Letter from Washington: Race and the 2020 race
The facts don’t fit the story Democrats want to tell themselves
If Donald Trump loses in two and a half weeks — and right now every indicator suggests he will — liberal America will have a story ready to tell itself. It will be the tale of a rainbow coalition that rose up and defeated the personification of white America’s ethnonationalist id. A new, multiracial America will have asserted itself. An older, whiter America will finally have had to acknowledge it no longer runs the show.
However, one of the more interesting subplots of the 2020 race suggests a more complicated picture. Amidst the president’s dire polling numbers is a surprising blip: Trump has gained ground among black and latino voters. In 2016, Trump won 28 per cent of the latino vote. This time, polls put his support among latinos slightly higher. According to the latest NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll, 38 per cent of latino voters plan on voting Trump next month. Four years ago, Trump failed to break double digits among black voters. This time, the polls show a modest improvement.
A Washington Post analysis of a recent Pew survey, which breaks down the electorate into smaller demographic categories than other polls, underscores the point. The four groups that have seen the biggest swing to Trump since 2016 are Hispanic Catholics, Hispanic men, black women and black Protestants — all heavily Democratic but growing less so.
Meanwhile, poll after poll reports a bloodbath for Trump among his strongest demographic group: non-college educated whites. Pew finds a drop in support among non-college educated white men from 73 per cent in 2016 to 60 per cent today. The Marist poll suggests that Biden is on course to be the first Democratic candidate to win a majority of the vote among all white Americans since Jimmy Carter in 1976. That would be a significant achievement — especially when you consider how much more diverse the electorate is today.
The upshot of all this is that the American electorate is set to become less racially divided. If the polling is borne out in the election results, it would be a paradoxical development given how large race relations have loomed in the US this year. And, all else being equal, it would also be a change for the better. The less determinative race is of voting intention, the better. The less demographic groups are seen as homogenous voting blocs, the healthier the democracy.
America is nevertheless politically divided over race even as it grows less racially divided over politics. But the electorally significant change appears to be when it comes to attitudes on race among white voters. Writing in the New York Times this week, Thomas Edsall cites academic data demonstrating a “sharp decline in racial resentment among white Democrats, particularly from 2012 to 2020”. Edsall also quotes a paper by three political scientists who argue that, as he puts it, “Trump has gone too far in his use of racially charged messages, provoking disgust among a segment of voters. This disgust has, in turn, driven many white voters to lessen or abandon their sense of white identity or white solidarity.” In other words, white identity politics can work, but not if you take it too far.
If this logic is right, Trump’s probable loss next month would be better understood as a failure to keep pace with the changing attitudes of white America rather than a failure to keep up with the electorate’s demographic changes.
Another part of the story might also be the low salience of immigration in this year’s election. The issue was a major theme of Trump’s 2016 campaign. This time, it has hardly featured — a combination of the coronavirus and Trump administration policies mean there have been virtually no new arrivals to the United States this year, while the candidates are simply talking about other things. Perhaps this gives some white voters one less reason to vote for Trump, and latinos and others one less reason not to vote for Trump.
To be clear, America’s racial divides on voting intention are still considerable. However, imagine you are a Republican preparing for the post-Trump era. You might be dismayed at all the things Trump has done to turn off non-white voters. But you might also note that the President who has, as one of his own party’s senators put it this week, “flirted with white supremacists” is doing no worse than his recent predecessors with black and latino Americans. And you might wonder whether reports of the “coming Democratic majority” aren’t, once again, greatly exaggerated.
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