Rogue bands of Republicans, such as “Never Trumpers” and The Lincoln Project, a super PAC created by self-exiled Republican campaign consultants, tend to receive a great deal of media attention. But among actual voters, there has been no evidence of the “disaffected Republican” who often appears on liberal news outlets such as MSNBC. Although we saw massive turnout surges from Democrats and Independents in 2018, a “lost narrative” from the cycle is the strong turnout surge from Republican voters. Notably, the Republican surge occurred while their party fully controlled the government. When Democrats were in a similar condition during the Obama administration, their turnout collapsed.
In 2020, Joe Biden and congressional Democrats are benefitting from Donald Trump’s mismanagement of the pandemic. But the effect is only modest and confined to independent voters. In this hyperpartisan era of polarization, Trump receives high marks from Republicans for his handling of the pandemic.
This illustrates a key feature of the polarized era: the inelasticity in public opinion data. Today, voters assess everything via a partisan lens, keeping the effect on one’s own tribe foremost in mind. When a Republican voter is asked to assess Trump’s handling of the pandemic (or any other public issue), protective partisan instincts kick in, even at the cost of expressing sentiment that may not reflect true attitudes. For example, a recent CBS/YouGov poll reported that 57% of Republicans asserted that 170,000 COVID deaths (the figure at the time of the poll) were “acceptable,” while 31% of independents said the same.Footnote 3 This Republican majority may well have found the number disturbing -- but they also were aware that their answer reflected on Trump’s job performance, which they are compelled to defend. Even so-called independents, such as the one-third who found the COVID death toll acceptable, often have partisan leanings even though they may be embarrassed to state them out loud. (About 35% of independents actually lean toward the Right ideologically.)
The inelasticity of public opinion is also displayed in the longitudinal polling of the head-to-head ballot test between Biden and Trump, which has been publicly available all year. At the start of 2020, before the Democratic nomination contest began, Biden held an average 9.5 percentage point advantage, according to the Real Clear Politics polling average. Biden’s road to the nomination was rocky and he suffered a significant amount of negative news coverage. By the time he righted his campaign, his lead over Trump had declined to 5.8% by mid-March.
Then the pandemic hit, as well as an opportunity for the president to display crisis leadership. It is plausible that the president could have responded with policies that demonstrated leadership competency, as was done in some other democratic countries. Resulting public approval had the potential to override the negative polarization fundamentals working against him and at least put him into competition for reelection. None of this came to pass – but nevertheless the pandemic had only modest impacts on Trump’s head-to-head polling against the Democratic nominee. - Biden’s post-March polling advantage over Trump only increased 1.4%, compared to the pre-pandemic period.
So why are voter preferences in 2020 so inelastic? Typically, presidential election polling produces a competitive race that widens and narrows, and even switches leaders. Yet, the 2020 data has been almost flatlined and even the introduction of a major political crisis barely registers in the data. Polling numbers have remained so consistent because partisan voters have become so insensitive to political stimuli. In mid-March, just as the pandemic was beginning to shut down the country, 86% of Republicans approved of the job Trump was doing, according to the YouGov/Economist tracking poll.Footnote 4 Some five months later, 84% of Republicans approve. In March, 88% of Republicans said they planned to vote for the president’s reelection. At the end of August, after a global pandemic tested his leadership abilities and left the American economy at the verge of a depression, 88% of Republicans are still voting for the president.
Democrats show similar consistency. In the latter stages of the nomination contest in March, 89% of Democrats said they would vote for Biden. That portion rose to 93% in August as Democrats quickly coalesced behind the former vice president. The Democrats’ infighting of 2016 has been replaced by high party unity in 2020, at least around this central mission of defeating the president.
But polarization is not regulated to partisans. Most independents are in fact “leaners” who gravitate toward one party or the other and display polarized behaviors. (Klar and Krupnikov 2016). The pool of pure independents is actually quite small, between 10 to 15% of most electorates. All in all, − when polarization and hyperpartisanship are high and exerting large effects as they are now- there is little room for political stimuli and events to have large impacts. As of September, Biden led among independents by 4 points in the YouGov/Economist poll. In March, Trump led Biden by 4 points. This modest swing of 8 percentage points in the polarized era is the equivalent of a 15-point swing in an earlier era. The movement of independents suggests that even through a heavy fog of polarization, democratic accountability is functioning – but not nearly as strongly as when our body politic was not suffering from the fever of polarization.
In a healthy democracy, political events exert strong effects on voters who assess the performance of their elected representatives the old-fashioned way- on the merits. In the 1980 presidential election between incumbent Democratic President Jimmy Carter and Republican challenger Ronald Reagan, the country faced both a long-term economic crisis as well as a national security crisis that Americans came to see Carter as mismanaging. Like Trump, Carter found himself running for reelection as a deeply unpopular incumbent. But unlike Trump, Carter ran for office in an era before hyperpartisanship came to provide what amounts to electoral immunity from one’s own political party.
When the Iran hostage crisis first began, Carter benefited from a robust “rally around the flag” effect, but as the hostage situation dragged on without resolution, voters soured on his handling of the crisis. Reagan also benefited from the presence of an independent candidate on the ballot, John B. Anderson, who began to gain serious traction. The elasticity of voter opinions, among both independents and even partisans, was high. Voters, much more free from the polarization and hyperpartisanship that plagues today’s politics, assessed Carter’s performance on the merits to a much greater extent.
Nowadays, though, partisanship has transitioned into a matter of social identity for many, one that must be protected along “tribal” lines (Mason 2017). Hyperpartisanship, alongside the development of “white identity politics”- the perception that whiteness is threatened and marginalized (Jardina 2018)- will play defining roles in the outcome of the 2020 cycle. Although Democrats enjoy a turnout boost from negative partisanship (which is as much about fear as it is about hate), the white grievance politics on display at the Republicans’ national convention taps into negative partisanship as well. For all the talk about the middle of the electorate and Obama-to-Trump voters, the outcome of the 2020 election will be highly determined by the turnout of each party’s coalition, and the ability of each party to recognize and tap into the realigning elements of those coalitions with their electioneering strategy.