We are approaching Peak Analysis Season,trying to understand how on earth 74 million people could vote for a corrupt, incompetent, venal man who laughs at their struggles while implementing right wing policies that make their lives worse. I’m going to offer some less-obvious explanations to include in the anguished discussion.
But first we must celebrate the change from 2016. Joe Biden’s popular vote margin was twice as big as Hilary Clinton’s, in both votes and percentage points. And this time we won. Further, even though the loss of 12 or so House seats was disappointing, we still hold the House – and in 2016 Republicans had a 45-seat majority. So, despite the angst, we should never forget that we are the growing majority of Americans, and they are the ones in the bubble.
So it is true that there are lots of Trump voters who are racist, greedy, reactionary, and startlingly misinformed. And there are a lot of others who voted for him because of historic and community ties to voting Republican. We all knew this, but we hoped for a greater swing away, as the lies and mismanagement seemed so comprehensive and obvious.
It’s important to remember that there is a large percentage of American adults who pay little attention to politics. Some of them are turned off or were never turned on. A lot simply don’t have the bandwidth as they struggle to get by, holding down multiple jobs, managing family issues, trying to juggle daycare and school and children with special needs or other difficulties. They don’t have the energy to be engaged – although ironically, Democratic policies would often bring much needed help. So they vote based on the one or two things that catch their attention.
So here’s my list of factors, inconvenient truths, that motivated many voters.
COVID was a winning issue for Trump. We all thought that the public was aghast at how he mismanaged it. But I think people who reacted to that were mostly going to vote against him anyway, for many reasons. And it helped Trump in subliminal ways:
COVID took a lot of voters out of the electorate because it killed them, and until recently, they were mostly minorities and voters in Democratic areas. Beyond that, it meant that door-to-door outreach and community mobilization were disproportionately Republican strengths this year, as Democrats struggled with fear and social distancing constraints. Voter registration was down in most states, and canvassing was very curtailed. Nothing replaces that personal contact.
It also dominated the issue arena, so issues that could draw voters to Democrats, such as health care, income inequality, worker protection, the environment and climate change, human services, and housing, were almost invisible. Sure, activists knew about them, but less engaged voters likely did not have them in mind.
Poor communication. The alternative to Trump’s failures was not clearly defined. Biden said he would “follow the science,” but what did that mean? A universal mask mandate? Shutting down the economy? The details got lost in the big picture, and that left an opening for Republicans to paint a negative picture of what he would do.
Optimism. Trump came across as the optimist, the hopeful one, and people often grasp at that, especially when the facts are so grim and so contested. When he said “It will go away,”, “the vaccine is coming,”, “we don’t need to shut the economy down,”, those things were appealing. He was the pied piper, and Democrats were the scolds.
Macho Signals. And then there was the macho appeal – Biden “hiding away.” Trump “beating the virus” and being the strong man, which fed into the misogynist/sexist theme (see below). And rallying around the leader in a crisis is also a natural phenomenon, as in 9-11, which could have been blamed on Bush, but instead gained him popularity.
Trump’s medium-size lies. Anne Applebaum (in Twilight of Democracy) identified this as a defining trait of modern authoritarian regimes. It’s tough to pull off big lies, but having others promoting them (“COVID doesn’t exist”) makes the medium-size lie seem reasonable (“it will just go away,” “it’s no worse than the flu,” etc.). I suspect that people not obsessed with politics were overwhelmed by the lists of dozens of daily lies. We thought it was appalling; they just tuned out. Paradoxically, telling so many lies neutralized the shock value, and left people free to ignore them and to believe selectively what fit their hopes and perceptions of the world.
The campaign was cleverer than we gave them credit for. Of course, we thought, nobody could believe that Biden was a socialist, or that Democrats wanted to get rid of all police and burn down the cities, or all the horrible things that the campaign accused us of. But playing those tunes over and over again made people nervous, and, as Mencken remarked, “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.” Distracted, desperately wanting things to get better, believing that someone has to be to blame, voters reacted to bogeymen that we laughed about.
Misogyny and racism. As Kamala Harris noted, while we all thought it was perfectly logical, it actually took a lot of courage for Biden to put her on the ticket. Yes, she energized and activated a lot of people, and that brought in some votes. But a powerful woman of color is even more of a threat to some people than a white woman, and I suspect that this was a factor in some of the small shifts to Trump among black and Latino males.
Finally, a caution and a silver lining. I’m not sure these are testable hypotheses, but I suspect that even the detailed study that Pew Research is doing, interviewing actual voters in depth about their vote and its motivations, may not get at these issues. My informed guesses seem to me real enough, and one test is to ask whether they resonate with you readers.
The good news is that this is less depressing than assuming that all those Trump voters looked at him in depth and decided they liked his real character and policies. There is an opening to reach these folks, if only we can figure out how to do that!