The following article by Ruy Teixeira, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, politics editor of The Liberal Patriot newsletter and author, with John B. Judis of the forthcoming “Where Have All the Democrats Gone?,” is cross-posted from The Liberal Patriot:
Back in 2016, neither Trump nor Clinton were widely liked. But Trump got some important help among a key group that amounted to about a fifth of voters: those who didn’t like either of them. Trump’s advantage among these “double haters” helped him win the presidency. This cycle a key role will likely be played by a similar group, also amounting to about a fifth of voters: those who like neither Trump nor Biden.
These “double haters” at this point seem to lean toward Biden. But closer scrutiny of this group, afforded by a 6,000 person survey from the Survey Center on American Life (SCAL), suggests Democrats’ hold on this group is not at all secure. First, while the SCAL survey also finds that double haters lean toward Biden against Trump, a matchup of Biden against DeSantis finds the same group leaning toward DeSantis and even more heavily. So the Biden support here is quite soft.
Moreover, a huge swathe of these double haters—about 40 percent—at this point are noncommittal when asked to choose between Biden and Trump. This group, like double haters in general, displays jaundiced attitudes toward both parties in most areas. But there are some notable divergences in these attitudes that indicate considerable vulnerability for Biden and the Democrats. Consider the following.
- Undecided double haters consider both parties “too extreme” but more (59 percent) think that about the Democrats than think that about the Republicans (54 percent).
- Among this group, a mere 28 percent think the Democratic Party “shares my values;” a considerably larger share (42 percent) think Republicans share their values.
- About half think the Democrats “look down on people like me”. Less (42 percent) feel that way about the Republicans.
- Just 36 percent think Democrats “look out for the working class” compared to 45 percent who think that about the Republicans.
- On patriotism and valuing hard work, attitudes toward the parties are essentially inversions of each other. By 63 to 37 percent, undecided double haters say “patriotic” does not describe the Democratic Party. But by 59 to 41 percent they say patriotic does describe the Republicans. Similarly, by 60 to 40 percent, they say “values hard work” does not describe the Democrats. In stark contrast, by 64-36 percent, they believe Republicans do value hard work.
Democrats’ vulnerability is underscored by views among this group on contentious issues dividing Republicans and Democrats. Take the issue of racism in our society. Is racism “built into our society, including into its policies and institutions”, as Democrats contend, or does racism “come from individuals who hold racist views, not from our society and institutions?” In the SCAL survey, by 64 to 34 percent, our undecided double haters chose the latter view, that racism comes from individuals, not society.
Or consider the question of transgender athletes participating in team sports. Should “transgender athletes… be able to play on sports teams that match their current gender identity” or should they “only be allowed to play on sports teams that match their birth gender?” By a staggering 75 to 20 percent, those who dislike both Trump and Biden but currently can’t choose between them, choose the second option, that sports team participation should be determined by birth gender.
The same pattern can be observed on issues ranging from the funding of police departments to the “greatness of America” to the continued use of fossil fuels: views associated with the Republicans are much more popular with this swing group than those associated with the Democrats. On the latter issue, when given a choice between the country using “a mix of energy sources including oil, coal and natural gas along with renewable energy sources” and the current Democratic approach, phasing “out the use of oil, coal and natural gas completely, relying instead on renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power only”, they endorse the continued use of fossil fuels by a thumping 80 to 20 percent.
All this suggests Democrats have much work to do—and Republicans have considerable opportunity to take advantage of their vulnerablities. Right now, Plan A for the Democrats seems to rely on the projected success of “Bidenomics,” along with an intransigent refusal to compromise on cultural and green issues beloved by the party’s liberals and aggressive attacks on Republicans as racist reactionaries, if not fascists. The success of Bidenomics, especially as it might translate into a sunny mood about the economy among voters, remains speculative. That puts a lot of weight on the intransigent refusal and aggressive attacks part of the strategy.
Certainly Democrats can point to issues like abortion where Democrats do have an advantage, even with the swing group discussed here. But perhaps they should consider a Plan B, where the success of the Bidenomics pitch is not assumed and compromise is not anathematized. As I have argued previously, Democrats have generally dealt with culturally-freighted issues by some combination of ignore(change the subject) and attack (our opponents are hateful bigots who want to roast the planet). The latter now seems like the preferred Democratic approach. But there is a third way, if you will, that would fit nicely into a Plan B.
That approach is to defuse. This means moving aggressively to neutralize vulnerabilities in cultural areas by (a) dissociating the party from extreme positions in their own ranks; and (b) embracing a common-sense approach to these issues which typically aligns well with both Democratic values and public opinion.
The defuse approach relieves Democrats of the need to defend a multitude of unpopular, controversial practices—thereby giving voters the impression that Democrats are unwilling to draw any lines anywhere against the activist left—and allows them instead to occupy the moral and policy high ground against Republican attacks on common-sense moderation. That’s way better than the situation they currently find themselves in on many cultural issues where the Democratic image is defined by the most leftward position pushed by activists.
In the hand-to-hand combat likely to define the 2024 election, Democrats can ill afford to leave any swing voter behind. They should accept the fact that many, many voters are likely to dislike both Trump and their own standard-bearer. A little compromise is a fair price to pay for reaching more of these voters and having a better chance of victory—especially when we consider what the price of losing might be.