WASHINGTON — If Donald Trump fights his way to the Republican nomination, there’s evidence showing he could also ride his populist, outsider wave right onto the lawn at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
The freshest clues lie in election results from Super Tuesday, especially in moderate Massachusetts, where the casino and real estate mogul won a stunning 31-point victory. It was his largest margin of the seven states he won Tuesday.
Trump won half of the unaffiliated Bay State voters who came out, exit polls showed. His populist rhetoric attracted the most voters making less than $50,000 a year.
Trump may not have a pickup truck, but he is riding the same wave of discontent that helped propel Scott Brown to the US Senate from Massachusetts in 2010. Brown on Wednesday told the Globe he recognizes the warning signs for the Democratic Party in Trump’s candidacy.
Brown and other Trump boosters say they can imagine a Ronald Reagan-type scenario that sweeps through the nation on the backs of white working-class voters who either stay home each year or typically trend Democratic.
“Those Reagan Democrats have woken up again,” said Brown, who predicted that pro-union, anti-free-trade Democrats along with a healthy chunk of independents would flock to the reality TV star in a general election. “They are ready to be reenergized.”
The tsunami of GOP establishment rebukes directed against Trump, Brown said, only make him stronger with downtrodden supporters who feel crushed by the system.
“When you are dissing Trump, they get more and more angry,” Brown said. But Brown also conditioned his remark, noting Trump still needs to prove he can reach out and unify the fractured party.
The durability of Trump’s appeal has confounded the best Republican minds for six months, and national polls show him within striking distance of Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.
Strategists warn against underestimating Trump. At the very least, the selection of Trump as the Republican standard bearer could scramble predictions in some traditionally key swing states.
Trump offers an antiestablishment message that can sound more like Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren than, say, Mitt Romney. Hedge fund managers are “getting away with murder” he says. He’s called Wall Street bankers “fat cats.” He’s labeled the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade accord “a horrible deal.”
Even some Democrats acknowledge his message could provide him inroads with blue-collar voters in Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania who’ve more recently voted for Democrats but relate to Trump’s maverick nature.
“Trump is like the grizzly bear in ‘The Revenant,’ ” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said, referring to the gritty survival movie that includes a memorable bear mauling. “When you attack him he goes crazy, and he does everything he can to pound you into the ground. And in every blue-collar bar in America, they cheer. Because that’s exactly what they want in a leader.”
Top Clinton boosters say the former secretary of state, if indeed she faces Trump, must convince lower income voters that his policies wouldn’t improve their lot in life.
“When working class voters learn more about Trump’s record on issues involving wages — for example, the minimum wage — they may rethink whether he’s really the right person for them,” said Geoff Garin, a pollster for Clinton’s super PAC Priorities USA. “Trump’s record and positions on economic issues may end up being a reason that may cause blue-collar voters to rethink whether he’s someone who would look out for them.”
He disputed the notion that there are large swaths of working-class Democrats ready to defect to the Republican Party.
“Today we call Reagan Democrats ‘Republicans,’ ” he said.
Clinton’s plan to take on Trump was already on display during her victory speech Tuesday night, when she called out to economically devastated Rust Belt cities.
“We can break down the barriers that face working class families across America, especially in struggling Rust Belt communities and small, Appalachian towns that have been hollowed out by lost jobs and lost hope,” Clinton said from her election night party in Miami. “Families who for generations kept our lights on and our factories running.”
And while few at this point believe that Clinton would actually lose Massachusetts to Trump in a general election, she has struggled — even in her primary race — to attract those working class Democrats who could be drawn to Trump.
“If Democrats take solace that this wrecking ball named Trump is swinging through the Republican Party, get ready for the wrecking ball that is going to go through the Democratic Party if he’s the nominee,” said Ari Fleischer, a former White House press secretary for President George W. Bush who has been predicting that Trump could be the GOP nominee.
“Hillary’s hold over working blue-collar Democrats who are worried about the economy is tenuous,” he said. “And many of them will join Trump.”
Instead, the lower income voters on the Democratic side have picked rival Bernie Sanders — and did so in Massachusetts Tuesday night as well. The only income category Clinton won in the state was voters who make more than $100,000 a year.
“You can see crossover characteristics in Sanders and Trump voters,” said Phil Cox, a Republican strategist and former executive director to the Republican Governors Association. “They are disaffected and believe the current system is broken.
“Trump has demonstrated a broad appeal among the strong majority of Republican primary voters who think Washington is broken,” Cox said. “His appeal cuts across ideological, geographic, and socio-economic groups. This same disaffection applies to so-called Reagan Democrats as well.”
The last time a place like Massachusetts voted for a Republican for president was in 1984, when Reagan swept the country, winning every state except Minnesota and the District of Columbia. The Bay State also supported Reagan in 1980.
Democratic and Republican strategists agree that even if Trump can make inroads in states that typically vote for Democrats in the presidential election, he would also be playing defense in others states that are typically red.
Those would include places like Arizona that have large Hispanic populations, a voting bloc Trump appears to have alienated with his immigration proposals.