With 20 days to go, most signals favor Joe Biden, but the chain of events that delivered an Electoral College victory to Donald Trump in 2016 still hovers in the rearview mirror.
Recent headlines reflect the widespread view that Biden is poised to prevail:
Washington Post: “As Trump stumbles, voters finalize their choices, and Biden’s lead grows”; New York Times: “Virus Pulls Down Trump, Poll Shows, and G.O.P. Senators Suffer With Him”; Wall Street Journal: “Biden Scores 14-Point Lead Over Trump in Poll After Debate.”
One thing continues to stand out, even in the polls these pieces describe, which is that white Democrats, who remain the majority in their party, have been moving leftward for nearly a decade, particularly on racial and moral issues, and that shift has pushed the party further away from the nation’s median voter. This gap has damaged Democratic prospects in the past, but the ultimate outcome of Trump’s determined efforts to capitalize on it has not yet been revealed.
Here are some of the things causing anxiety among Democratic partisans, particularly political professionals.
One way to measure voter enthusiasm is to compare voter registration trends for each party. A Democratic strategist who closely follows the data on a day-to-day basis wrote in a privately circulated newsletter:
Since last week, the share of white non-college over 30 registrations in the battleground states has increased by 10 points compared to September 2016, and the Democratic margin dropped 10 points to just 6 points. And there are serious signs of political engagement by white non-college voters who had not cast ballots in previous elections.
David Wasserman, House editor for The Cook Political Report. wrote on Oct. 1 that voter registration patterns over a longer period in key battleground states show that “Republicans have swamped Democrats in adding new voters to the rolls, a dramatic GOP improvement over 2016.”
Four of the six states Trump won by fewer than five points in 2016 allow voters to register by party: Arizona, Florida, North Carolina and Pennsylvania. In recent months, there have been substantially more Republicans added to the rolls than Democrats in each of them except for Arizona.
Florida, since the state’s March primary, added 195,652 Republicans and 98,362 Democrats.
Pennsylvania, since June, Republicans plus 135,619, Democrats up 57,985.
North Carolina, since March, Republicans up 83,785 to Democrats 38,137.
In Arizona, the exception, “Democrats out-registered Republicans 31,139 to 29,667” in recent months.
Turning from registration figures to polling data, many trends are favorable to Biden, but not all of them.
For example, there has been a modest drop in the Democratic margin of support among Hispanic Catholics, according to surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center.
More worrisome for Biden, the Pew survey shows modestly weakened support among Black women, a key Democratic constituency. Black women supported Clinton over Trump 98 to 1; this year they support Biden over Trump 91-6.
Evangelical white protestants remain firmly in Trump’s camp, backing him by 61 points over Biden, the same margin he had against Clinton in 2016.
Democratic strategists are also worried about how well their voters will perform in properly requesting, filling out and mailing in absentee ballots.
More than twice as many Biden voters as Trump voters — the actual ratio is 2.4 to 1 — plan to cast ballots by mail, according to polling by Pew. So far, however, Democratic requests for absentee ballots have not reached the levels that surveys suggest will be needed for the party to cast votes at full strength on Election Day.
Catalist, a liberal organization that specializes in voter data analytics, found that Democrats are requesting absentee and early vote ballots at substantially higher rates than in 2016, but these rates are below the more than two-to-one ratio cited in the Pew poll.
In presidential battleground states, the Democratic share of absentee and early vote ballot requests through Oct. 13, according to Catalist, was 57.4 percent, and in Senate battleground states 55.2 percent.
At the same time, there are multiple developments bolstering Democratic confidence as the election approaches.
In addition to the overall poll data favoring Biden, many of the demographic details are welcome news to Democrats.
The relatively minor decline in Democratic support among Hispanic Catholics, for example, is more than made up for by Democratic improvement among non-Hispanic white Catholics. In 2016, Trump crushed Clinton among this group, 64-31, or 33 points; now Trump leads Biden by 52-44, or by 8 points.
