; the Trump coalition wants to know why they can’t report things without the outrage.

History of the Trump Coalition

  • The populist coalition did not happen overnight. Trump did not cause it, he is a result of it.


  • The Republicans had been in power in the House of Representatives since 1994 – but the first time she started to notice a populist shift was at a campaign event for Jason Altmire, a moderate Democrat from Western PA. He was running on a middle of the road platform on against Melissa Hart, who was a more established Republican candidate and his rally had a very significant turnout.
  • At that moment, she knew Republicans were going to lose the house because the candidate the Democrats were not picking a strident liberal candidate, they were picking moderate, pro-life, pro-gun, fiscally responsible candidates. She drove across the country and realized at that moment it was done.
  • She interviewed Karl Rove and asked him what he thought. He cited the Voter Vault data they had and said they their voters were showing up. Her point: they weren’t showing up for Republicans; they’re showing up for Democrats.


  • Around 6 months after President Obama’s inauguration she was on the Hill talking to moderate Democrats. They were talking about TARP, they were talking about health care, they were talking about bailouts – but they were not listening to their constituents and what the voters were telling them at home.
  • Voters were becoming more and more unhappy with the fact that Washington was not listening to them.
  • So while this began in 2006, it got bigger in 2010.


  • In 2010, she drove to 47 states. She only took back roads, did not take interstates; and she’s done this before. It gives a view of how communities change.
  • When you’re on an interstate you don’t get a feel for the culture, you don’t understand the community, how the economics are changing or how automation or technology is changing lives.
  • That year, she listed every candidate she thought would win – she was right about every single one.
  • It wasn’t about liking Republicans or liking Democrats. It was all because the Democrats had stopped listening.
  • However, they did find Obama to be aspirational; and they still liked him, so he won in 2012.


  • This year was the beginning of the end of the Democratic party as we know it. Since the 1930s the party had been based on the principles of the New Deal coalition that FDR put together. The idea was small business, work equity, and bring people together.
  • From there it transformed into how the government can help you in your old age, with health care, how they can create safety nets. At that time, the Republicans were about no government, everything small.
  • But in this year President Obama decided to shift to a more multinational worldview, and people did not like this.
  • Some call this backlash “nationalism” but it’s not that, it really is localism. Localism became the dominant defining theme in some of the wave elections in 2014 and in 2015.


  • She spoke with voters during the Iowa caucuses. Iowans are evangelical voters, and at first they really liked Ben Carson and they really liked Bobby Jindal. Their third choice was Ted Cruz; but they recognized that Donald Trump is a “mean SOB” and voters could take on Trump.
  • He was a pragmatic choice – and he was willing to champion their values (like religious freedom).
  • Pennsylvania is rarely an important state for primaries (it’s in April), but that year over 90,000 Democrats had changed their registration from D to R; which never happens that month.
  • PA has become .4% more R every year since 1996; so the trend people were not paying attention was not in the cities – it was in the other counties.
  • Throughout the state you did not see Hillary signs; you saw homemade Trump signs (houses with Trump on the side, barns with Trump on the side, a horse with Trump on the side!)
  • She identified 10 core counties to watch where all he needed to do was collect 2,000 more votes and he would cinch PA.
  • If he won PA, she knew he would win Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Florida because they are all 5% less dem than those states.
  • Interesting fact: She does not vote in elections she covers!

Close to Election 2016

  • On September 19, 2016 she lost her job. She had been covering populism for 11 years. The company she worked for was offered a buyout. She found out that the next day, she had an interview with Trump – but no outlet for it.
  • She shopped it around (NYT, WaPo, and a few others) but finally, the Atlantic took the story (…) and this is where the line “voters take Trump seriously not literally, and journalists take him literally not seriously” came from.
  • She continued to follow/cover the election, attending Rallys, embedding herself in communities. The rallies themselves are “like tailgates” people have their hibachis, and everyone is having a good time.
  • However, despite that, the coverage showed the same 3 weird people saying the 7 awful things he said. They missed how excited people were.
  • She was about to be unemployed and had no new gigs lined up – but she asked to cover election day at Trump’s HQ.
  • She was at a table with other journalists and saw that not only had he gotten the 2000 votes he needed in the 10 counties she had identified, he had surpassed them. Meanwhile, the rest of the journalists were looking at Philly. She filed her story by 8:45 PM and that was a wrap.
  • Her story made the front page of the New York Post, and soon thereafter she was asked to join Jake Tapper – not to talk about Trump, but to talk about her, and how she was the only journalist to get it right.
  • After the election, she got a job with Jake Tapper and was also working at the NYP.

The Book: “The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics”

  • If you did not get this election, it’s not about him. It’s about this new coalition.
  • She co-wrote the book with Brad Todd, who is a pollster. They took a look at 5 states that went Obama-Obama-Trump, and wanted to understand what was happening that made them move away from the party.
  • They identified archetypes (you can read about them the book!) they include: Silent Suburban Moms, King Cyrus Christians, Rotary Reliables, Girl Gun Power, Rough Rebounders, Perot-istas, etc.
  • Some people believe MAGA was about nostalgia, but it’s really about wanting to be a part of something bigger than yourself.
  • As the coalition gets bigger, they’re going to have an impact on things outside the ballot box (SEE: NFL & the National Anthem).
  • We have to mix in some of these people into our decision-making teams. DC is too much of a bubble.


  • There is this understanding that President Trump could “shoot someone on 5th Avenue and not get in trouble”. The 5th Avenue comment is a great example of the literally/seriously paradigm.
  • He is sort of known for making statements that do not make a lot of sense, how does that play out with his supporters? One anecdote – she spoke to a woman who voted Obama-Obama-Trump; and she said that although she had always found the great oratory of politicians inspiring, she loves the results that Trump is delivering. So while she doesn’t like his oratory – she also can’t complain.
  • What are your predictions about the midterms? What about 2020? Presidents lose their seats in their midterms, but the Rs are incredibly enthusiastic. We missed 2016 because our voter models were based on the past – not looking forward. So when she talks to voters they are VERY supportive of him, but they don’t like when he tweets.
  • Where are these voters getting their news? Most people read a variety of different things. The most important thing is that they get a pretty balanced view – despite what is reported. People like to make fun of these people for not getting enough news, and we need to NOT make fun of them. They are a culture that is craving respect.
  • How can the Democrats get this coalition back? Dems started to lose the white working class during the Clinton years. That escalated during Gore and Kerry. To get them back we need to STOP MAKING FUN OF THEM. Conor Lamb was successful in PA because he welcomed pro-life, pro-gun, pro-military voters into his coalition.
  • What can Rs and Ds learn moving forward? Respect. Do a better job of listening outside of Washington. Move the centers of the party to Columbus, Ohio. STOP calling people racists, stop calling people nationalists. We’re using the word “racism” in far too casual of a way.
  • What are some of the questions that open people up? Community, and things about where they live.
  • How do these voters react to issues like trade and increase tariffs? They see the President as transactional, he is always trying to get a better deal. They don’t trust people who told them in the past that NAFTA would be good for them; and generally, they don’t like multilateral deals (which they feel are too global).
  • How can we get these voters to take action in advocacy campaigns? Americans LOVE to be a part of something bigger than themselves. They love localization, and outside of Washington, they care more about how it will impact them and their communities. This goes all the way back to De Tocqueville in the 1750s who observed that American’s connections and associations are what makes our democracy so robust.