The month of March staggered us. Joe Biden, with his campaign on a ventilator, was revived as the likely Democratic nominee. A soaring economy, primed in theory at least to spur an incumbent president to a second term, ran into a global pandemic. Paper riches fizzled in 50 million retirement plans. Donald Trump’s performance stuttered, as did his post-impeachment swagger.
If nothing else, 2020 has underscored the adage that a month, a week—a weekend—can be a lifetime in politics. Humility in analysis, and caution in augury, are advised. Yet somehow, amid the noise and fast-moving news-and-crisis cycle, there is clarity.
With Biden’s success in the primaries, lines are drawn. The presidential election will likely pit the Democratic herald of a younger, more tolerant, multiracial America against a Republican tribune of white fear and grievance. The outcome is uncertain. Both sides are seething. Texas Democrats turned out in huge numbers for the 2020 primary—but so did Texas Republicans, even though they did not have a contested primary fight at the top of their ticket.
In November, we will look in the mirror. Perhaps we are not that special people that we like to think we are: the defenders of freedom, conceived in liberty, and committed to the ideal that all men and women are created equal.
The stage is set for Americans to answer a question that has persisted for four years. Is Donald Trump an aberration? Or a sign of things to come?
On February 26, after claiming victory in the first three Democratic contests, Bernie Sanders was the party’s front-runner. Apple stores were open, spring training had begun for major league baseball, and the Dow stood at 27,000. The February jobs report would be robust. And when he was asked that day about the coronavirus, Trump declared, “We’re ready for it.” He boasted of how his government, by aggressively clamping down on the entry of foreign travelers, had capped the contagion at 15 cases.
By the middle of March, the list of iconic closings was unnerving: Disneyland and the Masters, the Statue of Liberty, Broadway, and baseball. The political terrain became otherworldly, with rallies, conventions, canvassing, caucuses—handshakes—proscribed or constricted.
Yet verities endure. Money talks. The presidency is a bully pulpit. Incumbency has its advantages. In the last 50 years, two-term presidencies—Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama—have been the norm, though Democrats are coming to believe that 2020 will be an outlier, like the 1980 realignment vote that sent Jimmy Carter packing, and the 1992 cycle that dispatched George H.W. Bush to early retirement in Kennebunkport.
And we now have data to supplement the verities. Almost half the states—24, as of March 14—staged their presidential primary contests before the viral peril curtailed public gatherings. From exit polls and turnout percentages, and the 2018 midterm election results, we can hazard some educated guesses.
For Democrats, there is good news. The data suggests we may be moving toward the reassembly of the latest great Democratic congregation—the Obama coalition that captured the White House, the Senate, and the House in 2008.
It is much more diverse than Trump’s coalition—more liberal, coastal, educated, younger, single, dark-skinned, urban, and female. The GOP base is more Southern, married, older, male, and white.
Before Obama’s 2008 campaign, only one Democratic presidential candidate managed to win more than 50 percent of the popular vote in the previous 10 elections—and that was Jimmy Carter, with 50.08 percent in 1976, in the wake of the Watergate scandal. Obama did it in 2008 and again in 2012.
But while Hillary Clinton beat Trump by more than 2.8 million in the popular vote, she also failed to fully gather the coalition in 2016. She topped out at 48 percent.
Black voters stayed home in significant numbers, as might be expected with Obama off the ticket. The percentage of black voters dropped from 66 percent of eligible voters in 2012 to 59 percent in 2016. And Clinton lost huge chunks of an important vestige of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s old New Deal coalition: white workers with no college education—especially men.
In 2008, with the nation suffering its greatest bout of economic turmoil since the Great Depression, John McCain lost among all male voters by 1 point. Four years later, Mitt Romney won their nod by 7 points. But Trump carried men by 11 points and beat Clinton among white men by 31 points. It was the worst performance among white men by any Democrat since the Reagan era.
The election of a black president, it turns out, was more divisive than it looked when the Obamas took the stage before 240,000 people at Grant Park in Chicago on election night 2008. Whites soon commenced to drift, in significant numbers, from the Democratic Party. According to the surveys of the Pew Research Center, the identification of white voters as Democrats or Republicans was evenly split when Obama took office. By 2010, whites were 12 points more likely to be Republican. And the most prominent members of the caravan of political refugees trudging rightward were white voters with no college education. They began the Obama years evenly split, but were 24 points more likely to declare for the GOP as the 2016 election began.