Biden has cut into other key 2016 Trump voting blocs, including whites without college degrees, white men, middle-income whites and married men. He has done so while strengthening support among constituencies that have been trending Democratic for a while: white women with college degrees, young voters between the ages of 18 and 29, upper-income voters and single women.
The fastest growing religious category — atheists, agnostics and “nothing in particular” — has become an even more rock-solid Democratic constituency. In 2016, the nonreligious voted 65-24 for Clinton; according to the most recent Pew data, Biden leads Trump among these voters 71-22.
Scholarly studies of voter attitudes reinforce the pluses and minuses we see in Biden’s poll numbers.
One recent study, “Racial attitudes & political cross-pressures in nationalized elections: The case of the Republican coalition in the Trump era,” by Carlos Algara and Isaac Hale, political scientists at the University of Texas-El Paso and the University of California-Davis, found that there continue to be large numbers of racially conservative Democrats who can be persuaded to vote for Republican candidates.
As Algara and Hale put it:
Even during the era of highly nationalized and partisan elections, racial attitudes are still a mechanism by which Republicans can win significant electoral support among Democrats and relatively liberal voters in the white electorate.
The ability of Republicans to capitalize on “conservative racial attitudes helped mitigate Republican losses during the 2018 midterm elections,” the two argue.
As a result of the effectiveness of this racial strategy,
We expect that Republican candidates for federal office will continue to make racial appeals in the 2020 campaign — and reap electoral rewards for doing so.
I asked Algara how well the argument holds up given other studies that show white Democrats are becoming more liberal on racial issues. He replied by email: “Among white Democrats, there is still a healthy amount of variation in racial conservatism,” Algara noted, adding that
the greater this differential, the greater the likelihood this cleavage grows within white Democrats, to the electoral benefit of Republicans. We also show this cleavage exists among white voters that are closer in ideological proximity to liberal Democratic candidates. In sum, our results show that while white Democrats are becoming more liberal on their racial attitudes, variation still exists and Republicans can exploit this variation toward their electoral aims by generating support among white Democrats that still exhibit more racially conservative attitudes.
Another paper, “Disavowing White Identity: How Social Disgust Can Change Social Identities,” provides a different assessment of how racial issues are playing out among white voters. The authors — Ashley Jardina, Nathan Kalmoe and Kimberly Gross of Duke, Louisiana State and George Washington Universities — argue that Trump has gone too far in his use of racially charged messages, provoking disgust among a segment of voters. This disgust has, in turn, driven many white voters to lessen or abandon their sense of white identity or white solidarity.
“The decline in white identity was driven mostly by whites expressing disgust toward Trump,” they write.
In other words, by pushing racist themes and rhetoric to extremes, Trump has damaged his ability to continue to capitalize on an issue that was essential to his victory in 2016, according to the authors.
Crucially, Jardina, Kalmoe and Gross note that
We find that it is disgust, in particular, and not just negative Trump affect or negative Trump attitudes in general, that is most tied to changes in white racial identity.
Separately, Jardina shared data that she and Trent Ollerenshaw, a political science graduate student at Duke, put together, which shows a key aspect of the leftward shift among Democrats: a sharp decline in racial resentment among white Democrats, particularly from 2012 to 2020.
A similar pattern emerges in studies of other issues.
Steven W. Webster, a political scientist at Indiana University, provided The Times with data that also showed a widening gulf between white Republicans and Democrats on questions designed to measure “moral traditionalism.”
The survey asked people on a zero to 4 scale to “agree strongly” or “disagree strongly” with four statements:
1. Newer lifestyles are contributing to the breakdown of our society.
2. The world is always changing and we should adjust our view of moral behavior to those changes.
3. This country would have many fewer problems if there were more emphasis on traditional family ties.
4. We should be more tolerant of people who choose to live according to their own moral standards, even if they are very different from our own.
