The key to victory is in the losing margins

There is a fight for the fringes going on. Whoever wins that battle will win the war.

Every election cycle we are told there has been massive re-calibration of the electorate and that, in order for our chosen party to succeed next time, we need to ‘un-learn’ everything we know about the way people vote.

There is some historic precedent to this. The South changing hand from Democrat to Republic is probably the most explicit. But more recently, Texas bleeding Blue and Wisconsin turning Red show that, to put it mildly, conventional wisdom cannot always be relied on.

This cycle we are operating off the back of an election where an over-sized orange man child came from 1% in the polls to beat possibly the most qualified candidate of all time (albeit losing by over 3 million votes in the process). Trump achieved this, at least in part, by appealing to a committed, unshakeable base. He has also expressed, as clearly as his intelligence allows, that it is his intention to hold steadfast to the same base that elected him in 2016.

After being asked whether he should reach out to ‘swing voters’, he said “I think my base is so strong, I’m not sure that I have to do that”.

But so what, everyone knows that was his plan. What’s going to be different?

What actually is Trump’s base? Besides the white, uneducated males. I mean, that can’t be enough to win a national election, surely?

In a really simple exchange, other, supplementary avenues to success became apparent.

Republicans have always done historically better with Cuban immigrants than any other minorities, for precisely the reason this guy highlights below, but what about others? What about the Black vote or the Latino vote? Can we say they make up part of Trump’s base, or are the electoral add-ons?

And what about the Democrats? They have won the popular vote in four out of the five elections this century, yet have only won the electoral college twice. Their base, like Trump’s is strong. How, then, are the Democrats going to stop kicking field goals when they need to play chess.

The answer might be an unconventional ‘steal’ from the opponents base.

The Democrats:

For Democrats, they will inevitably secure the lion’s share of the minority vote, especially the Black vote. Not by as higher margins as Obama did, sure, but convincingly enough.

They are more interested in the white, uneducated, typically male chunk of Trump’s base; those who might be able to secure PA, WI, MI, and/or NC. Similarly, even if they manage to take the state, they are unlikely to ‘win big’ here, but some initial scoping by Democrat pollsters leads me to believe they are not going to give up on it entirely. Specifically, those voters in rural areas — a geography the party has historically struggled to do well in.

The graphic below shows how Democrats have struggled to win over rural voters in the past three elections. With the United States Census Bureau stating that 60 million people (nearly the population of the entire UK) live in ‘rural areas’, that’s a lot of votes they’re not getting, in fact, they’re getting fewer and fewer of them each time around.

Source: https://www.npr.org/2016/11/14/501737150/rural-voters-played-a-big-part-in-helping-trump-defeat-clinton?t=1561392212892

When coupled with policy questions around healthcare, this target voting group are particularly receptive to voting Democrat.

For example, as part of a study conducted by Democrat research group, American Bridge, they looked at a group of voters from small towns and rural areas, focusing exclusively on those most likely to vote Republican. Just 25% of those surveyed rated Trump positively for ‘reducing health care costs’, while 67% rated him negatively. Similarly, they found a 39–51 split on the question of whether Trump is ‘taking on the drug and pharma companies’.

Just this week, there was a powerful video op-ed in the New York Times from North Carolina that seemed to support this trend. The video highlighted the situation of those in the ‘Medicaid Gap’ whereby they earn too much to qualify for Medicaid, but not enough for Obamacare or private insurance. In the video a woman is interviewed and says;

“I did vote for Donald Trump but I believe all human beings should have access to health care”

The Republican representative, Phil Berger, hits back and says the obligation to cover additional people…does not make fiscal sense to us”, despite support from Democrat Governor, Roy Cooper. In North Carolina, the Democrats will surely be pilling in resources in an attempt to flip it in 2020 and using some of Trump’s base to achieve that goal.

There was positive news from the 2018 midterms, too. While the ‘celebrity’ wins for the Democrats came from urban and sub-urban areas (Ilhan Omar, Minnesota 5th, AOC, NY 14th), Catalist — another Democratic data firm — pointed out that, while the party was still not gaining majorities in rural areas, they were winning a bigger share of the vote than ever before.

