Future Republican Electoral Politics

Bloom Briefing 48: How Republicans Could Win the White House in 2024

Two weeks ago, I wrote about four possible Republican futures.

1.      Cleave in two

2.      Exile the fringe

3.      Go full Trump

4.      Inertia until 2024

This week, I’d like to talk about how three of these four possible futures intersect with Republicans’ electoral prospects moving forward.  (The first, cleaving in two, is an impossible route to power in a first-past-the-post electoral system.)  To do so, I will revisit Trump’s rise, assess why he won in 2016 and lost in 2020, and discuss where this leaves the Republican Party moving forward.

Trump’s Rise

As a metaphor for a political party, I like to imagine elected officials standing around the outside of a giant parachute, each trying to pull it slightly in a certain direction.  Because those politicians come from different places representing different constituencies and rely on different donors, they have different policy priorities.  Mitch McConnell’s focus is right-wing judges.  Josh Hawley’s is his own naked political ambition.

The nationalization of political parties paired with an avowedly right-wing media echo chamber has meant that for most of the last half-century, most Republicans were standing on one side of the parachute, and it got pulled steadily further and further right. 

Only Republican presidents or presidential candidates could successfully reign in the worst impulses pulling the country rightward.  Thus it’s only in the few in fleeting moments like George W. Bush distinguishing terrorists from Muslims and insisting we weren’t at war with Islam, or John McCain contradicting a Republican voter at a campaign town hall to explain that no, Barack Obama isn’t Muslim, that we see any check on the rightward drift.

What distinguished Trump from his Republican predecessors is that, after he locked up the Republican nomination for president, he didn’t move to the center at all.  After he won the 2016 presidential election, he governed as if the votes of his base were all that mattered.  Not only did he not serve as a check on the worst impulses driving Republicans right, he championed them.

Across his four years he consistently said terrible and offensive things, many of which are transparently false.  Other Republicans were then left with an unenviable choice: to defend him or face his ire.  At this point, it’s difficult to distinguish the Trumpists from the cowards parroting his lies in an attempt to avoid his condemnation. 

What many on the left haven’t yet realized is that this is as much a challenge for Trump’s supporters as it is for his detractors.  To use my least favorite analogy of our time, Trump’s unfiltered racism was a feature rather than a bug in his electoral politics.  If you’re an inveterate racist, why not vote for the guy saying what you believe over the guy speaking in coded language and dog whistles?  The Islamophobia of “Muslims are terrorists” (Trump) is a lot simpler than the Islamophobia of “let’s accept the Christian refugees from Syria but not the Muslim ones” (a policy preferred by Jeb Bush in the 2016 Republican primary).

What’s clear is that the combination of Trump’s overt racism and disdain for norms was a motivating factor for lots of voters, both those who reveled in his hostility to people they hate and those who found his personality and contempt for democracy totally disqualifying. 

Trump’s Electoral Performance

The groups on whom Trump’s candidacy had the greatest effect have been well-established at this point.  He made major inroads with whites without a college degree, while performing much worse with whites with a college degree.  That’s how you get a map of the change in 2-party vote share in Wisconsin from 2012 to 2016 that looks like this (graphic from the New York Times):

The 2008 and 2012 presidential elections in Wisconsin weren’t that close, but the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, like the 2016 and 2020 elections, were decided by less than 1%.  John Kerry and Al Gore’s combined margin of victory over George W. Bush in those two elections was actually less than the roughly 20,000 votes by which Biden defeated Trump in November. 

But if we look at the makeup of those votes, there has been a large shift.  In 2000, Bush’s three strongest counties (by both percentage of total vote and margin of victory) were the collar counties around Milwaukee: Washington, Waukesha, and Ozaukee (circled above).  As you can see in the map above, even in Trump’s stronger of the two elections in Wisconsin (2016), 2 of these 3 counties actually moved to the left.

In 2020, Trump still won all three counties, but of the three, only Washington County was one of the 30 counties that gave Trump his largest margins of victory in the state.  All three counties moved to the left from 2016.  Over the same period, Dane County (home of Madison) went from ~60% for Gore to ~75% for Biden.  Meanwhile Trump continued to make progress from 2016 in many of the counties in the Western part of the state. 

Republicans’ Path Forward

Amidst the four paths forward I’ve outlined, Republicans are looking to thread a needle.  They need a candidate who can consolidate Trump’s gains with white voters without a college degree.  They need someone who can win by as large or larger margins in those rural counties in the north and west of Wisconsin that Trump shifted heavily to the right in 2016 and again in 2020.  But they also need this person to stem the losses of college-educated voters in the suburbs.  So far, we haven’t seen evidence that one candidate can appeal to both of these populations. 

