Ever since Donald Trump flubbed a question about former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke, pundits have wondered whether Duke’s support will hurt Trump at the polls. But looking back at Duke’s own electoral history, perhaps we should be asking a different question: Can the Democrats lure GOP voters to defeat a rogue Republican?
That’s what happened in Louisiana’s “Race from Hell” in 1991, when Duke ran for governor. And it just might provide a game plan for Hillary Clinton to defeat Trump in November, if she plays her cards right.
Back in 1991, Duke finished second to Democrat Edwin Edwards in the state’s multiparty primary. In the ensuing run-off between Duke and Edwards, GOP incumbent Buddy Roemer—the third-place finisher in the primary—endorsed Edwards, not Duke.
More importantly, so did three-quarters of Roemer’s supporters, who were heavily Republican. Many of them detested Edwards, who had faced multiple allegations of corruption and would eventually serve eight years in jail for bribery and extortion. Indeed, six of ten people who voted for Roemer thought that Edwards was a “crook.”
But the vast majority of them voted for Edwards anyway, swayed by the campaign’s most famous bumper sticker: “Vote for the Crook. It’s Important.” Designed by a Roemer supporter who feared a Duke victory, the sticker became so popular that Edwards affixed one to his own car.
Democrats realized that they couldn’t bring Republicans to their column just by harping on Duke’s long history of racist and anti-Semitic activity. They had to make a different case, pitched to voters who by and large loathed the Democratic candidate.
So they seized on a traditional election-year argument: a Duke victory would lead to job losses. Edwards’s campaign enlisted David Dixon, a key player in the construction of New Orleans’s Superdome, to argue that the city’s convention business would suffer if Duke won. So would many other industries, the Democrats predicted, because no one would want to invest in a state led by an ex-Klansman.
Democrats continued to hit Duke for his racist past, of course, which helped draw a record turnout from African-American voters. But the key to Edwards’s resounding triumph—and to the repudiation of David Duke—lay in the appeal to white Republicans, who were more worried about Louisiana’s economic health. In exit polls, over two-thirds of Edwards’s supporters named “the economy” as the most important issue in the runoff election.
The lesson for Democrats in 2016 seems clear. In the event of a Clinton-Trump matchup, it may not be enough to underline Trump’s odious personal qualities or his obvious lack of qualifications for the White House. Already, there are concerns that Trump is unique among the Republican candidates in his ability to win crossover votes from culturally conservative blue-collar workers who have traditionally aligned with the Democrats. Democrats will have to take Trump down the wonky way—by showing how his policies would ruin the American economy. But they may also have to admit that Republicans find Clinton odious, persuading GOP voters to cast a ballot for her even as they hold their noses.
Whatever its ugly racial dimensions, Trump’s proposed wall between the United States and Mexico would cost between $400 billion and $600 billion over the next 20 years. His tax-cut plan would lose a whopping $10 trillion in tax revenue during the next decade, even operating on the dubious assumption of much faster economic growth, and would certainly exacerbate income inequality. According to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, Trump’s tax cuts would increase the ratio between federal debt and gross national product by 70 percent. Freezing immigration and starting a trade war with China will also have adverse economic effects. All in all, it’s likely a Trump presidency will plunge the U.S. into a recession.
But that appeal may not work unless Democrats fess up to Clinton’s own negatives among GOP voters. Polls consistently show that Republicans see her as dishonest. If Democrats want to shore up some of the Republican vote, their best bet might be an honest admission of Clinton’s downsides. Then, taking a page from Edwin Edwards, they can tell Republicans that the alternative—in this case, Donald Trump—would be a whole lot worse.
To be sure, Hillary Clinton isn’t Edwin Edwards, just as Donald Trump isn’t David Duke. Indeed, Edwards’s crude language and multiple marriages conjure Trump more than Clinton. And no matter what you say about Trump’s bigotry—including his proposal to ban Muslims from America—it still doesn’t rise to the racism of David Duke.
But in the general election, Clinton and Democrats may find themselves in a position where they need to convince Republicans that Trump would hurt the country as a whole. They should look to how Edwards beat Duke.