On Super Tuesday this year, CNN’s John King and MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki used their high-tech computerized whiteboards to focus on the famous working- and middle-class voters of Macomb County, a Detroit suburb. Ever since the emergence of the Reagan Democratic voting bloc in 1980, pollsters and pundits have treated Macomb County as a key bellwether of the national mood in presidential cycles, since it’s both ideologically volatile and broadly middle-class.
In the 2016 primaries, Clinton had split the vote there, winning by a little more than 1,000 votes on the way to losing Michigan to Sanders. This year, Biden trounced Sanders by 22,000 votes, along the way to a 262,000-vote statewide victory. Clearly, some portion of the Sanders vote in the 2016 primary represented a loathing for Hillary.
The reasons for this distaste were deep and complicated, but it would be naïve to suppose that the politics of racial and gender representation weren’t a major factor. Clinton ran a campaign that explicitly highlighted race and gender. She accepted her party’s nomination dressed in the all-white garb of a suffragette. Trump countered with vulgar references to Clinton, Republican rival Carly Fiorina, and broadcaster Megyn Kelly, and by inviting three women who have accused Bill Clinton of sexual abuse to sit in the audience at a presidential debate.
In analyzing contemporary American politics, scholars have identified a strain of “hostile sexism” that, when coupled with racism and nativism, helped spur the hegira of white male voters from the Democratic Party, contributing to Trump’s election. By raising the issues of gender and race so prominently in 2016, Clinton encouraged already biased voters to express their prejudice at the ballot box.
Two strongly related explanations have been offered for Trump’s success. The first involves the refrain of economic anxiety, heard so much during Trump’s surprising rise to power in 2016. This school of interpretation holds that “white working-class Americans were left behind during the economic recovery … and Trump’s populist economic message, focusing on protectionism and other policies to help working people, resonated with this feeling,” wrote political scientists Brian Schaffner, Matthew MacWilliams, and Tatishe Nteta in a 2018 paper published in Political Science Quarterly.
The second explanation stresses the uglier dynamics involved in mobilizing voters behind the grievance politics of gender and race. “Trump’s willingness to make explicitly racist and sexist appeals during the campaign, coupled with the presence of an African American president and the first major-party female nominee, made racism and sexism a dividing line,” Schaffner, MacWilliams, and Nteta observe—before concluding that this was, in all likelihood, the decisive determinant of the outcome in 2016. “While economic considerations were an important part of the story,” the authors write, “racial attitudes and sexism were much more strongly related to support for Trump.”
Some key tactical considerations emerge from this insight—including the notion that, in retrospect, Obama was wise to soft-pedal the issue of race. Political scientists John Sides, Michael Tesler, and Lynn Vavreck, in their book Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America, suggest that not all Obama supporters endorsed the view that blacks face systemic discrimination. Not all were happy with the new, multiracial America. The authors note that, in 2008, some 15 to 20 percent of white voters opposed interracial dating; but a fourth of that segment voted for Obama, even though the candidate himself is biracial.
Obama’s carefully calibrated efforts to bypass overt racial confrontation were clearly an early casualty of his coalition’s downfall. Whites now see themselves as an embattled race, and are increasingly prone to view their economic condition through a partisan prism. In good times like the past several years, with a bull market, low unemployment, and a world at relative peace, Americans have had the luxury of allowing partisan, xenophobic, racist, and sexist attitudes to rise to the fore. An early augur of this shift was the rise of the Tea Party in the 2010 election cycle, which managed to harness the rhetoric of anti-government austerity to a resurgent politics of white identity on the right.
Trump was able to exploit this mood of white resentment to dramatic effect on Election Day 2016. He took the big prizes that Republicans must win to claim the presidency—Florida, Texas, and Ohio—but what nudged him over the top were narrow wins in Michigan (by 10,704 votes), Wisconsin (22,748 votes), and Pennsylvania (44,292 votes). All three of these Great Lakes states had gone Democratic in the previous six presidential elections. Had Clinton held them, she would have won.
She lost, in part, because of white flight—but also because elements of the Obama coalition, particularly black voters, didn’t turn out to vote for her as they did for Obama. Sides and his colleagues note in Identity Crisis that Obama won Ohio in 2012 by 3 points; Clinton lost it by 8. Obama won Iowa by 6; Clinton lost it by 10. Obama won Michigan by 9, Pennsylvania by 6, and Wisconsin by 7—Clinton lost all three.