If Republicans “go full Trump” and spend the next four years spewing racism and bile and obstructing Biden’s efforts to bring us out of public health and economic crises, it seems likely they will lose further ground among college-educated voters.  And it’s not clear how much upside there is among non-college-educated white voters. 

This is, in some ways, similar to the Democrats’ position with Black voters post-Obama.  It was unlikely any candidate the Democrats put forward would outperform Obama with Black voters (winning 90%+ of any group of voters is not likely to be replicable).  As an example, Hillary Clinton did very well in Philadelphia County in Pennsylvania (which has about equal proportions of Black and white inhabitants), but she still won it by about 20,000 votes less than Obama did in 2012.

If Republicans are to expect some reversion to the mean vis-à-vis their performance with white voters without a college degree, they’re going to need improvement among some other constituency to flip Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, or Michigan.   

The answer to that seeming mystery box could be Latino/a voters.  Despite a notable national leftward shift from 2016 to 2020, the heavily Latino counties in the Rio Grande Valley swung significantly to the right (graphic from the New York Times).

A similar trend with the particular politics of Cuban-American voters played out in South Florida, where Democrats won Broward and Miami-Dade Counties by smaller margins in 2020 than in 2016.  The electoral map for 2024 is not yet set, since it depends, in part, on the results of the 2020 census, which have been delayed.  But it’s likely that Democrats don’t need either Texas (whose trendline to the left would put it within potential range in 2024) or Florida to win the presidency again in 2024.  They would, however, likely need Nevada. 

In 2016, Clinton won Nevada by about 27,000 votes.  In 2020, Biden carried the state by about 34,000 votes.  A combination of higher turnout, population growth, and greater concentration of the vote among the two major parties, however, meant that despite Biden winning the national vote for by 4.5 points (compared to Clinton’s 2.1-point margin of victory), his and Clinton’s margins in Nevada were an identical 2.4 percentage points.  As the country shifted left, Nevada remained where it was. 

The obvious-to-Democrats logic—that Trump’s hostility towards non-whites would cause him to perform worse with non-white voters—turned out not to be so straightforward when it came to Latino voters this cycle.  The (notoriously unreliable) exit polls showed Biden winning Latino voters 65-32, only slightly less than Clinton’s 66-28 margin.  Were all of Biden’s losses among Latino voters concentrated in the Rio Grande Valley and Southeast Florida?  That seems implausible.  This story still isn’t complete, but as someone who spends a lot of time thinking about how Democrats can screw up, taking Latino voters for granted sure seems to carry enormous political downside (this doesn’t just mean focusing on immigration).

For Republicans, the dangers of going full Trump or breaking with Trump both seem totally clear.  To win national elections they need both conservative Never-Trumpers and the marginally political white voters without a college degree Trump managed to engage in the political process.  Given what we’ve seen so far about the party both trying to move on from Trump without totally alienating his biggest supporters (which is how we get a vote to acquit from Mitch McConnell while he still says in a statement that Trump is guilty of all the things Democrats accused him of), this points back to an inertia-until-the-primary scenario.

It’s pretty clear that there are going to be three (or four, if Trump runs) lanes in the Republican primary.  There will be at least one Never-Trump candidate (Mitt Romney and/or John Kasich seem like potential candidates in this lane).  There will be the somewhat-Trumpy candidates.  Nikki Haley is clearly running.  She served in the administration but has also been critical of Trump at times.  Marco Rubio might also fit in this lane.  Then there will be those hoping to emulate Trump and win the support of his strongest backers (e.g., Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley).  If Trump runs, he’s in his own lane.  The moderates in the Party have 3 years to figure out how to ensure that Republicans’ next presidential candidate is interested in speaking to more than their base’s worst impulses.

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Additional Reading

If you read one thing this week, make it this.  At Harper’s, Josh Cohen wrote an excellent (somewhat negative) review of a new biography of Philip Roth.

In The Atlantic, Chris Hayes wrote about how the Republican Party is radicalizing against democracy.

At MSNBC, Princeton historian Kevin Kruse wrote in greater depth about the unlikely prospect of Republicans cleaving in two.

For the Washington Post, Margaret Sullivan writes about how the former staff of Deadspin have managed to throw of the yoke of private equity tyranny and successfully start their own venture: Defector