The Republican Party’s Last Burp of Hope
Why I’m optimistic about America—even if Trump gets re-elected
By Jeremiah Lee
Thursday, October 22, 2020
Since 2016, the Trump administration has harmed nearly every institution that ever made America great. I understand why Americans and people around the world feel despair. I have felt it on occasion too. But when I look at how Trump got to the White House, US population trends, and the unrest of voters today, I am convinced we should be optimistic. The Republican party is on its deathbed and Donald Trump is its last burp of hope.
Republicans can no longer win national popular votes.
In the 5 presidential elections of this millennium, the Republican presidential candidate won the popular vote only once.1 Senators McCain and Romney were quintessential Republican presidential candidates, but lost in 2008 and 2012 respectively.
The 2016 Republican presidential primary showed a party with no apparent leader. A Vaudevillian performance of no-names jabbed each other in hope Americans would like their clown punch best. Pundits changed their top prediction every week. Republican primary voters split their votes across the many unremarkable candidates. That a reality tv show host would win a nomination contest of no substance with a mere plurality—not majority—of the primary votes should not have surprised us.
Instead, the surprise of the 2016 presidential election was that Donald Trump secured the presidency while losing the popular vote. An electoral college/popular vote split had happened only 4 times in US history, just once since the 1800s and even then required an unprecedented circumstance. George W Bush only won the Electoral College vote in 2000 because the US Supreme Court allowed Florida to certify its results before the state’s recount completed. When the non-binding recount concluded, Governor Bush had actually lost both the popular and Electoral College votes.2
The 2016 presidential election was not a national contest. The result was determined by 3 states that had a margin less than 1% in favor of Trump. While Secretary Hillary Clinton received over 2.8 million more votes nationally, Trump received ~80,000 more votes collectively in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin to win the Electoral College.3
Trump’s antics excited a political party that had lacked energy for decades, but it did not increase voter turnout in his favor. He received around the same number of votes in these states as Governor Romney in 2012 and Senator McCain in 2008. His methods, however, were still effective for him.
Despite an increase in eligible voters, the total number of votes cast in Michigan and Wisconsin declined and the decrease in voter turnout almost exclusively affected Secretary Clinton. Many of the people who voted for President Obama in these states simply did not vote for anyone in 2016. Donald Trump’s lying and misdirection did not increase support for his candidacy, but he did convince enough Americans to not vote against him.
It’s quite possible Trump will win another Electoral College victory using these same techniques to amplify Democrat-leaning voters’ feelings of disappointment with yet another centrist nominee. The good news is that the 22nd Amendment to the US Constitution prevents Trump from running a third time, not destroying the country is in his economic interest, and he is an unrepeatable anomaly within the Republican Party.
For a Republican to succeed Trump, they will need to negatively affect Democrat-leaning voter turnout. None of the other 2016 Republican presidential primary candidates were willing to win by using outright lies and divisiveness. Even after his election, most Republican elected officials distanced themselves from Trump while supporting his policies. But suppose there were a Republican candidate willing to imitate Trump’s tactics. Trump’s lies about his opposition depend on his believability as a successful businessman, tell-it-like-it-is arbiter of truth, and Washington outsider. As of late 2020, there are no potential candidates in the Republican party who could follow Trump’s act. He is a closer and the party is over.
Demographic changes are aligned with Democrats.
The narrow margins that currently make an Electoral College victory for Republicans possible will be obliterated by 3 trends. White Baby Boomers living in rural areas represent the majority of Republican-leaning voters today.4 The Republican party is failing to appeal to younger generations, ethnic and racial minorities, and people living in urban areas.
1. In 2019, Millennials overtook Baby Boomers to become the nation’s largest living adult generation.5
Pew Research Center found “most Millennials have ‘consistently liberal’ or ‘mostly liberal’ views,” and that their liberal leaning is strengthening over time. The generational divide is observable on nearly every issue.
The vast majority of Millennials believe:6
- the federal government has a responsibility to provide healthcare to everyone
- diplomacy is the best way to ensure peace
- the country needs to continue making changes to give Blacks equal rights
- immigrants strengthen the country
- LGBTQ people deserve equality
- human-caused climate change demands action
- abortion and marijuana should be legal
- gun control is more important than gun ownership
The World Economic Forum reported that the top 3 issues for Millennials are climate change, large scale conflict/wars, and income inequality.7 These issues have been part of the last 5 Democratic presidential platforms, whereas the Republican platforms emphasized longstanding wedge issues like gun ownership, abortion, and “the war on terror” over substantive policy changes.
