Former President Donald Trump speaks at the Moms for Liberty meeting in Philadelphia, Friday, June 30, 2023. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

In 2016, Donald Trump shocked the world by tearing down the “Blue Wall” and winning Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. A consensus congealed around the idea that despite having lost the popular vote and barely having won the Electoral College, Trump had improved Republicans’ fortunes with his appeal to what he called “poorly educated” voters. Suddenly, white non-college voters became the “it” constituency for political analysts, an obsession that continued into 2022. Democrats must win over these voters, pundits proclaimed, or they had no electoral future. 

Seven years later, that advice seems misguided. 

Since 2016, Republicans have lost 23 of the 27 elections in the five swing states Democrats need to win the presidency—Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Such an outcome was hardly preordained. When Trump took office, Republicans held four of the five governorships in those states and six of their ten U.S. Senate seats.  

But Republicans haven’t just failed to make gains in those states. Last year, they were clobbered. It was a midterm where the out-of-power party, a party running against such an unpopular president, lost ground for the first time. 

How could this happen? 

The short answer is that the MAGA movement is so unpopular that it mobilized a coalition against Trump and the GOP. An emerging anti-MAGA majority, consisting of voters not on the table in 2016, turned out in record numbers to defeat MAGA. Indeed, the data suggests that Trump’s surprise victory in 2016 might be most noteworthy long term for the strong coalition that formed in opposition to MAGA candidates.  

The unprecedented surge in new voters is made up of two components. First, young people voting at higher rates than previous generations are rejecting MAGA by 20-point margins. The second component is those who voted for Barack Obama but skipped the 2016 election, dubbed “Obama-nones.”  

The first group—voters who turned 18 in the last eight years—is getting a unique introduction to politics. Everyone understands the lasting partisan impact inspirational leaders like Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and Obama had on those who came of age during their presidencies. This generation, though, is coming of age when everybody around them, plus the popular culture, loathes Trump. Especially in blue states and purple states where MAGA candidates dominate uncompetitive GOP primaries, there isn’t a reasonable Republican to be found. To these young voters, Trump is the Republican Party, and they oppose it. For the second group of “Obama-none voters,” Trump’s term in office and subsequent legal woes seem to have shaken them out of whatever ambivalence kept them from the polls in 2016.  

A look at the Catalist voter files for the eight elections from 2008 through 2022 illuminates the anti-MAGA trend. For more on Catalist’s methodology, see their just-released report What Happened in 2022. Fortunately, Catalist has done an unparalleled job maintaining the vote history of those registered to vote beginning with the 2008 election. The findings: In every state but Hawaii, Washington, and West Virginia, voters who started voting after 2016 are more Democratic than those who voted in 2016. Meanwhile, in every purple state but Pennsylvania (barely), 2016 voters tilted Republican, but post-2016 voters tilt Democratic. This dynamic in purple states is the defining tension in electoral politics today—and the key to Democrats’ electoral hopes. (Full disclosure: I have served as a co-chair of Catalist.)  

Picture the 2016 electorate as a seesaw, with Democrats from blue states on one side and Republicans from red states on the other; it’s in near perfect equipoise. But when we add post-2016 voters, Democrats gain more from blue than Republicans add from red, and purple has moved over to the Democratic side. 

A bit of context can help you understand the chart below: The orange dots represent 2016 voters, and the green dots represent post-2016 voters (who may or may not have also voted in other elections before 2016). “VCI” stands for “Voter Choice Index,” which is Catalist’s model calculating the likely partisanship of every voter in the file. “Margin” is the percentage of people who voted for Republicans subtracted from the percentage who voted for Democrats; thus, the Democratic margin is negative in red states. The states are arranged from the most Republican at the top (based on VCI)—Wyoming—to the most Democratic at the bottom—Vermont. (D.C. is even more Democratic but is not on the chart because showing it would force the y-axis so far to the right that the distinctions in the rest of the states would not be as clear.)  

As you may notice from the above chart, the trend of new voters being more Democratic is still true in red states—but it’s simply not enough to overcome the innate Republican partisanship in that region. The importance of regional polarization in American politics is difficult to overstate—yet it rarely, if ever, gets mentioned in analyses of why we are so polarized, nor does it typically show up in issue polling that purports to tell us what Americans believe. 

It’s crucial to understand that young people in red states are much less Democratic than young people elsewhere, so this analysis does not suggest that, by itself, the anti-MAGA backlash among young voters will dislodge Republicans in red states. (In the chart below, “Returning Voters” are the Obama-nones; “Recent Joiners” are a third category of post-2016 voters that skew more Republican than the other two but who aren’t numerous enough to derail the overall anti-MAGA trend.)  

Look at the “diploma divide” between college and non-college voters that has caused so much hand-wringing about Democrats’ prospects. Once again, we see a massive regional divide that bucks the conventional wisdom. As the following chart based on Nationscape data shows, Biden’s margin with white non-college voters in Blue states was 13 points better than white college voters in Red states. Too often, commentators use those nationwide trends to make flawed assumptions about Democrats’ chances in particular swing states.  

Given the statistics, there’s no reason to assume Democrats must focus on winning back Trump-leaning voters or even “non-college” or “working-class” voters more broadly. Instead, Democrats simply need to maintain the support of those who have already rejected MAGA and continue to turn them out, along with mobilizing new voters who understand the stakes of defeating MAGA.  

Nor is there any reason to panic over surveys showing Biden substantially behind. Unless that survey also shows massive defections from Biden voters, the animating feature of this coalition is their opposition to Trump and Republicans—not their enthusiasm about Biden.  

Invariably, those prophesying doom, unless Democrats win over Trump-leaning voters, rely on polling that reflects the generalized disaffection of the moment with all politicians. But this is misleading. Since 2003, presidential approval ratings have barely budged from the expected partisan trenches. It’s no longer common for voters to “approve” of a president they didn’t vote for, and it’s increasingly common for voters to “disapprove” of a president they did vote for—and who they would vote for again if the alternative were the opposite party. If Biden were far more unpopular than other politicians, there would be a problem. However, if most politicians are unpopular, it’s all relative, and Biden’s approval rating becomes an extremely poor basis to gauge his prospects in 2024. 

Ignore those who complain that anti-MAGA rhetoric is “divisive” and might turn off swing voters. In the 2022 midterms, the expected “red wave” was blunted by what I call a “Blue Undertow”—but only in the 15 states where a MAGA candidate was in a competitive, big-ticket race, where MAGA’s dangerous agenda would have gotten more attention. That’s one likely reason Democrats faced such stunning losses in California and New York; it simply didn’t occur to Democratic base voters there that their ballots could be the difference between a MAGA-majority U.S. House and a chamber that could continue passing Biden’s agenda.  

Key purple state voters reject MAGA when the choice is clear because of the new anti-MAGA majority. Winning that majority over does not rely on finding a perch in the political center. On the contrary, victory for Democrats with these voters relies on making the choice of democracy versus fascism explicit. 

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Michael Podhorzer is the former political director of the AFL-CIO and founder of the Analyst Institute, the Research Collaborative and the Defend Democracy Project. Read his Substack and follow him on Twitter at @mike_podhorzer