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Experts: Town hall anger may not translate into electoral gains for Democrats

Constituents of Congressman Dave Brat, R-Va., hold signs as he answers questions during a town hall meeting with the congressman in Blackstone, Va., Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

The warm reception President Donald Trump received from the thousands in attendance for his victory lap at the Conservative Political Action Conference Friday offered a stark contrast to the public rancor his policies are generating at congressional town halls around the country.

Many Republican members of Congress have been greeted in their home districts this week by outraged constituents pummeling them with questions about plans to replace the Affordable Care Act, Trump’s immigration orders, and the president’s ties to Russia. Some have opted not to hold in-person events at all to avoid potentially viral confrontations.

In an interview Thursday, White House Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee-Sanders called the Trump administration “one of the most accessible White Houses certainly that we’ve seen in my lifetime.”

“We’re paying attention to what Americans are saying,” she said. “And again, this is one of the big reasons Donald Trump is the president. He heard what Americans were saying. He heard the frustration and he voiced that. He was the messenger for a lot of people who hadn’t been spoken up for in a long time.”

Despite that imperative to listen to the frustrations of the American people, she suggested the administration is not giving equal weight to the complaints rising from these town halls.

“We’re paying attention to what people are saying, but we’re also paying attention to the process – who’s saying it, and how it’s being put out there,” she said.

She did not allege that the protesters are being paid, as the president and other aides have repeatedly claimed without evidence.

Huckabee-Sanders acknowledged polls showing widespread dissatisfaction with the president, but she predicted those feelings would change once Trump’s economic policies are in place.

“When people start to see and feel the impact at the pocket bookI think those numbers will go up,” she said.

Speaking at CPAC on Thursday night, Vice President Mike Pence was more dismissive of the message coming from town hall attendees fearful of losing health insurance coverage.

"Despite the best efforts of liberal activists at town halls, the American people know better. Obamacare has failed and Obamacare must go," he said.

Recent polls show public support for the Affordable Care Act has grown since November, and desire for a repeal without a comprehensive replacement is falling.

Matt Dallek, author of “The Right Moment: Ronald Reagan’s First Victory and the Decisive Turning Point in American Politics,” said the administration’s perspective on town halls and protests is emblematic of a governing strategy that has so far appealed mainly to Trump’s base.

“’The people’ in the definition of the White House are basically the 38-40 percent who are diehard supporters,” said Dallek, an associate professor at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management.

“That does ignore the genuine divisions in the country and the anger that people feel,” he said.

For Trump or a newly-reelected Republican senator, this anger may not be cause for immediate concern. Members facing reelection fights in competitive districts in 2018 need to at least look like they are listening, though.

“They run the risk of being perceived as being divorced from these people’s problems and worries,” Dallek said.

According to Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak, GOP lawmakers would be unwise to dismiss the town halls completely, but the heated events are not necessarily representative of the prevailing sentiments in their districts.

“It’s unwise to be absolutist about it,” he said. “They’re not meaningless but they’re not the most important thing.”

While the anger motivating them is genuine, these town hall disruptions and protests are being supported by liberal activist organizations. One group of former Democratic congressional staffers has compiled a guidebook for grassroots advocates to make their voices heard, including an entire toolkit of town hall strategies.

“It’s really not about holding your member of Congress accountable It’s about trying to embarrass them,” Mackowiak said.

He pointed to Sen. Tom Cotton’s town hall in Arkansas as an example of a member allowing voters’ complaints to be heard and acknowledged, even if he could not answer all of their questions.

“Letting your constituents blow off steam can be productive,” he said.

John Cluverius, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Lowell who has studied how lawmakers respond to constituent contacts and public opinion, said the skepticism many Republicans have shown about the legitimacy of the opposition is not unusual.

“My research shows that legislators tend to dismiss high-volume grassroots advocacy as astroturf, which makes sense if you consider that Republican members of Congress are usually elected from Republican districts where support for Trump is high,” he said.

Trump may have record low favorability among the general public, but his approval rating with GOP voters remains equal to or better than other recent Republican presidents at this point in their first terms. Members in Republican districts likely have polling showing the president is very popular with their constituents, so it is easy to brush off even the most vocal opposition.

“Members of Congress are getting all of these signals that their constituents support Trump, Republicans, and conservative policies, and then suddenly they see people they’ve never seen before at town halls advocating an agenda that counters all of the information they’ve received previously,” Cluverius said.

That only becomes dangerous for them if the town halls represent a broader, sustained mobilization of Democratic voters that will drive turnout in the midterms.

“There’s also the possibility that the administration’s dismissiveness only emboldens its opponents without activating its supporters,” he said.

Democrats are undoubtedly motivated, and the party is already taking steps to parlay that into electoral gains. In a video prepared for Saturday’s Democratic National Committee meeting, Clinton said the 66 million votes for her in November are now “fueling grassroots energy and activism.”

"Let resistance plus persistence equal progress for our party and our country," she said.

Jason Del Gandio, author of “Rhetoric for Radicals: A Handbook for 21st Century Activists,” warned that the Democratic establishment cannot assume everyone furious about Trump will vote for their candidates. Many progressives still hold the party responsible for putting Clinton on the ballot instead of someone who could beat Trump.

“They shouldn’t presume that the opposition to Trump is support for Democrats,” he said.

Del Gandio, an assistant professor of strategic communication at Temple University, identified tension within the anti-Trump movement between moderate elements that just want to rein Trump in, progressives who want to oust him, and radicals seeking fundamental restructuring of the political system. Democrats will need to navigate those internal conflicts to return to power.

However, Democratic strategist Matt McDermott insisted the party has reason to be optimistic.

“If anything, there is a risk for elected Democrats to underestimate the level of opposition to Trump,” he said. “Early research is showing that the protests and demonstrations that have taken place since the 2016 election appear to be awakening an audience that has previously shied away from such direct action.”

While Republicans are in some cases literally running from their anti-Trump constituents, the president was welcomed with open arms and thunderous applause at CPAC on Friday morning. The annual conference hosted Trump’s first major speech as a Republican politician in 2011, but he skipped the event last year to avoid a question-and-answer session and he was booed there in 2015.

It was clear Friday, as the crowd cheered his opposition to trade deals the party once championed, that the Republican Party is now Trump’s, whether members of Congress want to admit it or not.

“All of these years we've been together, and now you finally have a president, finally,” Trump said.

Though the GOP’s fortunes are inextricably linked to Trump now, Mackowiak cautioned against putting any more stock in the enthusiasm at CPAC than in the anger of the town hall protests.

“I think we can overvalue anecdotal evidence,” he said. The bases on both sides are united and excited, but that does not mean they will turn out in sufficient numbers in November 2018.

“The question is going to be what is the enthusiasm gap 18 months from now. A lot of that is going to depend on what the results of Trump’s policies are,” Mackowiak said.

As Huckabee-Sanders observed, much of what Trump promised is not yet in place. If, with the aid of a Republican Congress, he accomplishes tax reform, replaces Obamacare with something satisfactory, and signs new trade deals that boost the economy, the political environment next year could be very different than it is today.

The public response to those legislative actions will be instructive, Del Gandio said. Every social movement ebbs and flows, but if the president enacts the extreme agenda he campaigned on and is not met with further protests, that could mean it has died out.

If the sort of massive protests that have occurred nearly weekly, and at times daily, around the country since January 20 continue, Republicans risk being as shocked at the ballot box by the anger of the left as Democrats were by the manifestation of the outrage of the right last November.

“Republicans need to acknowledge the movement's sincerity of anger and adjust accordingly. If they don't, then they may find themselves on the losing end of a serious social conflict,” he said.

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