David Moscrop, Ph.D., is a #FESFellow2020. This is his third piece in a series on social democracy and the U.S. elections.
The 2020 U.S. presidential election is the 59th time Americans will elect a president. Of the nearly five dozen races since 1788, roughly a fifth of them have been close.
The closest presidential race remains the 1876 election in which Rutherford B. Hayes beat Samuel Tilden by one vote in the electoral college despite losing the popular vote by 3 percent. That election was settled by what’s known as the “Compromise of 1877,” in which southern Democrats in Congress allied with Republicans and Hayes to make him president in return for help securing the South for Democratic control. The compromise effectively ended the Reconstruction era and further opened up space for Democrats in the South to usher in racist, anti-Black laws whose legacy persist today, nearly sixty years after the civil rights movement took hold.
In 1960, John F. Kennedy bested Richard Nixon by what ended up being 84 electoral votes, but it was a close race to the finish with Kennedy leading by 0.2 percent in the popular vote and Nixon not conceding until the next day. In 2000, George W. Bush defeated Al Gore by just five electoral votes, though the latter carried by popular vote by more than 2 percent. Those who lived through that era remember the tight race, the hanging chads, and the Florida recount. History will long remember the Supreme Court stopping that Florida recount vote on a 5-4 ruling, handing the Republicans the presidency—and, perhaps, providing President Trump with a model to challenge the 2020 race. Bush went on to win a close re-election contest against John Kerry, winning by only 35 electoral college votes—though he took the popular vote that time.
The 2020 contest between Donald Trump and Joe Biden is far from over, and the president is doing everything he can to not only catch up to Biden in opinion polls and ballots cast, but also to undermine the election and suppress the vote. Yet a look at the fundamentals of the election suggests it may not end up as one the country’s close races.
In 2016, Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton with 306 electoral college votes to her 232, though he lost the popular vote by just over 2 percent. The race was much closer than the electoral college spread makes it look. Trump carried the day on the strength of his showing in battleground states, including those that Barack Obama won in 2012: Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
This time around, there are as many as a dozen battleground states, including the usual lot and a handful of some easily or fairly-easily won by Trump in 2016, such as Texas, Georgia, and Arizona. Biden is polling well in all, or almost all, of these states, with some Republicans now preparing for a big loss. Whether the race comes down to seven, eight, or a dozen states, the numbers have Biden in good shape in all or nearly all of them.
As Justin Gest, an associate professor at George Mason University, argues, swing states are often misunderstood. Gest points out that these battlegrounds share the same characteristics as other states—they are “just as extreme, just as polarized and just as interconnected as the rest of the country.” There’s nothing unusual about the swing states other than the fact that “Republicans and Democrats are simply more evenly distributed” there.
A focus on battleground states can obscure changing attitudes and demographics of the United States, the structural factors that will shape this election and many more to come. After all, states are made up of voters, and it’s the voters, not the states, who will decide the election. When looking at voter profiles, observers often focus on partisan identity, Republican versus Democrat, but the breakdown of who votes in what way shows consistent—though somewhat changing—patterns beyond just partisanship.
In the summer, Pew Research Center reported that party affiliation trends have held steady in the U.S. as “34% of registered voters identify as independents, 33% as Democrats and 29% as Republicans.” On a strict measure of partisan identity, it’s a close race. “The share of voters identifying as Republicans is now the same as it was in 2016, after having ticked down in 2017; Democratic identification is unchanged. Slightly fewer voters identify as independents than in 2017 (34% vs. 37%),” Pew reported.
In the same study, Pew broke down the dimensions of registered voters and party identification. The “Republican advantage” stood out along six identifiers: white evangelical, white non-college men, rural southerner, weekly+ religious services attender, and Gen X men. For each identifier, Republicans enjoyed a double-digit advantage over Democrats. The boosts ranged from a 14-point lead among Gen X men to 32 points among white non-college men, who make up 22 percent of the electorate, and 61 points among white evangelicals, who make up 18 percent of the electorate.
