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Divided We Stand

Divided We Stand
New book about the 2020 election.

Wednesday, July 3, 2024

Voters Should Care About Democracy, but They Just Don't

Our most recent book is titled Divided We Stand: The 2020 Elections and American Politics. Among other things, it discusses the state of the partiesThe state of the GOP is not good. Some Republican leaders -- and a measurable number of rank-and-file voters -- are open to violent rebellioncoups, and secession.

A reality check from Ruy Teixeira:
1. To begin with, preserving/defending/whatever democracy persistently trails the economy/inflation as the issue voters think is most important, even when the democracy issue is specifically mentioned as part of a list.

2. And when respondents’ most important issue is solicited in an open-ended format, where respondents give an unprompted, top-of-mind answer, democracy simply does not rate very high. In the most recent Gallup poll, only 4 percent fall into a bucket they term “elections/election reform/democracy.” This vastly trails key economic problems, immigration, etc.

3. Even more recently, the new New York Times/Siena poll finds just 5 percent of voters (3 percent of working-class voters) saying “the state of democracy/corruption” will be the most important issue in deciding on their November vote, again substantially trailing the same set of issues. In an interesting followup, the poll asked voters who they thought could do a better job of handling whatever issue they designated as most important. By 14 points (24 points among the working class), voters thought Trump could do a better job than Biden of handling that issue.

4. Further undercutting the Biden campaign theory, an earlier New York Times poll asked voters what was the one thing they remembered most from Trump’s presidency; that most definitely was not January 6th. Just 5 percent mentioned it, again dwarfed by other events and trends.

5. And, as John Sides has pointed out, Biden’s victory over Trump in 2020 was not attributable to running on democracy or anything like that. Campaign messages and advertisements focused instead on the economy, the pandemic, health care and other less abstract issues. If there was a broader theme, it was a return to normalcy not saving democracy.

6. So, democracy does not appear to be the mega-salient issue the Biden campaign is envisioning. What makes the apparent drive to center the issue in the Biden campaign even less understandable is that the issue, as an issue, does not even cut very much in Biden’s direction unlike, say, abortion rights or health care. This is because preserving/defending democracy means different things to different voters; many voters don’t see the choice between Biden and Trump on the issue as blindingly obvious. They don’t, as the Democratic faithful would have it, believe Biden = democracy and Trump = fascism. Many see Trump as their paladin and view Biden and the Democrats as privileging the interests and preferences of their supporters, especially educated elites, in a distinctly non-democratic way.

7. That explains why Biden is not typically preferred by much over Trump on democracy and related issues. One of the most favorable results is in the latest Fox News poll where Biden is preferred over Trump by a modest 6 points on “the future of American democracy.” Even here, Trump gets the nod over Biden by 4 points among working class voters.

8. And there are many results that aren’t nearly so favorable. A March Wall Street Journal poll of battleground states had Biden ahead by just a point on “protecting democracy.” Similarly, over two waves of Democracy Corps’ battleground surveys, Biden and the Democrats were favored over Trump and the Republicans by an average of only 3.5 points on “presidents not being able to act as autocrats,” by 2.5 points on “democracy being secure,” and by 2 points on “protecting democracy” (first wave only). And Trump and the Republicans were favored over Biden and the Democrats by 1.5 points on “opposing extremism” (!) and by 5 points on “protecting the US constitution” (!!). All this hardly makes the democracy issue seem like a slam-dunk for the Biden campaign.

9. Even more devastating, a massive (3,500 registered voters) Washington Post/George Mason Schar School April-May survey of the battleground states found Trump favored over Biden by 11 points on who could do a better job handling “threats to democracy in the US.” And among a group of voters the survey dubbed “the Deciders,” more peripheral voters who will surge into the voting pool in 2024 and likely decide the election, Trump is favored by 9 points over Biden to safeguard democracy.

10. Looking over these data, one must conclude that the Biden campaign plan is to somehow dramatically raise the salience of democracy and January 6th among ordinary voters in coming months and simultaneously generate a robust advantage on the issue among these same voters. This is not impossible but it does not really seem advisable; a little like drawing to an inside straight in poker. You might make it but you probably won’t.