A simple theory of why Trump did well

A simple theory of why Trump did well

He may not have transformed the Republican coalition, but he held onto much of his 2016 support and even enlarged it, if not in percentage terms then in absolute ones

US President President Donald Trump. Credit: Reuters File Photo

Officials are still counting votes for the 2020 presidential election, but that hasn’t stopped professional commentators from drawing any number of broad conclusions about the state of American politics from the results thus far.

Two narratives about what happened stand out. First, the idea that left-wing slogans like “defund the police” cratered the Democratic Party in down ballot fights for the House and Senate, and second, that President Donald Trump’s modest gains with Black and Hispanic voters herald the arrival of a working-class, multiracial Republican Party.

There are obvious objections to both stories. There is no hard evidence that voters turned against Democratic congressional candidates because of “defund the police” and other radical slogans. It does not show up in the congressional generic ballot — there is no decline that corresponds with the unrest of the summer — and there’s little other data to support the idea of a direct causal relationship between the slogans and the performance of Democratic candidates.

What we have, instead, are the words of moderate Democratic lawmakers who believe those slogans left them unusually vulnerable to Republican attacks. But this is a textbook case of assuming one thing caused the other because they followed in chronological order. Perhaps Democrats slipped because they were associated with “defund the police” or perhaps — as Democrats as different as Doug Jones, Beto O’Rourke and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have suggested — it had something to do with poor campaign infrastructure and a message that was unresponsive to the electorate.

The problem with the second narrative — Republicans have built a new working-class, multiracial coalition — is that it takes Trump out of the context of past election results. If preliminary exit polls are any indication — and they have real flaws as measurement tools — Trump did hardly any better with Black voters than George W. Bush in 2004 and quite a bit worse with Hispanic voters. Far from a seismic shift, Trump, with 32% support among Hispanics (a four-point upswing from his first run) is doing about as well as John McCain did in 2008.

But even as we throw cold water on these narratives — at least until there’s more evidence to back them up — we’re still left with the unanswered question of how Trump performed as well as he did. He may not have transformed the Republican coalition, but he held onto much of his 2016 support and even enlarged it, if not in percentage terms then in absolute ones. Democrats who thought he would be swamped by high turnout were wrong; not only did he benefit, but his ability to turn nonvoters into voters is what likely kept him in the game.

At the risk of committing the same sin as other observers and getting ahead of the data, I want to propose an alternative explanation for the election results, one that accounts for the president’s relative improvement as well as that of the entire Republican Party.

It’s the money, stupid.

At the end of March, Trump signed the CARES Act, which distributed more than half a trillion dollars in direct aid to more than 150 million Americans, from stimulus checks ($1,200 per adult and $500 per child for households below a certain income threshold) to $600 per week in additional unemployment benefits. These programs were not perfect — the supplement unemployment insurance, in particular, depended on ramshackle state systems, forcing many applicants to wait weeks or even months before they received assistance — but they made an impact regardless. Personal income went up and poverty went down, even as the United States reported its steepest ever quarterly drop in economic output.

Now, the reason this many Americans received as much assistance as they did is that Democrats fought for it over the opposition of Republicans who believed any help beyond the minimum would degrade the will to work for whatever wage employers were willing to pay. “The moment we go back to work, we cannot create an incentive for people to say, ‘I don’t need to go back to work because I can do better someplace else,’” Sen. Rick Scott of Florida argued on the floor of the Senate.

But voters, and especially the low-propensity voters who flooded the electorate in support of Trump, aren’t attuned to the ins and outs of congressional debate. They did not know — and Democrats didn’t do a good enough job of telling them — that the president and his party opposed more generous benefits. All they knew is that Trump signed the bill (and the checks), giving them the kind of government assistance usually reserved for the nation’s ownership class.

Nearly everything in politics has multiple explanations, and there are many factors that can and do explain the election results. But I would not ignore the extent to which the Republican Party’s strong performance can be explained simply by the fact that it was the party in power when the government put a lot of money into the hands of a lot of people who didn’t have it before.

The upshot of this, for the incoming Biden administration, is straightforward: Do not listen to the debt worriers and the deficit hawks. Ignore the calls for means-testing and complicated workarounds. Embrace, instead, the simplicity of cash. Take a page from the left and give as much direct help to as many people as possible.

The concentration of its coalition in cities and suburbs is such that the Democratic Party faces a number of structural obstacles to winning and wielding power. There’s no easy solution to this problem, but there are ways to make the path less difficult. And one of them is as straightforward as cutting a check when there’s a national crisis and keeping it going for those who need it when there isn’t.

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