2016: Nominees are billionaire, millionaire year of populism

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Posted: May 09, 2016 3:44 AM
2016: Nominees are billionaire, millionaire year of populism

ST. CLAIRSVILLE, Ohio (AP) — Pick a president: New York multimillionaire or New York multibillionaire.

In Ohio River coal country, Nelson Travis says he begrudgingly will choose the billionaire: real estate mogul Donald Trump. Nonetheless, Travis argues, neither the presumptive Republican nominee nor Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton 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, a 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, 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.

The 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," explains Dave "Mudcat" Saunders, a Democratic strategist who helped craft 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 upper hand with the most frustrated voters. 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. He promises to "take care of people" and not cut Social Security or Medicare.

"Even though he's rich, and he's always been rich, he's just like Bob in the country," says Terri Reschley, 62, of Indianola, Iowa.

Clinton offers a different style, though aimed at the same voters. She talks about raising minimum wages, improving education and creating jobs, peppering her remarks with anecdotes of people she meets campaigning. Clinton also speaks of her mother's tough childhood and her small-businessman father's efforts to "provide us with a middle-class life."

Although nearly a sure bet to clinch the Democratic nomination, she's still being dogged by a rival who rails against the "millionaire and billionaire class" embodied in Wall Street banks and a "corrupt" campaign finance system. Sanders harangues Clinton as a prime offender.

Primary results aren't necessarily predictive of November outcomes, but the divide was on display in Appalachia, where miners protested Clinton's statement in March that "we're going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business."

Clinton later said she misspoke. 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 has called out Trump for relying on mass rallies instead of one-on-one conversation with people. Her 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."

And she's 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 a necessity. Four years ago, President Barack Obama and Democrats painted Romney as wealthy and out of step.

Trump's wealth could be a Democratic line of attack again, said Katie Packer, a former Romney aide who now runs an anti-Trump political committee.

Packer cautioned, though, that Clinton is not the same messenger as Obama, who was still paying off student loans when he stepped on the national stage. "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."

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Lucey reported from Iowa. Follow Barrow and Lucey at https://twitter.com/BillBarrowAP and https://twitter.com/Catherine_Lucey.