Trump Has Done the Impossible: Unified the Fractious Democratic Base

Negative partisanship, it turns out, cuts both ways.

Stung by their unexpected electoral college defeat in 2016, liberals often ascribe almost magical powers to Donald Trump. Well-meaning pundits warn the left never to underestimate him, and the decent part of America is undergoing a form of national collective trauma preparing for all the ways in which Trump might try to avoid the electoral consequences of his own disastrous presidency.

But Trump never had any magic powers to begin with. He was running against a historically unpopular Democratic nominee in 2016, lost the national popular contest by 3 million votes, and barely squeaked into office by a 70,000 vote triple bank shot across three states. His singular innovation was maximizing negative partisanship among the most bigoted elements of America: the nation’s most insecure men and most racist whites people. Trump managed to accelerate the sorting of the electorate in a way that maximized a conservative cultural voting bloc faster than the left-liberal bloc could fully realize what was happening and consolidate against it.

The left-liberal coalition, meanwhile, is strained and for good reason. On one hand, a new raft of moderate Republicans and centrists turned off by Trump is joining the Democratic Party, boosting its fortunes in previously unassailable Republican territory and providing a margin of victory–and many older core Democrats are loath to upset them lest the far right permanently destroy democracy. On the other hand, the corporate looting and structural neglect of the country has left it in paralyzing crisis, one that is hitting the young particularly hard. Those who bought houses 20 years ago when costs were cheap, have jobs that provide private healthcare, have realized asset appreciation since then and are not likely to live long enough to experience the worst effects of climate change, are more at liberty to sit and wait patiently for change than younger struggling families trapped in overpriced apartments, carrying massive debt to which their elders were not subjected, unable to afford health coverage and terrified of the climate catastrophes the next 50 years will bring if we don’t act immediately to curb fossil fuels. The result has been a bruising internal political culture in the Democratic Party, split largely along generational lines between socialist-leaning progressives under 45, and more moderate liberals over 45.

But Donald Trump’s intentional cruelty toward anyone left of the evangelical white nationalists is erasing those divides as we approach the election. A movement dedicated only to drinking liberal tears is having the effect of uniting liberals, progressives, and socialists in united fury. Negative partisanship, in other words, works in both directions. Per the latest CBS News poll:

Biden is helped by strong commitment from key parts of the Democratic base, plus gains among groups such as women, especially White women with college degrees. Our statistical model takes into account voting preferences of all kinds of voters throughout each state and nationally, as well as how many of them there are in each state, and produces estimates for all 50 states…

Biden now leads Mr. Trump among Black voters 90% to 6%. This is higher than the 72% of Black voters who backed Hillary Clinton heading into her nominating convention in 2016.

Biden also holds a sizable lead among Hispanic voters today, helping keep states like Arizona and Texas competitive, and he’s nearly doubled his lead among suburban voters since July — extending a seven-point lead to 13 points today.

This is not because every Democrat is enthusiastic about Biden specifically. Far from it. Even within the moderate Democratic coalition, early primary voters preferred Buttigieg or Klobuchar. Younger progressives, meanwhile, lined up heavily behind Sanders and Warren, who ran on a much more aggressive message. But it doesn’t matter: while enthusiasm for Biden may be limited in some corners of the Democratic coalition, the real passion is getting rid of Trump at all costs–an effect that has been reflected across many polls for months now:

In fact, Democrats’ relatively lower enthusiasm is related to the fact that they’re backing Biden mainly to oppose Mr. Trump. Those who are mainly casting votes in opposition are less enthusiastic than those who say they’re backing Biden because they like him.

Democrats are however set on their vote choice: 94% say they’re voting for Biden, and around the same percentage say they would never consider voting for Mr. Trump.

It took four years and a catastrophic presidency, but the flip side of Trump’s divisive approach to politics is coming due. As much as he has conditioned his own voters to see Democrats as the literal enemy and is engaged in a cold civil war against American cities, the left-liberal coalition is now united in its own self-defense. Not only does Trump not have magic powers, but his own weapons have turned against him.

Unless he can literally cheat to avoid the outcome, he is almost certainly going to lose. There will be plenty of time for progressives, socialists and liberals to hash out their own differences. But for now, there is only one collective goal: ending the nightmare of Trump’s presidency.

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David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.