Republicans have a challenge in reconciling their current positions with the generation that started adulthood protesting with Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and the Women’s March. If Republicans are planning to adapt to the reality of aging Baby Boomers and the also liberal Gen Z coming of voting age, such plans are not yet evident.
2. Pluralism is increasing in America.
While the majority of white voters identify with the Republican Party, they are a shrinking percentage of the electorate. Over half of the next generation of Americans is multi-racial. In 2020, no single race had greater than 50% representation in the child population for the first time in US history.8
The Hispanic American population alone is expected to increase from 19% today to 30% by 2050.9 Texas and Arizona will be over 40% Hispanic American by then, making it similar to New Mexico today, which primarily elects Democrats. Both states will flip to Democrats sooner than later.
In Arizona, the Hispanic American population has been growing for decades. Within that growth are two trends: more Hispanic Americans are reaching voting age and participation of eligible voters is increasing.10 Now, Arizona is a swing state. While a Democratic presidential candidate has not won Arizona this millennium, the Republican victory margin has steadily decreased. In 2018, Democrats won 4 statewide races for the first time in a decade. Now, Biden has held a narrow polling advantage over Trump since mid-March11 and Democrat Mark Kelly is predicted to win the late Republican John McCain’s Senate seat.12
In Texas, the 2018 elections also revealed the start of a leftward swing. A Democrat has not held a Texas federal Senate seat since 1993, but incumbent Republican Senator Ted Cruz came within 2 percentage points of losing to Democrat Beto O’Rourke. Other races reached a tipping point. Democrats gained 2 federal House seats, 1 state Senate, and 12 state House seats. If the voting pattern with the current demographic patterns continues, Democrat-leaning voters will be the majority in the state within the next 2 presidential elections. Texas, as the nation’s second-largest state, has the second most Electoral College votes. Without it, Republicans have no victory path to win the presidency.
3. Blue cities in red states are growing disproportionately.
The fastest growing US cities are in states Trump won in 2016. Birthrate alone does not account for the increase. Much of growth comes from Millennial migration. With cities like New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, and Boston already at high density, the growth has been concentrated in cities that had space to grow.
Cities historically have been more liberal than rural areas. Twice as many urban voters affiliate with Democrats compared to Republicans.13 Even Republicans in urban areas are more left leaning. For example, nearly twice as many Republicans in urban areas felt legal same-sex marriage was a good thing compared to Republicans in rural areas.14
Urban counties are now growing 4 times faster than rural counties.15 The effect of city population surpassing the rural population in a state can be observed in Democrats’ improved performance in Georgia and North Carolina state-wide elections.
Georgia’s population has increased by more than 300,000 since 2016. The counties that voted for Secretary Clinton have grown nearly twice as much.16 In 2018, Democrats received 49% of the vote in state elections for governor, attorney general, and secretary of state.17 Voters who had lived in Georgia less than a decade comprised 11% of the vote and 65% of them voted for Democrat governor candidate Stacey Abrams.18 Georgia is nearing a tipping point.
North Carolina may have plenty of gun shops and odes to the Antebellum era, but it also has Raleigh’s Research Triangle with 3 major research universities, the art-filled Asheville, and the second-largest city in the Southeast, Charlotte. These cities are growing twice as fast as the rest of the state,19 with New York and Asia as the top net sources of immigration.20 Secretary Clinton narrowly lost the state in 2016, but voters replaced their Republican governor with a Democrat a year later. Biden currently leads in polls21 and Democrat Cal Cunningham is predicted to unseat a Senate Republican incumbent.22
The cracks in the Republican “Southern wall” are visible.
Virginia consistently voted for the Republican presidential candidate for 4 decades until 2008. Now, Democrats have full control of the state’s government for the first time this millennium.23 The rest of the wall will crumble with these population trends. How soon depends on how many of the people changing the electorate in these states vote. The recent attempts by Republicans to disenfranchise voters can slow the pace of change, but not stop the inevitable consequences of these population trends.
Optimism is unstoppable.
Nearly 45% of eligible voters didn’t vote in 2016. Democrats can decisively flip several states if just 1–3% more people vote. The 2018 “blue wave” Congressional midterm elections demonstrated how Democrats could increase voter turnout in their favor. Democrats gained 41 seats, the largest win since 1974, despite gerrymandering that favored Republicans. The incoming class was younger and the most diverse ever. It included the first Native American women, the first Muslim women, and the two youngest women ever elected. Over half were Hispanic, Native American, or persons of color. 25 ran on very liberal progressive policy platforms, including 4 in districts Trump won.24 When Americans see people who look and talk like them championing policies that would improve their lives, they vote.