The percentage of black voters dropped from 66 percent of eligible voters in 2012 to 59 percent in 2016, according to scholarly estimates—reflecting both an enthusiasm gap at the top of the Democratic ticket, as well as long-standing Republican efforts to suppress the vote in minority communities. This drop-off especially hurt in Michigan and Wisconsin, where the black vote dropped by more than 12 percent.
The racial dynamics underlying the 2016 vote make for a pretty straightforward chapter in the 2020 Biden playbook. The challenge facing the Democratic nominee in 2020 is to minimize his losses among white working-class families while compensating with high turnout elsewhere. A big element of this challenge will be boosting Democratic turnout in key suburban districts. The authors of Identity Crisis show how Trump’s election has opened new suburban fields for Democrats, which may make up for the party’s continued weakness among white voters from the working class.
In the 2014 midterm elections, the authors note, the GOP carried white voters with college degrees by 18 points—the same margin by which they captured those white voters without degrees. In the 2018 midterms, however, Democrats made huge gains among white voters with college educations—carrying them by 5 points, a net turn of 23 points. The Democrats did even better with white, college-educated women, who voted Democratic, 59 to 39 percent.
If noncollege-educated white voters had been a touch more liberal in 2016 (enough to match their college-educated white counterparts), Clinton would have won the popular vote by twice as large a margin, Schaffner and his colleagues determined. “Given the narrowness with which Clinton lost states such as Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Florida,” they concluded, “such a shift could have had a dramatic effect in terms of the Electoral College outcome.”
Overall, the Democratic advantage among white men and women voters with college degrees has grown under Trump. Citing Pew Research Center polls, the authors note that in the 2014 midterm vote, the Democratic margin in this demographic was just 1 point. In 2016, it rose to 5 points, and shot up to 13 points in 2017. These increases—also cited in Identity Crisis—outpaced the Republican gains among whites with no college degree, and showed dramatic results in the 2018 midterms, when Democratic victories in the suburbs flipped the House of Representatives.
The scale of this reversal was dramatic—and makes for especially instructive reading for Democrats crafting strategies for the coming general election. Republicans held 69 of 73 contested congressional seats in suburban or exurban communities going into the 2018 election. When the carnage was over, they had lost 38 of them, and Nancy Pelosi was speaker of the House. “Trump became the drag that brought many of them down,” Washington Post political writer Dan Balz concluded in his postelection analysis.
On election night 2018, the faces of liberal-leaning commentators on MSNBC and elsewhere were grim as early returns failed to signal that a massive blue wave was on its way. As the night wore on, though, the liberal commentariat grew more jubilant, thanks mostly to a new corps of Democratic candidates—especially women—winning in the suburbs of Virginia, the Midwest, and, ultimately, California.
There are signs that the pattern is holding this year as well. Republican activist Sarah Longwell—executive director of a Never Trump group called Defending Democracy Together—noted in The New York Times how turnout in the suburbs of Virginia (74 percent higher) and Texas (87 percent higher) leaped in the 2020 primaries, when compared to 2016.
Biden is particularly suited to appeal to these voters, as they are congenitally more moderate and looking “simply for a Democrat they could trust to govern responsibly and end the chaos of Mr. Trump’s presidency,” wrote Longwell.
How big is the anti-Trump vote among Republicans? In this year’s New Hampshire primary, where the towns in the state’s southern tier are suburbs of Boston, there was an alarming asterisk for the president: He won less than 85 percent of the Republican vote in an all-but uncontested primary. Those voters may not go for Biden in November, but that is about 10 points below the margin that campaign managers like to see. In the 2016 presidential election, according to the Pew Research Center, 92 percent of Republicans voted for Trump, just as 94 percent of Democrats voted for Clinton. With the coronavirus crisis triggering a dramatic economic slowdown, Trump could be looking at a significant defection of GOP voters toward a moderate Democratic standard-bearer—much as John McCain did in the crisis-driven balloting of 2008.
