Sixteen months ago, no one predicted Donald Trump would become the favorite for the Republican presidential nomination. But back in 2014, a seemingly random Illinois House race should have been an early indicator of an angry electorate that would be receptive to the billionaire businessman’s anti-establishment profile and message.
Republican Mike Bost gained national attention last election cycle for a video of him ranting on the Illinois House floor, which fueled Democratic optimism about holding the seat in the face of a challenging political climate.
The video clip from May 2012 showed Bost screaming, throwing papers into the air, and quoting Moses, “Let my people go!” It was visual perfection for a Democratic Party that often portrays Republican politicians as unhinged ideologues.
Democrats used it as the basis for their #MeltdownMike campaign in the 12th District and they even used the footage to exemplify a dysfunctional Congress for a television ad for Rep. Rick Nolan (Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party) in northern Minnesota.
But instead of dooming Bost’s candidacy, the video helped him defeat Democratic Rep. Bill Enyart, 53 percent to 42 percent, in a district President Barack Obama carried twice, winning a seat Republicans hadn’t held since before World War II.
What looked like an angry liability to many Washington observers was actually an asset in downstate Illinois, where voters were frustrated with Obama, Chicago, the state’s capital of Springfield and Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn.
“The people who responded to Bost are the same people attracted to Trump,” according to a Democratic operative involved in the 2014 race in the 12th District.
Nearly 80 percent of the population is white, according to CQ Roll Call’s Politics in America, just 21 percent have a college education, and the median income is $42,000 — the second lowest figure of any district in the state.
Foretelling today’s climate
Trump finished first in Illinois’s March 15 statewide presidential primary with 39 percent and swept all three delegate positions in Bost’s district.
Democrats over-estimated the impact of that Bost video and under-estimated the mood of the electorate, which could have broader lessons for a potential general election against Trump.
“It’s very easy to view him as a cartoon character,” said one Democratic strategist about Bost after last year’s race. “But he is a pretty damn good fit for the district.”
Whether Democrats were overconfident or overplayed their hand on the video is debated among people involved in the race, but one thing is clear: they couldn’t resist the rant.
“We didn’t believe polling that said people didn’t care about the meltdown,” recalled a Democratic operative recently. Party strategists received some encouraging feedback in focus groups, but it was never an overwhelming hit against Bost.
Looking back, the Democratic ads were a consistent reminder to a group of angry voters that Bost was mad too. Even though the Republican didn’t run as an angry candidate, he leaned into the messaging.
When the Democratic attack ads hit the airwaves in the fall of 2014, the Bost campaign waited a few days to switch from a positive ad to a response, even though the response ad was filmed and completed earlier that summer.
Like Bost, Trump is tapping into a segment of the electorate that is upset about feeling left behind or left out.
“I bring rage out. I do bring rage out. I always have,” Trump said in a recent interview with Bob Woodward of The Washington Post, “I think it was, I don’t know if that’s an asset or a liability, but whatever it is, I do. I also bring great unity out, ultimately.”
Bost’s election should be a warning to not disregard voter anger in 2016, but it’s not all bad news for Democrats this year.
Not so fast
Even though the district was drawn by Democrats to elect a Democrat prior to the 2012 elections, party strategists quickly realized the region was trending against them after the new lines were in place. And Democratic operatives have already taken the 12th District off their list of takeover targets this year in order to focus on more suburban and diverse districts across the country.
While Democrats couldn’t turn Bost’s image upside down — drive his unfavorable rating higher than his favorable rating — Trump is already well beyond that point in most parts of the country. A Feb. 26-March 3 Gallup poll showed the businessman with a 30 percent favorable/63 percent unfavorable rating among adults nationwide.
Democrats also believe that unlike those downstate Illinois voters who only had Democrats in power to blame, the anger will be broader this year across the country. For example, some Democratic strategists believe their party will benefit from anger in Michigan, where they hold GOP Gov. Rick Snyder responsible for the water crisis in Flint and the party is targeting a trio of congressional districts.
But for readers or strategists who live inside the Beltway or in affluent areas, Bost’s election should prompt a pause before assuming that angry voters won’t impact the general election.