Those numbers may seem stunning, but the advantage spread is starker for the Democrats, who also see double digit advantages, but whose leads are higher on aggregate. Democrats had advantages among white college women, Millennial women, Hispanic Catholics, the religiously unaffiliated, urban northeasterners (+49), and Black women (+80), though these advantages reflect a smaller share of the electorate.
These numbers line up with a 2019 report from Center for American Progress that found Democrats had the vote support of just 31 percent of white, non-college voters compared to the Republicans at 63 percent, but bested the GOP on white college voters by 50 percent to 43 percent, Black voters by 88 percent to 8 percent, Hispanic voters by 65 percent to 29 percent, and Asian/other race by 56 percent to 36 percent. As the CAP reported, in 2016, white, non-college voters made up 44 percent of the electorate, more than any other demographic listed—and were central to Trump’s election victory.
In September, a poll by Reuters/Ipsos found Biden with higher support among non-college white voters than Clinton had in 2016, closer to Trump than in past years. As Reuters reported, “When asked whom they would support for president, 50% of likely non-college white voters said they were supporting Trump, while 41% were backing Biden. Four years ago, 61% of non-college whites voted for Trump and 31% for Clinton.” Trump has been left scrambling to protect his demographic base across states while struggling within states he carried in 2016, including those with shifting demographics that could make traditionally Republican—or at least likely Republican—bastions harder to hold for conservatives in 2020 and beyond. That includes the southwest (even Texas).
The United States is becoming more diverse, better educated, and less Christian. Those shifts will pose a long-term challenge for Republicans if they remain on the same strategic and ideological course, even as they actively engage in voter suppression efforts. In the short term, for this election, the combination of a changing country, a disastrous Trump presidency and campaign, and a palatable Democratic ticket
Throughout the campaign, Donald Trump has tried to label Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as radicals, calling Harris and communist and suggesting the Democrat platform is “probably communist.” Those attacks don’t seem to be resonating much with voters—at least not those beyond Trump’s base. As I wrote in early October, attitudes towards social democratic politics in the United States are changing, with Americans, especially those among the younger cohort, embracing a more activist government and state insurance programs.
Communism is neither social democracy nor democratic socialism. But insofar as Trump’s attacks on Biden and Harris attempt to characterize the Democratic Party’s campaign as “radical” or “extremist,” the president is likely to find that fewer and fewer Americans associate socialism or social democracy with radicalism, and neither with the age-old American bogeyman, the USSR. For example, even as Trump continues his years-long attack on the Affordable Care Act as “socialized medicine,” (which it is not), American support for it is stable, if middling, at 52 percent for and 47 percent against. It’s hardly an election-maker. More to the point, it doesn’t seem the attacks are broadly resonating because the Biden/Harris ticket simply isn’t anywhere near radical, socialist or otherwise.
How Americans view the country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic may be hurting Trump’s re-election chances, too. As Pew reported in September, a majority of respondents said the U.S. response to the outbreak “has been less effective than that of other wealthy nations.” A hefty 62 percent said the U.S. response has been poorer than those of their peer countries, with only 13 percent seeing it as better. Even among Republicans, only 22 percent said the U.S. had done better, with 42 percent calling it a tie and 34 percent saying their country had done worse. Attitudes towards Trump’s handling of the crisis have been negative and fairly steady since June, with nearly 57 percent of Americans now disapproving of his handling of the pandemic, though he gets high marks from Republicans.
President Trump is fighting his re-election campaign as a grotesque, funhouse mirror iteration of a 1950s red-baiting contest for an America that is long gone. Not only are long-term demographic shifts working against the Republicans and Trump, changing attitudes towards progressive politics and immediate perspectives on the pandemic are, on balance, tilting against conservatives. In response to their failures, Trump and Republicans have chosen to try to further rig the game by ramping up voter suppression efforts, deploying dirty tricks, and breaking norms. The future implications of such a race to the bottom remain to be seen, especially as conservatives become more desperate, but in the short term a changing America and a catastrophic campaign are likely to spell the end for Donald Trump—and it won’t even be close.