In assessing how Joe Biden might disrupt the politics of white grievance in the Trump years, it’s well worth recalling that Barack Obama selected him as his running mate in 2008 precisely to reassure white working-class voters who might otherwise be averse to voting for a black candidate for the presidency. Biden hails from a white working-class background in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and represented Delaware in the Senate, where he made a name, in part, by opposing forced busing as a tool for integration. But he was also the running mate and vice president of the first black American president. His 2020 candidacy was resuscitated by black voters in South Carolina and across the South on Super Tuesday. He seems suited—at least on paper—to win over white suburban and working-class voters without losing their black counterparts.
At the same time, there is plenty in Biden’s half-century’s worth of experience in politics and government that can be made to undermine such appeals. Biden said and did many things in the Reagan era that, when touted by Republican opposition research, could well alienate minority voters next fall. It was not lost on Democratic strategists that Trump aired a reelection ad during this year’s Super Bowl to pitch for black votes. They know from the bitter experience of 2016 that a slip of just 1 or 2 percent in African American support for their candidate could have a fateful impact.
Much has been made on social media of Biden’s awkward enunciations, and of his largely imperceptible response to the coronavirus crisis. But the Clintons and Obama were also given to unfortunate solecisms—ones that proved especially costly when it came to courting the white working-class vote. Clinton never really recovered from calling working-class voters who backed Trump “deplorables,” while Obama also made the regrettable observation that working-class conservatives “cling to” the solace of God and guns in the face of declining economic fortunes. (It’s significant as well that both of these reported gaffes were delivered before audiences of Democratic fundraisers—i.e., crowds that were anything but working class.) Biden may stumble over words, but he probably won’t malign working people.
The worry over Biden’s halting delivery in debates and campaign events also doubles as concern over Biden’s age. No president in office, and only 14 in retirement, ever lived to reach 78—the age that a president-elect Biden would be when he takes the oath of office and begins his presidency. Yet here again, it is a matter of alternatives. Sanders is even older than Biden, and Trump will turn 74 in June; he was the oldest president-elect when he took office and, if he wins and survives a second term, will pass Reagan as the oldest ever to occupy the Oval Office.
For Never Trump Republicans, opposed to Trump and alarmed at the populist appeal of Bernie Sanders, “voting for Mr. Biden is the least-bad option,” wrote Longwell. He is “a backstop against the political insanity of the right and the left.” He may not offer “a galvanizing vision for the future,” but he stands for “basic human decency.”
In 2002, I took an opportunity to compliment White House strategist Karl Rove on the commanding lead that President Bush had taken in the polls as they approached their reelection campaign in 2004.
Don’t sell the Democrats short, Rove said: “One underestimates at his peril the dormant strength of the nation’s oldest and largest political party.”
Much the same can be said about today’s Republicans. Though not as old or large, the Republican Party is enthusiastic, monolithic, better-funded, and has its usual cold, analytic eye focused intently on what needs to be done to get power, and hold onto it. And it has, ever since the election of Richard Nixon in 1968, been exceptionally adept at exploiting white grievance and resentment.
At the same time, however, Republicans face an uncertain future. Because the percentage of white Americans has slipped from three-fourths of the United States in 1990 to some 60 percent of the country now (and because white Americans are generally older), the Democrats would seem to have a long-term advantage. Eventually—perhaps even this year—the demographic transformation of the United States will transform the Electoral College.
There are five states—California, Texas, Nevada, Hawaii, and New Mexico, as well as the District of Columbia—in which whites are now minorities. This list of majority-minority states will be joined in the coming decade by Arizona, Florida, Georgia, and Maryland, and by New York and New Jersey soon thereafter.
As population centers shift, predicting what the Electoral College will look like in the 2032 election is an uncertain exercise. But as of now, this collection of 11 states accounts for 220 of the 270 electoral votes needed to elect a president. Whites will still be the single biggest racial group in the United States, but should slip from majority to plurality status sometime before 2050.
This long-prophesied emerging Democratic majority has made Republican strategists fret, and their Democratic counterparts giddy. Republicans are no dummies; their record of winning presidential elections without capturing the overall popular vote surely demonstrates that. But fundraising, organizational skills, and a knack for skullduggery will only go so far over the long haul.
In the wake of Obama’s 2012 victory, a group of Republican leaders conducted a “Growth and Opportunity Project”—a postmortem examination of the results—which concluded that the party needed to drop its long-standing identity as a bastion of aging white men. From 1968 to 1988, the study reported, Republicans won five out of six elections, averaging 417 electoral votes to the Democratic Party’s 113. But then Democrats won four of the six elections before Trump’s 2016 squeaker, with an average yield of 327 electoral votes to 211 for the GOP.
