Yascha Mounk: Trump could win again
While many of the most politically engaged Americans really have sorted into mutually hostile tribes, the country as a whole remains far less politically partisan. According to recent polls, 42 percent of Americans call themselves independent and 35 percent consider themselves moderate.
The outcomes of the past two elections revealed the importance of such voters. According to an analysis by Geoffrey Skelley, for example, 11 percent of those who voted for Trump in 2016 voted for Barack Obama in 2012. Since all these voters subtracted a vote from the Democratic column and added one to the Republican column, they made a real difference in the outcome. If Hillary Clinton had been able to retain as little as one-fifth of this group, she would likely have won a comfortable majority in the Electoral College.
Swing voters also help explain how Democrats were able to stage such a spectacular comeback in the midterm elections. In 2018, the chaos and extremism of Trump’s first years in office drove a lot of moderate voters into the Democratic camp. As Yair Ghitza argued in a comprehensive postmortem, Democrats were able to take the House of Representatives because they won back a lot of voters in suburban swing districts across the country. Democrats also improved their share of the vote in rural areas, something that could make a crucial difference in key states such as Florida next year. Ghitza’s conclusion was unambiguous: “A large portion of gains came from people who voted in both elections, switching from supporting Trump in 2016 to supporting Democrats in 2018.”
None of this means that these voters—let’s call them “nonpartisans,” because they do not see themselves as either Democrat or Republican—are a cohesive political group. As Lee Drutman has recently shown, only a small percentage of so-called moderates or independents are centrists who consistently hold views more conservative than those of the Democratic Party and more progressive than those of the Republican Party. Instead, nonpartisans hold a variety of political views, and tend to be ideologically fluid.
Perhaps for that reason, many of these nonpartisans are easily turned off by what they see as extremism. Alexander Agadjanian found recently that when “independents who could ultimately tilt things in Mr. Trump’s favor” are presented with newspaper articles that emphasize Democratic support for abolishing private health insurance or decriminalizing unauthorized border crossings, they become “six percentage points less likely to vote Democratic.”
Oddly, many of the analysts who emphasize the incoherence of moderate and independent voters also tend to assume that the voters Democrats are trying to “mobilize”—the Democrats who often stay home—have highly coherent, and consistently progressive, views about public policy. Do they?