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Republicans should worry
And so should Democrats
My friend, Steve Berman, had a good piece yesterday on why Republicans should not worry about the next few months and years. I agree with just about everything that Steve wrote in that article, but I still think that Republicans should be worried about the coming midterms and the 2024 elections. Even though I think that Steve is correct in saying that a lot of the issues favor Republicans, I also think that most Republicans are not worried enough about the future of their party. That may seem inconsistent but there’s a good reason for it.
A big part of the reason is that I’ve come to realize that many voters are not as attuned to political issues as I and the rest of the Twitterati are. Way back in 2012 as I studied exit polls, I realized that Mitt Romney had a polling edge on a lot of the issues, but an overwhelming 81 percent of voters said that Barack Obama “cared for people like me” while only 18 percent thought that Romney cared about them. A Reuters analysis found that the perception that Obama cared was a major reason given by McCain voters who switched Obama in 2012.
This seems like nonsense to those of us who care deeply about political issues and are skeptical of government at all levels but especially the highest levels of the federal government in Washington, DC. Why would anyone vote for a presidential candidate that they disagreed with on the issues because they thought he cared about them?
The answer is that not everyone cares passionately about the issues. A lot of Americans don’t care about the issues at all. We call these people “undecideds” or “moderates” or “independents.” They decide elections.
You see, neither party has a majority of voters. The most recent Gallup polling shows Republicans with 24 percent and Democrats with 30 percent of party identification. Independents are a whopping 44 percent of voters. That means that both parties have to appeal to independents, people who don’t care about issues, to win elections.
Okay, you may say, but people are lying when they claim to be independent. They really vote for one party or the other and just don’t want to be labeled.
The Gallup poll also considers “leaners,” people who lean toward one party or the other. In that case, Democrats get 50 percent and Republicans get 41 percent. Republicans almost never lead in the party identification poll, but when they close the gap with Democrats, it often means a Republican victory. So the Republicans start at a disadvantage and have to win a larger share of independents than Democrats in order to win an election.
How do Republicans narrow the gap? It isn’t by talking about guns and abortion. If a voter cares deeply about those issues, they probably already vote Republican. In fact, focusing on those wedge issues fires up the base but probably drives away some moderate voters who don’t want heartbeat bills or constitutional open carry. You can be pro-life and pro-gun but still think that Republicans go too far on those issues.
No, the way that Republicans close the gap with Democrats is by seeming to be less crazy than the left. And not seeming to be crazy is the party’s Achilles heel in the age of Trump.
A common meme from the past few years shows something far out that the Democrats are doing and then says, “All they had to do was not be crazy.” Well, that works both ways. With a seemingly strong economy and the country looking toward the government for a pandemic response, all Donald Trump had to do was not be crazy, but he couldn’t do it.
And Republicans are still addicted to crazy. For example, recent Reuters polling showed that 53 percent of Republicans believe that Donald Trump is the “true president,” the party is pushing a sore-loser audit of Arizona ballots that is opposed by 55 percent of voters, and the idea that the former guy is going to somehow be reinstated in the middle of Joe Biden’s term is taken seriously. That’s crazy talk and that’s the stuff that Republicans are pushing.
Other big issues that have gotten my Republican friends talking in recent months have been a continuing backlash against masks and vaccines, the war on Dr. Seuss, how Kamala Harris is not really black, and the life and times of Hunter Biden. What these issues have in common is that they all have near-zero relevance to the undecided voters who will decide the next elections.
Part of this insanity that is now inherent in the Republican Party is due to Donald Trump. Even though Ron DeSantis edged out Trump in a recent straw poll, there is little doubt that the 2024 nomination belongs to Trump if he wants it. America is over Trump but for Republicans, the attitude is one of “I wish I knew how to quit you.”
Worse, Trump is a litmus test for other Republicans. Republican candidates must buy into the stolen election conspiracy theories and populism over conservatism if they want to win their primaries. But buying into the Trumpian worldview is problematic when it comes to the 60 or 70 percent of voters who view Trumpworld as crazy and unworthy of wielding power. After January 6, that includes a lot more conservatives than it did in November.
Donald Trump may have profited from this Republican detachment from reality, but he did not create it. Even before Trump rose to prominence, there were conspiracy theories about Barack Obama’s birth certificate and alleged Muslim beliefs as well as the belief that the Clintons were responsible for a long trail of murders. Republican crazy talk goes way back, but it has never been as widespread as it is today.
I think a big part of the problem is the creation of separate, partisan media spheres. Today, Republicans are likely to get most of their news from sources like Fox News, OANN, and Newsmax and never even hear voices from the other side that aren’t selected as extreme examples to be attacked and ridiculed.
Do Republicans know that these outlets and their personalities are losing defamation suits based on their reporting about Dominion voting machines? Do they know that a Republican audit of the Michigan election upheld Biden’s victory this week? Do they know that Rudy Giuliani just lost his law license because of legal malpractice relating to his claims about the election? Too many members of the Republican base are insulated from reality by a bubble of partisan news sources.