There were reasons for this change in fortune, the study concluded, and America’s shifting complexion was at or near the top of the list. “Unless changes are made, it will be increasingly difficult for Republicans to win another presidential election in the near future,” the authors wrote. “Demographic changes add to the urgency of recognizing how precarious our position has become.”
In 2016, against a weak opponent, Trump capitalized on racial and nativist fears. But did he delay the inevitable decline of a pro-white party? Or has he set Republicans on a long-term course, using hate to cling to power? Will the American people reward the GOP’s full embrace of white grievance politics, or punish the party for it? Will Biden be the candidate he looks to be on paper, poised both to appeal to nonwhite voters alarmed by the depredations they’ve suffered in the Trump years, while also reassuring white working-class voters that he’s one of them, and can be counted on to protect their economic interests?
In assessing this crucial set of questions, it’s useful to revisit just how the Republican Party painted itself into a white corner. It was a gradual transformation. For 50 years after the Civil War, with few exceptions, the victorious “war party” maintained its grip on Congress and the White House. After a relatively brief progressive interlude, the Republicans returned to power in the Roaring ’20s. It took Franklin Roosevelt, and his leadership in the Great Depression and World War II, to put the Democrats back in control for an extended stretch.
Until the mid-1960s, the party of Lincoln was a favorite of black America. Republican lawmakers helped craft and pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Then the party failed a test of character. The breakup of the erstwhile Democratic Solid South over passage of the civil rights laws opened the region to Republican opportunism. In fairly short order, the Republicans forgot Lincoln and became the new home of aggrieved Southern whites. Of the 22 U.S. senators now representing states of the old Confederacy, only three are Democrats.
But it’s hard to tell if the Republicans captured the South, or the South captured the Republicans. The moderate and/or Northern wing of the party has withered. It once produced lions like Jacob Javits of New York, Mark Hatfield of Oregon, Richard Nixon of California, and Warren Rudman of New Hampshire. Today, of the 22 senators from the West Coast and Northeast, only one—Senator Susan Collins of Maine—is a Republican.
There’s another recent parable in the politics of white grievance that the national GOP would do well to take to heart as it seeks to adapt to broader demographic shifts in the country. In 1994, California Republicans—most notably Governor Pete Wilson—leaned hard into an anti-immigrant platform. They embraced Proposition 187, a successful ballot measure that aimed to curtail state services for undocumented immigrants.
This was a dramatic reversal of GOP tactics. It seemed smart at the time, as Wilson coasted to reelection in 1994. Reagan’s America had appealed to Hispanic voters, and Reagan himself signed a landmark reform law that granted amnesty to millions of undocumented immigrants in 1986. In 1988, I went door to door in Orange County, California—then the home of Republican conservatism—with two young Reagan-era congressmen, Representatives Dana Rohrabacher and Christopher Cox. They targeted, and were warmly welcomed by, Hispanic and Asian American working families, homeowners, and small businesspeople. They bonded with such supporters over shared family values and conservative beliefs about work and opportunity. Back in Washington, Republicans like conservative strategist and anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist strove to secure their allegiance, and that of other ethnic groups like Muslim Americans, in the years after Reagan left office.
But Proposition 187 was a wake-up call to California’s slumbering Hispanic community that it needed to get politically active—and it signaled just as strongly that the Democrats were more welcoming than Republicans. The anti-immigration movement was different from an environmental referendum or a tax cut—it was about taking things away and hurting people because their skin was darker, their accent was different, and their parents came from another place.
There is no bigger prize in presidential politics than California, with its 55 electoral votes and trend-setting culture and economy. In the late twentieth century, as Republicans put Californians on all but two national tickets from 1952 to 1984, the state went Republican in nine of 11 presidential elections that preceded Proposition 187. Since 1992, and the advent of anti-immigration politics, it’s gone to the Democrats in every single election.
There are signs that Texas, due to changing demographics, may be the next Electoral College giant to turn from red, if not to blue, then at least to purple. The notion that Texas is competitive is, for Democrats, a potential harbinger of broader shifts in the electorate: No Democrat has been elected to statewide office in Texas since 1994; no Democratic presidential candidate has carried the state since Jimmy Carter.
