President-elect Joe Biden won the most votes of any presidential candidate in history, with 51.3 percent of the electorate giving him more than 81 million votes. President Donald J. Trump, garnering 46.8 percent, won the second most at 74 million votes. A historic election year, for sure, but not the landmark repudiation many Democrats were hoping for.
Keep in mind, approximately 47 percent of Americans supported Trump despite a global pandemic ravaging the nation and a (relatively) slower economy, as well as a host of other concerns regarding the president’s character.
And that support trickled down — Republicans, despite being out-funded and forced to defend more seats than they could realistically pick up, managed to pick up more than seven House seats (so far, many races have yet to be called). In comparison, former President Barack Obama’s 3.9 percent popular vote margin in 2012 netted his party eight House seats.
Compounding this victory was the GOP’s gains in state legislatures across the nation.
The Republicans also held ground in the Senate, having defended multiple seats against tremendous odds (Sen. Susan Collins (D-Maine) is now one of Maine’s longest-serving senators). Ultimately, control of that body falls to the two runoffs in Georgia in January, and Republicans consistently outperform Democrats in special elections.
What this all means is that Trumpism does not die with Trump. The white working-class — non-college-educated whites — are the enthusiastic base of the post-2016 Republican coalition. This is a relatively new development.
Sure, former President Ronald Reagan carried the non-college vote by similar (slightly lower) margins in 1980 and 1984, but turnout did not break 56 percent in either of those elections. In contrast, Trump carried non-college voters by margins a fair bit higher than Reagan, with a turnout rate of about 65 percent, the highest it has been in over a century.
That Trump was able to maintain his support indicates that his message’s appeal goes far beyond anti-Clinton sentiment. The GOP is well aware of this development. Do not expect a Romney-esque return to beltway conservatism after Trump leaves office.
There are signs that the GOP’s coalition is not just tied to white men too. Trump actually did better among women of every race in 2020 than in 2016. It is true that, contrary to his own claims, Trump did not win nonwhite voters by historic margins.
Among Asian voters, he did worse than former President George W. Bush in both his elections. Among Black voters, he matched former Rep. Robert Dole’s (R-Kan.) 1996 run (although, again, he managed all this with far less favorable turnout situations).
Trump’s showing among these groups is illuminative for other reasons, though. He did increase his support among all three (Black, Asian and Latinx) groups from 2016. And he did this despite, well, being Trump and despite a recession and pandemic that has disproportionately impacted minority communities.
The exact mechanism of Trump’s win is not easy to pin down. Theories abound: economic anxiety, cultural erosion, racial resentment, etc. But, it remains true that many of Trump’s rhetorical appeals focused around a kind of othering that one would expect many minority groups to react negatively to.
That he improved among nonwhite voters despite this indicates that Republicans do not really have to compromise between nationalist-populist appeals and greater nonwhite outreach.
But there is a demographic turned off by Trump’s brand of rhetoric. Biden’s wins in Georgia, Arizona and Pennsylvania probably came as a result of college-educated whites ditching Republicans en masse in 2020 (in Michigan and Wisconsin, Trump suffered from substantial slips in his working-class support, although the national pattern in this regard was much smaller). Prior to Trump, white graduates were a tentative Republican bloc.
In many ways, Trump simply accelerated a trend that started after the Great Recession. College-educated voters were getting more liberal even before Trump entered the scene. There are a lot of reasons this could be.
College is not as correlated with fabulous amounts of wealth as it once was. Student debt has become an issue almost unparalleled in its economic enormity. Whatever the case may be, Republicans' losses among this group certainly hurt them, and there is no doubt that Trump’s presence on the ballot caused a large part of it.
It is not unlikely that a more polished professional could hold onto Trump’s working-class supporters while placating the college graduates in 2024. But, in the long run, any future Republican coalition would have to find a satisfactory answer to the college question if it wants to remain nationally competitive.
A week after election day, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said, “The future of the party is based on a multiethnic, multiracial, working-class coalition,” according to The Hill. For now, this seems unrealistic at best. After all, the congressional GOP’s single concrete achievement over the last four years was cutting taxes. They are not exactly the Lorax of the working class.
Running presidential campaigns on hard-hat principles only works if you follow up on your promises after taking power, and to do that, you have got to have party elites willing to back these agendas — just ask Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.).
As for foreign policy, well, it is no secret that the congressional Republicans are natural hawks. Moving from this issue would draw the ire of the iron triangle, and it remains to be seen if enough of the party has the guts to shift (back) on that issue. Whether the GOP will walk the walk as it talks the talk is a matter of historical contingency.
Sumit Bedi is a School of Arts and Sciences first-year majoring in philosophy. His column, "Through a Glass, Darkly," runs on alternate Wednesdays.
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