Pick a president: New York multimillionaire or New York multibillionaire.
In Ohio River coal country, retiree Nelson Travis says he begrudgingly will choose the billionaire: Donald Trump. Nonetheless, Travis argues, neither the presumptive Republican nominee nor Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton actually gets people like him.
“They’re both out of touch with people’s everyday reality,” the 64-year-old Republican says, dismissing Clinton’s talk of “breaking down barriers” and Trump’s “make America great again” motto.
The likely November rivals’ personal portfolios don’t exactly square with the populist wave defining 2016.
Trump, lifelong New Yorker and multimillionaire’s son, is worth about $4.5 billion according to Forbes, though he claims more. Forbes estimates Clinton to be worth about $45 million, a fortune built entirely since she and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, left the White House in 2001.
But the candidate who connects with the widest swath of “average Americans” (median household income of about $54,000) will find the clearest path to the Oval Office.
That connection will prove particularly important in Rust Belt, Great Lakes and Midwestern states stretching from Pennsylvania to Iowa, where Democrats have prevailed in recent presidential elections but by narrow enough margins to give Trump hope.
“We are in a new age of economic populism,” says Dave “Mudcat” Saunders, a Democratic strategist who helped craft Democrat John Edwards’ “Two Americas” presidential campaign in 2004. “People are hurting. They’re mad, and they want somebody who’ll do something about it.”
Trump and Clinton are addressing their personal wealth differently.
Unlike previous wealthy nominees, such as Republican Mitt Romney in 2012 and Democrat John Kerry in 2004, Trump plays up — and boasts about — his riches. Clinton is more likely to talk about her middle-class childhood than her current accounts. She took heat for saying she and her husband were “flat broke” when his second term ended, and she has struggled against her Democratic rival Bernie Sanders, who has made income inequality his core issue.
Going into a general election matchup, Trump appears to have the initial upper hand with the most vocally frustrated voters, who powered him past a gaggle of career politicians in the GOP primary. Throngs roar at his calls to build a wall at the Mexican border, close all U.S. borders to noncitizen Muslims, and “bring back the jobs” from China and Mexico. Atypical of Republicans, he promises to “take care of people” and not cut Social Security or Medicare.
It’s enough to convince Terri Reschley, 62, of Indianola in Iowa, a competitive general-election state. “Even though he’s rich, and he’s always been rich, he’s just like Bob in the country,” she says.
Clinton offers a more muted approach, not traditional populism, but aimed at the same voters. She talks about raising minimum wages, improving education, creating jobs, and lifting up working people. She peppers her remarks with anecdotes of people she meets campaigning.
Though she’s yet to contrast her biography with Trump, Clinton recalls her father, who ran a small business, and her mother, who had a rough childhood. She’s spoken of her grandfather laboring in a Scranton, Pennsylvania, lace mill and her father preaching “that if he scrimped and saved” he “could provide us with a middle-class life.”
Clinton also frames issues such as gun violence, police brutality and criminal justice as matters of fundamental economic opportunity for urban and minority communities, perhaps redefining populism in 2016 to include more than traditional pitches to white voters.
Although nearly a sure bet to clinch the Democratic nomination, she’s still being dogged by Sanders, who rails against the “millionaire and billionaire class” embodied in Wall Street banks and a “campaign finance system that is corrupt.” Setting the stage for Trump, Sanders harangues Clinton as a prime offender.
Sanders consistently has topped Clinton in small towns and rural areas, while Trump romps among Republicans from the same locales. Primary results aren’t necessarily predictive of November outcomes, but the divide was on display recently in Appalachia, where Clinton was met by miners protesting her statement in March that “we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.”
Clinton said she chose the wrong words to explain wider market forces, such as increasing consumer preference for solar energy, that reduce coal demand. But in Kentucky, West Virginia and Ohio, many residents heard a rejection of their way of life.
“I raised my family, and now my family is raising their families” on coal jobs, said 59-year-old Ed Boston of Beallsville, Ohio. “I pack a bucket every day,” he said. “She doesn’t even know what a bucket is. … Anybody understands us better than Hillary.”
Clinton tried to turn the mistake to some advantage by pointing out that visited the increasingly Republican region to listen to the people she had offended. “Whether you vote for me or not,” she said, “I will be your partner, and I will not for one minute give up on Appalachia.”
She also called out Trump for relying on mass rallies instead of one-on-one conversation with people.
A recent barb in Delaware: “If you want to be president of the United States … don’t just fly that big jet in and land it and go make a big speech and insult everybody you can think of, and then go back, get on that big jet, and go back to your country club house in Florida or your penthouse in New York.”
She’s also telling people that the biggest beneficiaries of Trump’s tax proposals are the wealthiest. The approach is working with voters such as Chira Corwin, 42, from Des Moines, Iowa, who said Clinton has “been in the field, so to speak, working with people, as opposed to Trump, who has been a millionaire his whole life.”
Winning over voters in a populist mood is an inexact science, but political observers recognize it as a necessity. Four years ago, President Barack Obama and Democrats painted Romney as out of step after he said his wife drove a “couple of Cadillacs” and because he tried to make a $10,000 bet on a primary debate stage.
In Democratic ads, Romney was criticized by workers who were laid off at businesses taken over by the private equity firm he co-founded. He was particularly hurt by a remark, captured on video at a private fundraiser, that 47 percent of voters don’t pay income taxes and support Democrats because they’re dependent on public programs.
Republican consultant Katie Packer, a former Romney aide now running an anti-Trump political committee, said it was tough for Romney to overcome that. Exit polls in 2012 indicated that about one-fifth of the electorate gave priority to choosing a president who “cares about people like me,” and Obama won that group 81 percent to 18 percent for Romney. That was enough to help tip the popular vote to Obama.
Trump’s wealth, and how he built it, could be a Democratic line of attack again, Packer said. But she cautioned that Clinton is not the same messenger as Obama, who was still paying off student loans when he stepped onto the national stage with a prominent speech at the 2004 convention. “Nobody could say he didn’t understand the problems of working people,” Packer said. “Clinton is somebody who hasn’t driven her own car in three decades.”