It’s not outlandish to think that the Texas electorate could change dramatically this year. Though former Democratic Congressman Beto O’Rourke ultimately lost the Senate race against Republican Ted Cruz in 2018, he came within 3 points of upsetting the incumbent, and Democrats nurture hope that Texas may follow in the steps of Virginia—where another bookend of the Confederacy has traveled from red to purple to blue. Turnout in the Democratic primary was up, the state and national parties are targeting half a dozen suburban congressional districts, and two of every five Texans is now under 30. At the very least, a competitive Texas will force Republicans to spend money in defense of their base, instead of carrying the fight exclusively to the Great Lakes battlegrounds.
Given such opportunities before, however, the Democrats failed to capitalize. Historians may give Obama high marks for navigating out of the worst parts of the 2008 financial crash, the passage of the Affordable Care Act, and his dignified and ethical performance as president. But presidents are politicians, and in the politics of succession, Obama failed miserably.
Former Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean had a 50-state strategy to build the party’s grassroots organization and to mount competitive races throughout the country. In his first term as president, Obama made scores of trips to the swing states he would need for reelection: Virginia, Florida, Ohio, Nevada, and Colorado. He was a fixture in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. But by my count, over his eight years as president, he visited Kentucky, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Nebraska, Kansas, Montana, Arkansas, and South Dakota but once. He went twice to South Carolina, twice to Oklahoma, and just three times to West Virginia and Alabama. He went to Utah once, Idaho once, and Wyoming not at all. He visited Texas 15 times, but generally for fundraisers.
The result was predictable—and devastating to the party’s longer-term standing and organizing efforts. On Obama’s watch, the Democratic Party lost a dozen U.S. Senate seats, 13 governorships, 816 seats in state legislatures—and the White House to Donald Trump.
Obama’s election seemed, for an interlude, to have borne out the old abolitionist axiom that the arc of the moral universe bends slowly, but it bends inevitably toward justice. The 2008 financial crisis gave the Democrats control of the White House, House, and Senate, and they did great things with that power: saving the U.S. auto industry, passing the ACA, expanding Medicaid, and making the tax code fairer.
But Democrats are generally better at palliatives—at easing your pain than at curing the malady. The archives of the Clinton presidency, of Robert Reich’s Labor Department, and leaders of Congress like Ted Kennedy are filled with forgotten plans for worker retraining programs and other remedies for globalization and the decline of American manufacturing.
The Democrats supported two booming sectors—finance and tech—but many of the big donors in both industries favored free-trade deals like NAFTA, and the low wages brought by legal, and illegal, immigration. Obama’s cool was an asset as he campaigned for the presidency during the fall of 2008. His advisers—mostly Wall Street types—waved him off any response to the crisis that might frighten fellow investors, let alone come off as populist. The Tea Party Republicans exploited that lapse. He may well have done better, in the larger political picture, to have thrown a few bankers in jail.
It is difficult to say what Trump would have done, had he been in the White House in that chaotic season when Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers failed and the other Wall Street investment banks seemed next. With the arrival of the coronavirus, we may now find out. The front pages carry warnings of recession—and Trump has mostly sought to stave off that specter with a series of tax cuts and Fed rate cuts aimed at calming a jittery investment sector.
But we know what Trump did on the outside of power, striving to get in. Exploiting nativist fears, calling for black protesters to be beaten up, Trump was able to ignite latent feelings—to “activate long-standing sentiments,” as Sides and his fellow authors put it—that other groups were getting favored treatment over white Americans. Already Trump and several prominent conservatives are starting a similar scapegoating campaign around the coronavirus crisis, making it appear to be the handiwork of sinister geopolitical rivals in China and North Korea.
Such efforts have a long-standing pedigree in American politics, especially on the right. “Trump tapped into beliefs, ideas, and anxieties that were already present and even well established within the party. His support was hiding in plain sight,” Sides and his colleagues wrote. “The importance of economic insecurity was most apparent when economic sentiments were refracted through group identities. Worries about losing a job were less strongly associated with Trump support than were concerns about whites losing jobs to minorities.” The authors call this “racialized economics.”
Can Trump make this tactic work again? Will rank scapegoating suffice to dispel Trump’s responsibility for an economic downturn on his watch that critics are saying he’s exacerbated via his negligent preparation for the coronavirus pandemic?