The 2020 Democratic presidential primary had the most diverse group of Americans to ever run for president. A cross-section of America was on stage during the debates. Candidates discussed how the country shaped their experiences, both positively and negatively. From many different backgrounds, they all expressed an optimistic future from pragmatic actions the government could take to help more Americans.
Discourse during the democratic presidential primary debates raised awareness and popularized a plethora of progressive plans, like universal healthcare, free higher education, criminal justice reform, and even universal basic income. The party has come a long way in a short time since Hillary Clinton dismissed single-payer healthcare in 2016, saying it would “never, ever” happen. In 2020, 2 of the top 3 presidential candidates were co-sponsors of a Medicare-for-All bill in the Senate and 69% of Americans now support it.25 While center-left Joe Biden won the nomination, his primary competition’s influence resulted in the most progressive policy platform the Democrats have ever had.
It’s telling that Republicans have been focused on voter suppression instead of voter outreach. They have responded to demographic changes by making voting more difficult in ways that disproportionately affect historically disenfranchised groups and those in urban areas. Trump’s 2020 policy platform is literally identical to his 2016 platform.26 It failed to increase Republican voter turnout in 2016 and is unlikely to have greater appeal now. Voter suppression may win Republicans a few more elections in the short term, but the demographic trends have an inevitable conclusion. The Republican party as we currently know it is over.
Martin Luther King Jr said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” The democracy experiment in America has been one of progressive politics slowly realized. The country has evolved greatly since white, land-owning men cast their first votes. Progress has rarely taken a direct route, but every setback has been matched by a stronger step forward. The belief that a government representing more Americans would better serve all Americans has always eventually won. Today, there is only one political party listening to the nearly half of Americans who are politically silent. There is only one party trying to turn what they have heard into public policy to inspire optimism that the government can and should work for everyone. Trump may have won by discouraging Democrat-leaning voters, but optimism is contagious—and this is one more outbreak Trump is ill-prepared to stop.
- Even the one time arguably was an aberration due to President George W Bush’s ability to convince the electorate to not replace the Commander-in-Chief during the wars he started with false pretense. ↩︎
- Florida Ballot Project recounts ↩︎
- Washington Post: Donald Trump will be president thanks to 80,000 people in three states ↩︎
- Pew Research Center: In Changing U.S. Electorate, Race and Education Remain Stark Dividing Lines ↩︎
- Pew Research Center: Millennials overtake Baby Boomers as America’s largest generation ↩︎
- Pew Research Center: The Generation Gap in American Politics ↩︎
- World Economic Forum's Global Shapers Survey 2017: The 10 most critical problems in the world, according to millennials ↩︎
- US Census Bureau: Demographic Turning Points for the United States: Population Projections from 2020 to 2060 (PDF) ↩︎
- US Census Bureau: Projections of the Population by Sex, Race, and Hispanic Origin for the United States: 2010 to 2050 (Excel) ↩︎
- FiveThirtyEight: How Arizona Became A Swing State ↩︎
- FiveThirtyEight: Biden is slightly favored to win Arizona (2020-10-20) ↩︎
- FiveThirtyEight: Kelly is favored to win Arizona's special Senate election (2020-10-20) ↩︎
- Pew Research Center: Key findings about American life in urban, suburban and rural areas ↩︎
- Pew Research Center: Urban, suburban and rural residents’ views on key social and political issues ↩︎
- Since 2000, urban counties have increased in population 13%, compared to 3% for rural counties. Pew Research Center: Key findings about American life in urban, suburban and rural areas ↩︎
- Based on the top 10 fastest growing counties in Georgia. US Census Bureau: County Population Totals: 2010-2019 ↩︎
- CNN: Georgia is a swing state in 2020 ↩︎
- CNN: 2018 Georgia exit polls ↩︎
- US Census Bureau: County Population Totals: 2010-2019 ↩︎
- New Statesman: US presidential election swing states: Can North Carolina turn blue? ↩︎
- FiveThirtyEight: Biden is slightly favored to win North Carolina (2020-10-20) ↩︎
- FiveThirtyEight: Cunningham is slightly favored to win North Carolina's Senate election (2020-10-20) ↩︎
- CNN: Democrats will control Virginia government for the first time in more than two decades ↩︎
- NYT: Meet the New Freshmen in Congress ↩︎
- Hill-HarrisX poll: 69 percent of voters support Medicare for All ↩︎
- This is the first time the Republican Party platform has not been updated since the practice began in 1856. NYT: The GOP Delivers Its 2020 Platform. It’s From 2016. ↩︎
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Text content © 2020 Jeremiah Lee. Released under CC BY-SA 4.0 license.