Ultimately, the party knows full-well that they are not going persuade masses of Trump’s base to switch to Democrats, not in four short years. However, if they are able to make small dents — perhaps changing the split from 85–15 to 75–25 — then in a tight election, those unexpected, hidden electoral groups could make all the difference.

The Republicans

Despite winning the electoral college, I would suspect the Republicans are more worried that they would want to be considering their candidate is the incumbent and the economy is performing well. Not only has Trump failed to ever reach 50% approval rating (the first and only President not to do so during their first term), but his support across specific states has tanked as well.

Moreover, a recent report by Public Opinion Strategies shows that public perception of the GOP hasn’t been net positive since 2004 and crucially, it hasn’t overtaken the perception of the Democrats since then either (despite making some major improvements in the last two years).

Source: Public Opinion Strategies

The Republicans, therefore, may attempt to employ the same fringe strategy as the Democrats. There are certain levers they can pull in order to secure votes from ‘minority’ groups knowing they are unlikely to get the majority of the ‘minority’ vote any time soon. Arguably, Trump is uniquely positioned to do so.

For example, since February, Trump has often proclaimed African-American, Hispanic American and Asian-American unemployment have all reached their lowest levels ever recorded.

While this seems entirely counter-intuitive for a man who’s prior claim to Washington fame was a racist obsession with Obama’s birth certificate, Trump still won 28% of the Hispanic vote, 27% of the Asian vote and 8% of the black vote in 2016.

His administration is also underpinning much of their immigration policy with concern (genuine or not) for the impact it has on the black and Hispanic communities. When Congress wouldn’t grant funding for the wall in January, Trump said “all Americans are hurt by uncontrolled illegal migration… among those hardest hit are African-Americans and Hispanic Americans.”

This might well prove a useful approach. A Quinnipiac University poll last year found that 54% of black voters and 55% of Hispanics thought illegal crossing of the border with Mexico was an ‘important problem’. While 31% of black voters and 40% of Hispanics believed in using the National Guard to patrol the border with Mexico, and 13% of black voters and 25% of Hispanics supported the building of Trump’s wall.

If Trump can marry this to some iconic images of Kanye West in the White House and some genuinely impressive criminal justice reform, then he may well have the capacity to make further gains in 2020.

As we are expecting Trump to take the same, near-impossibly narrow path to re-election, his ability to secure those on the fringe of his base — taking away hitherto guaranteed Democrat votes — will be crucial.

No one needs reminding just how far away from election day we are. In fact, it probably is worth remembering that some — in fact millions — of voters won’t decide who they vote for until at least October 2020; while some won’t even be sure as they step into the voting booth.

It’s a deeply complex and unpredictable picture made even more so by the paradox of Trump’s general unpopularity versus the incumbent advantage and the strong economy. Needless to say, much will dependent on the Democrat candidate.

However, Trump has made it clear already that he does not intend to deviate from his ‘base’. In doing so, he will hope to secure at least two of the three ‘rust belt’ states he flipped in 2016 (MI, WI, PA). The obvious problem with that approach is that he didn’t actually win. The Democrats, for the third time in a row got more votes than the Republicans. If a group the size of a sports stadium changed its mind across three states in 2016 then Clinton would be President.

Trump’s uniqueness doesn’t end there, either. There is evidence to suggest that, despite championing grossly racist policies, minority voters, especially Hispanic voters, are attracted to him (I accept that speaking about Hispanic voters in broad terms as though they are a homogeneous block is unhelpful and there does need to be more nuance there).

Both parties then have a bizarre opportunity. In a highly polarised political landscape and with nearly 70% of people already interested in the election next year (note: it was 72% during mid-October 2016!), the two parties could open-up, expose, and benefit from new cleavages of support.

The great irony in this development is that both sides know full-well that they are still going to lose out to their opponent when pursuing new voting groups. The key to victory, then, will be in how small they can make those margins.

Written by

Writing on US politics from across the pond. Occasional comments in the build up to the 2020 election week. Views rarely my own. Especially the funny ones.

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