When your party is censuring people like Liz Cheney and Mitt Romney but is afraid to challenge people like Marjorie Taylor Greene, you should be worried. Sane Republicans should be very worried.
The Republican Party is in the unenviable position of having to fire up their base with fantasy-based stories about how Donald Trump didn’t really lose the election while simultaneously trying to appear sane to the moderates who fired Trump last fall and who will decide the party’s fate in 2022 and 2024. At the same time, the claims of voter fraud could backfire again and persuade Republican voters that they may as well stay home if the election is already rigged for Democrats. This phenomenon was partly to blame for the GOP loss in Georgia’s Senate runoffs as white, rural Republicans stayed home (or were making their way to the “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington the next day) and allowed Democrats to turn out in favor of Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossof.
Perhaps the best thing that Republicans have going for them as we head toward the next elections is that undecided voters don’t pay much attention to politics. Many of these independents won’t vote in primaries and won’t start thinking about who to vote for until a few weeks before the election. That means that Republicans have some time to get their house in order if they are still capable of doing so.
If you’re a Democrat and you’ve been nodding along up until now, brace yourself.
The Democrats are ascendant mainly because they are not Donald Trump. The 2020 election was not a grand mandate for the progressive platform of their dreams. It was a mandate to not be Donald Trump. That mission was accomplished on January 20.
So where do Democrats go from here? They have two alternatives. One is to veer hard left and the other is to play to the middle.
The smart move would be to play to the middle because, as we’ve established, it is the middle voters who determine the winners of elections, but neither party is likely to make the smart move. Partisans on both sides take the attitude that they need to ram their agenda through while they are in power because they may not be in power very long. When they do so, they appear out of control and scary to the moderate voters and the possibility that they will become a minority again soon becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In the case of the Democrats, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez is one of the Democrats vying for the role of Ted Cruz in the 2021 remake of the Republican Party’s internal civil war. AOC tweeted a warning in early June that Obama’s Democratic majority in 2009 only lasted four months and spurred her party to action.
But AOC misses the point that Democrats took a “shellacking” in 2010 precisely because they forged ahead with unpopular bills that angered voters. We cannot say how the 2010 midterms would have turned out if Democrats had not rammed through Obamacare since the opposition party usually gains in midterms, but they might have avoided the Republican landslide that they got.
AOC is also among the Democrats urging for the nuclear option to eliminate the filibuster, but the filibuster is actually the Democrats’ best friend right now. With the filibuster in place, Democrats can put forward any bill they want to in order to appease the base with the full knowledge that it won’t pass and tick off the voters.
Whether it’s election reform, gun control, a minimum wage increase, or whatever, Democrats can propose the bill and Republicans will filibuster it. Democrats can then use the filibuster as a tool for the upcoming elections.
”See?” they’ll say. “We wanted to enact a progressive wish list but Mitch McConnell stopped us. We need more Democrats in Congress.”
The problem is that when more Democrats get to Congress then they have to show results. That’s one of the things that drove the Republican Party crazy.
For years, Republicans were told that the party would repeal Obamacare if they just sent more Republicans to Washington. Republican voters obliged with control of the House, the Senate, and finally the White House, but the GOP never got to the point where they could overcome a Democratic filibuster. Republican voters finally decided that the party leaders were closet liberals and gave their allegiance to an outsider.
So, the Democrats have two things to worry about. The first is that the AOC wing of the party will get loud and successful enough to make moderate voters think that the Trump GOP isn’t so scary after all. Democrats are currently winning moderates and independents because the GOP has gone so far… not right but Trumpward… but that is not a permanent condition. If Democrats shift too far left, they could lose the middle. If you don’t think this is a real possibility, just refer back to the 2016 election.
Actually, you just have to refer back to 2020. Given the unpopularity of the Trump Administration, Democrats should have done well in congressional elections, but Biden had virtually no coattails. Democrats lost 12 seats in the House and only won a bare Senate majority after two months of Trump’s attempts to overturn the election angered Georgia voters into voting for two Democrats. 2020 was a repudiation of the radicals of both parties, not just the Republicans.
The other concern for Democrats is that if they aren’t able to show real progress to the progressive base over the next few years that the Democratic base might follow the Republicans into Cloud Cuckoo Land.* If this happens, Democrats might end up with their version of Donald Trump, a fate which they narrowly avoided in the 2020 primary.
The bottom line here is that political power is fleeting. No party is going to be a permanent majority (under our current system at least), but they can take steps to prolong their majority by not scaring the undecided voters in the middle. For better or for worse, however, both parties seem to only care about the radicals in their base.
If Democrats nuke the filibuster and veer left, it may well put Donald Trump back in the White House in 2024. If that happens, Democrats will have no one to blame but themselves.
* I recently learned this was what Rommel called Hitler’s fantasy land in which Germany still had armies capable of winning in 1944. I am not calling anyone a Nazi here, but I thought it was a delightful bit of trivia and applicable to today’s political arena. The German word is wolkenkuckucksheim if you’re interested.)
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