Avoiding the Political Southification of the North

While I (and seemingly every other political analyst) am still licking my wounds over missing the presidential election outcome so badly, I did get the opportunity this morning to revisit some analysis that I mostly got right. I went back and looked at a piece I wrote in December 2015 called Trump and the Missing White Voters. It was an eerie experience reading it and it gave me a sick feeling.

I looked at some analysis Sean Trende had done in 2013, and some competing analysis done then by Karl Rove, over whether or not the Republicans needed to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill in order to ever compete in a national election again. I concluded that Donald Trump was well-poistioned to execute Trende’s strategy of opposing immigration reform and winning the presidential election by turning out white voters who had not participated in 2012.

Now, this is an interesting and important debate, but there’s something that both sides agree about. They agree that there is a big pool of white voters out there who voted for McCain but not for Romney. And they agree that their profile is basically that of blue collar workers in the Midwest rather than evangelicals in the South. They are, roughly, the “Reagan Democrats” of Macomb County, Michigan first identified by Stanley Greenberg back in the 1980’s.

It seems to me that these are the type of folks who are gravitating to Donald Trump. I need more data to confirm my hypothesis, but here are some supporting indicators. A USA TODAY/Suffolk University Poll just found that 68% of Trump’s supporters say that they would support him in a third party bid while only 18% said that they would not. As for the important first-in-the-nation Iowa Caucuses, Sen. Ted Cruz leads the polls when a tight likely voter model is used but Trump leads when a looser screen is utilized. In other words, folks who didn’t vote in the 2008 or 2012 caucuses are more likely to support Trump than voters who did participate. Trump is attracting new voters and voters who had dropped out.

His platform, if you can call it that, is pretty well designed to appeal to this demographic. He opposes the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Mexican immigration, and he promises to keep scary Muslims from entering the country. He’s not hammering on traditional social values issues that don’t interest these disaffected voters. He’s making more of a generalized racial, religious and tribal appeal. And he’s saying he’ll make America great again, with the unstated premise that he can preserve what’s great about America and restore what’s been lost. If you want to get missing white voters to the polls, Trump’s approach seems capable of doing that.

But these voters probably aren’t going to turn out in the same numbers for a Republican who seems like a Mitt Romney retread. They may have some pretty conservative or even intolerant attitudes, but they aren’t necessarily Republicans at all. They’re probably as likely to nod their heads at a Bernie Sanders speech about breaking up the big banks as they are to cheer a Trump proposal to stick it to the Chinese. Their default position at this point is, I believe, to just stay home. They didn’t vote in 2012 and they won’t vote in 2016 unless they get something significantly different on the menu.

This is why having Trump in the race, even as independent candidate, will probably boost overall turnout.

The problem is that the election won’t be decided just by who shows up but also by people who change their mind. For every disaffected white voter that Trump brings out of the shadows, there will be a newly motivated voter who shows up just to oppose him. And there will be plenty of Romney voters who can’t bring themselves to vote for Trump, just as there were Bush voters who couldn’t vote for McCain and Palin.

Still, to maximize right-leaning turnout, Trump needs to be on the ticket. He can be on the ticket as a Republican or not, but a lot of his voters won’t turn out without him.

We still need to examine the turnout data from the election, but we already know that Trump did better with blue collar midwestern voters who delivered him Ohio, Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. We know that Trump did this despite alienating lots of Romney voters and despite convincing lots of suburban voters to turn against the GOP, and despite motivating lots of people to show up just to vote against him.

Back on July 2nd, 2013, I wrote a piece called The GOP is Moving in the Wrong Direction. It was in response to an article Benjy Sarlin had written for MSNBC in which he detailed the transformation that occurred in Republican circles as they moved from following the RNC autopsy report’s analysis (that insisted on passing immigration reform) to following the analysis of Sean Trende.

What Mr. Sarlin doesn’t broach is the subject of how conservatives might be able to grab a higher percentage of whites and how they might go about driving up white turnout. The most obvious way is to pursue an us vs. them approach that alternatively praises whites as the true, patriotic Americans, and that demonizes non-whites as a drain on the nation’s resources. This is basically the exact strategy pursued by McCain and especially Romney. It’s what Palin was all about, and it’s what that 47% speech was all about.