From 2000 to 2016, white Republicans maintained consistently high levels of moral traditionalism, according to Webster’s research, dropping less than a point, from 10.9 to 10.1, over the 16-year period. White Democrats, in contrast, dropped by 3.2 points, from 8.8 to 5.6.
Webster’s data show that partisan divisions between Democrats and Republicans over moral traditionalism went from a middling split in 2000 to a much more severe split, with much less possibility of compromise, in 2016 — and there is no reason to believe this trend has abated in 2020.
On a broader scale, Brian Schaffner, a political scientist at Tufts, provided The Times with data on trends on an “ideological liberalism scale” for white, Black and Hispanic Democrats, and for all Republicans. The scale is based on answers to survey questions about health care, immigration, gay marriage, gun control, the environment and government spending from 2010 to 2018, collected by the Cooperative Congressional Election Study.
Republicans maintained a consistently low liberalism score through all eight years. Democratic constituencies became uniformly more liberal, but the shift to the left was most pronounced among white Democrats, who pulled well ahead of their Black and Hispanic co-partisans.
All of these findings add credibility to an analysis of contemporary politics that Jeffrey Stonecash, an emeritus political science professor at Syracuse University, sent to me.
To understand the election, Stonecash wrote, we should be asking “about what values and ideas are driving polarization and which groups embrace some ideas rather than others.” At the moment, he argues, Americans seems intensely divided by the question:
What defines America: is it a set of people (white, Christian) or is it a set of ideals that anyone can come and achieve. To the former immigrants are an alien threat and dangerous (as it has always been in American history). What value should prevail: individual rights and anti-government beliefs or is there a collective interest that sometimes requires some constraints on individuals?
Out of these basic issues, further questions arise at the center of political debate, Stonecash continued:
Are there traditional moral behaviors that must be followed or should there be more freedom to pursue individual choices? What is patriotism: is it celebrating how great the nation is while downplaying faults or is it taking a hard look at how well we fulfill our ideals and being critical when necessary? How does America really work: can any individual succeed or are there systematic limitations and discriminations?
Over time, the two parties have staked out consistently opposing views on these questions, many of which are driven by the views of voters toward immigration and the prospect that whites are projected to become a minority in roughly 25 years.
The composition of the two parties has, in turn, come to reflect this partisan division: a Republican Party that has barely changed over the past two decades and a Democratic Party that has become the embodiment of diversity.
In “An analysis of the changing social bases of America’s political parties,” Joshua N. Zingher, a political scientist at Old Dominion University, describes the contrasting demographic dynamics of the two parties in detail.
Start with the Republican electorate. From 2000 to 2016, the share of white non-college voters, of Protestants, of weekly church attendees, changed by a single percentage point or less, despite the fact that the country has experienced rapid change.
For Democrats, in contrast, the share of African-Americans rose from 20 to 27 percent; of Latinos from 8 to 19 percent, of the nonreligious from 18 to 31 percent and of white college graduates from 25 to 29 percent.
The two parties now embody the broad divisions over values and diversity described by Stonecash — over the questions, in his words, of “who is a ‘real American,’ who is deserving and whose lives and beliefs should be honored.”
These values conflicts are real, they are deeply felt, and have become ever more central to the competing visions of what kind of a country Americans want to live in.
In less than three weeks, the people will speak. There is a huge market for what Trump is selling, and the fact that Trump has the loyalty of 40 to 45 percent of the electorate speaks to that. If Biden wins, can the Democrats move past mobilizing voters in opposition to Trump to the development of a governing strategy that builds and maintains a functional majority coalition, instead of provoking a repeat of the post-victory waves of opposition that plagued the party in 1994 and 2010?
The question of the hour, though, is what happens if and when Trump himself is taken out of the political equation. In what guise might the ethnonationalism he has mobilized re-emerge? Can Biden contain the forces that are now on the loose? How likely is the country, or the world for that matter, to reach a state of near ungovernability? Is there any candidate, or any movement, that represents a way out of today’s extreme partisanship? Or are we venturing toward the point of no return?