We’ll know the answer by November. There are two kinds of elections, says Tad Devine: change elections, and referenda on incumbents. “Last time out was a change election. It is all about Trump this time,” says Devine, the chief strategist for the Sanders 2016 campaign.
“The president is vulnerable. Look at his reelect number—the percentage of people who will vote for another term. That is the one that fascinates me. He consistently has not been able to reach 50 percent—while the number of people who say they will absolutely, under no condition vote to reelect him is 50 percent or above.”
“On the other hand,” says Devine, “the guy is ferocious. He has no boundaries—including that which got him impeached—using his office for his political advantage. And he has enormous financial resources this time.”
Gathered around the long oval table, munching on chips and veggie sandwiches in a noontime political science seminar, a dozen of the brightest students at Vanderbilt University were asked to name the most important challenge confronting their generation.
Was it Islamic fundamentalism? Mass shootings? Global warming? Donald Trump?
No. These were all concerns, but the biggest threat to their happiness, these fourth-year students said, was maintaining their humanity in the face of sweeping technological change.
They jostled to offer examples: Employers buying robots to replace human workers. Truth challenged by counterfeit imagery. Smartphones wrecking their attention spans. Estrangement from the natural environment. Social media sites that harvest and sell their thoughts, robbing them of privacy. Internet pornography recasting desire. Political discourse twisted by bots and trolls. Commercial apps mining online sessions and using the findings to manipulate their longings.
How would they seek to meet these challenges? They shrugged and shook their heads. It was all so overwhelming. Technological transformation seemed ungovernable.
March has brought us verities, data, and a plague—together with a new set of questions that are already reshaping the 2020 campaign. How many Never Trump Republicans will stay home, or pull the lever in their voting booths for Democratic candidates in November? Will black and Hispanic and Asian American voters be motivated by their distaste for Trump to turn out on Election Day with the zeal they displayed in the Obama years? Will the chaos in the stock market caused by the coronavirus crisis rouse formerly complacent voters who had otherwise been disinclined to change horses in Washington? Are we headed for a recession that will, as in 2008, bring white voters back into the Democratic fold?
Even as a referendum on Trump and his presidency, the 2020 election will say much about the future—about the prospect of deep and abiding change. And, in the actions of younger voters on Election Day, we will likely get a strong sign of whether Trumpism is an aberration, or a new and permanent addition to our politics.
So far, the auguries are mixed. In the opening round of contests, Biden was quite weak among Democrats under the age of 45, as the website FiveThirtyEight notes, and he finished with single digits among them in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada.
This is not yet cause for despair among Democrats. Other candidates have bounced back from such showings. In 2016, Clinton lost to Sanders among young voters in New Hampshire by even greater margins than Biden lost to the Vermont senator in 2020. She went on to beat Trump in the popular vote in the fall in part because voters under 30—percentage-wise—were her strongest backers, handing him a 20-point defeat.
For Democrats, the problem with younger supporters is not their allegiance, but their commitment. Many can’t be bothered to vote. Those voters under 30 who went for Clinton by a huge margin made only 13 percent of the electorate.
Even in 2008, when Obama ran a campaign of hope pitched at a growing demographic of younger voters, senior citizens were three times more likely to vote than voters under 30.
Some Sanders backers have warned that the senator’s younger voters will stay home in November if the senator should lose the nomination fight, and if his left-leaning platform is dismissed by the party establishment.
Devine, the 2016 Sanders strategist, isn’t so worried. “I think there is always a concern that people who feel strongly about a losing candidate will stay home,” he said, “but I don’t think it will be anywhere where it was last time. People want to defeat Donald Trump.”
Joel Benenson, who was a Clinton pollster and strategist in 2016, agrees with his former rival. Stock in Sanders is overvalued, he says. “When Obama ran against Hillary [in 2008], they were both 100,000 or so shy of 18 million votes” in the Democratic primaries. “In 2016, Hillary got 17 million votes, and Bernie got 13.5 million votes.” This year, Sanders has failed to expand his 2016 coalition. “Where is the revolution?” Benenson asks.
Meanwhile, activists in the party’s progressive wing have seen, in the first three years of Trump, the price of failure, or apathy, in November. “The second time around, people won’t feel so cavalier,” said Benenson. “The stakes are high because of Donald Trump. If he gets elected to a second term because they sit out the general election—well, that’s on them.”