An added element was introduced by Barack Obama, whose controversial pastor and Kenyan ancestry opened up avenues for both veiled and nakedly racist appeals to the white voter. A white Democratic nominee would be less of an easy target for talk about secret Islamic sympathies and fraudulent birth certificates, but that would only make other racially polarizing arguments more necessary.

The problem is that these attacks have already been made, and they failed in even near-optimal circumstances. Accusing the Democrats of socialism, which is a race-neutral way of accusing the party of being beholden to the racial underclasses, has been proven insufficient. The only hope for a racial-polarization strategy is to get the races to segregate their votes much more thoroughly, and that requires that more and more whites come to conclude that the Democratic Party is the party for blacks, Asians, and Latinos.

That is, indeed, how the party is perceived in the Deep South, but it would be criminal to expand those racial attitudes to the country at large.

The Republicans are coalescing around a strategy that will, by necessity, be more overtly racist than anything we’ve seen since segregation was outlawed.

The key part of that is that in order for the Trende/Trump strategy to work, the Republicans needed to get northern whites to behave like southern whites. And I don’t mean this in any kind of lazy way that just relies on stereotypes about redneck culture. In the South, whites have basically created a one-party system ever since the Civil War. At first, it was monolithic opposition to Lincoln’s Republican Party. Now it’s monolithic opposition to Barack Obama’s Democratic Party. Race has always been the key driver of this behavior but what distinguished it in American politics was that whites in the South voted as an ethnic group. The North has always had virulent racism that expressed itself politically, but whites in the North have split their votes enough to create a vibrant two-party system.

As I noted yesterday, rural whites in places like Pennsylvania voted for Trump in close to the same numbers that you typically see whites in states like Mississippi vote for the Republicans. Where Romney might have gotten 70% of their votes, Trump frequently got around 80%.

Back in 2013, I said it would be “criminal” for the Republican Party to deliberately racialize our politics in the North to the point that they resembled what we see in the South. I said that to accomplish this, the GOP would have to use “a strategy that will, by necessity, be more overtly racist than anything we’ve seen since segregation was outlawed.”

I didn’t say the strategy couldn’t or wouldn’t work.

It did work.

And here’s what Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has to say about the result:

Yes, we’re all supposed to come together after an election, let bygones be bygones, and march forward unified as neither Democrats nor Republicans but patriotic Americans celebrating the triumph of the democratic process. But it’s difficult to link arms when the home of the free embraces the leadership of a racist.

Let the other groups denigrated and threatened by Trump speak for themselves. The women, immigrants, Muslims, Jews, the LGBT community and others who now must walk through the streets of their country for the next four years in shame and fear, knowing that their value as human beings has been diminished by their neighbors. I only speak for myself as an African-American and I speak with the rage of betrayal.

For Democratic strategists, this creates a conundrum. If they concede 80% of the rural white Midwest to the GOP, they’ll never win back control of the House, or control those state’s legislatures, and they’ll be vulnerable to more Electoral College disappointments. But they can’t back down in the face of this “rage of betrayal” without feeding and further justifying it.

The reason I talked about an aggressive antitrust push yesterday is not just because it’s good policy. Policy doesn’t win elections except in perhaps a slow grinding way over time. Antitrust is also good politics, especially for a situation like this.

Because if the Democrats let this become a racial fight between their multicultural base and the white rural counties of the North, that’s a recipe for the political Southification of the entire country. That’s what the GOP has been doing in a gradual way for 36 years, and it’s the basis for Trump’s coalition and for his reelection in 2020.

Avoiding a fight on those terms is essential even though everyone will be demanding it and one party will be pursuing it for all its worth. Once these fights get started they get a life of their own, they snowball, and the political damage becomes entrenched. The Democrats need a plan that prevents eighty or ninety percent of white rural northerners from feeling like they’re the enemy, and continually insisting that they are the enemy is not that plan.

Antitrust!

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.