The Resistance Could Defeat Trump. But Then What?

Rachel Bitecofer, whose 2018 midterm forecast has been described as “uncannily, uniquely accurate,” has upended the whole conversation about “electability” in the 2020 election. Here is how Jonathan Tilove summarizes the implications of her model.

If she is right, 2020 is not about changing voters’ minds, or Democrats peeling off some moderate Republican voters. It’s about turning out a whole different set of college-educated Democratic and independent voters who will be drawn to the polls by their animus toward Trump, which he has stoked virtually every waking hour since he was elected. Yes, Trump being Trump drives up Republican turnout, but Republicans are already more dependable voters. It’s Democratic turnout that has the most room to grow.

“Keep in mind, we’re talking about Gen X and millennial suburbanites who lean liberal or are liberal but not that politically engaged,” Bitecofer told me. “That’s the wave. Not moderate R’s.”

It is that “animus towards Trump” that Bitecofer refers to as “negative partisanship.” Another new guru in the world of election forecasting is G. Elliott Morris. He sees something similar and points out that “electability is a function of your opponent, too.” After noting that current polls of head-to-head matchups between Trump and Democratic candidates aren’t predictive of what will happen in the election, he nevertheless thinks that we can learn something from them.

Here’s what I see in the numbers: Donald Trump is deeply unpopular, faces a tough re-election battle, and performs roughly the same against different opponents…

And here’s another point: it doesn’t actually matter which 2020 Democratic candidates we think are electable if their opponent is polling under 40% against all of them. The facts are the facts; the data are the data. The probability of victory for a Democrat polling 12 points ahead of Trump is only marginally higher than their probability of victory if they are 6 points ahead. If their opponent is polling below 40%, almost anyone could beat them…perhaps the conversation about electability should not be about how Biden or Warren can fare in the general election, but about how Donald Trump will.

John Blake has a name for what Bitecofer and Morris are describing: “Trumplash,” which he defines as “a ferocious backlash against the President that’s boosted progressives and weakened conservatives in several ways.”

Trump has operated at times like an Oval Office double agent — a conservative by virtue of his rhetoric, but one whose actions tend to hurt his cause.

He’s pushed more progressives to get involved in politics…

He’s pushed voting blocs into the arms of Democrats…

He’s even damaged some powerful conservative interest groups…

Trump also helped do something else that Obama couldn’t. He revived the Obama Coalition, the group of young voters, women and racial minorities that first put Obama in office.

That coalition sat out the 2010 and 2014 midterms, leading to huge losses for the Democrats. They showed up, however, to oppose Trump and Republicans during the 2018 midterms. That election featured the highest voter turnout in a century, with young people voting in record numbers.

That progressive wave is expected to spill into the 2020 presidential election. Voter turnout in 2020 is expected to reach its highest level in decades — some say since 1908.

Blake’s overall point is that Trump seems to be accomplishing what Obama could not. There is some truth to that. But we often forget that what we might call “Republicanlash” didn’t begin in 2008 with Obama’s election. It started back in 2006, when Democrats won a majority of the state governorships and the U.S. House and Senate seats each for the first time since 1994, wiping out the so-called “Gingrich revolution.” That was a reaction to the Bush administration’s “global war on terror,” including two wars in the Middle East.

As Bitecofer told Joy Reid, this isn’t a new phenomenon, but part of a pattern.

[Y]ou have these crises, people elect Democrats because we have these turnout surges which is what my data suggests…Democrats get get fired up, they come out, they rise to the occasion, they seize power, they fix things, but then they pull back. And the reason is because Democrats absolutely suck at messaging. They don’t tap into emotion. They want to have these cerebral conversations with voters that don’t exist.

Based on what we’ve seen in recent history, I’d suggest that Bitecofer is right. Because Republicans tend to rely on more dependable voters, they do well when Americans become complacent, while some groups in the so-called “Obama coalition” stay home. But then the country goes into crisis again and Democrats get fired up.

Bitecofer goes on to suggest that turnout wanes because Democrats “suck at messaging.” But it is also true that anger and fear tend to be more powerful motivators than the alternatives. Cerebral conversations aren’t the answer, but it takes an extraordinary politician to inspire voters when the opposition isn’t posing a recognizable threat.

While messaging might be an issue, the bigger challenge for Democrats is one of engagement. That requires a listening ear on the other end of the conversation, one that’s in it for the long haul and committed to exercising the franchise, even absent the fear created by an imminent threat. The responsibility to maintain democracy rests on the shoulders of voters, not just politicians. If they can’t sustain that kind of commitment once the threat is gone, it might be possible to beat Trump, but the next crisis is simply looming around the corner.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.