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September 5, 2023

What Trump Does for Democracy

The party can’t ditch the base Trump has cultivated — but it can’t win with those voters alone.

Pauline Kael knew she wasn’t a representative American.

The onetime New Yorker film critic is famous in folk memory for having said she didn’t know anyone who voted for Richard Nixon in 1972, when he won a 49-state landslide.

The way her words are misremembered, she was surprised that someone so reviled by her social set could win the White House.

In fact, she wasn’t surprised: Kael told the Modern Language Association in a Dec. 28 speech that year, “I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they (i.e., Nixon voters) are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken.”

Kael’s example is worth keeping in mind when thinking about next year’s election.

Donald Trump shocked Democrats — and elite Republicans — in 2016 because they didn’t know any Trump voters; or, if they did, they never suspected there could be so many of them.

Trump voters felt the same way about turnout for Joe Biden in 2020: Where could all these people, 81 million of them, have come from?

Democrats underestimate support for Trump in the sorts of places that most Democrats never think about, rural and post-industrial America.

Republicans similarly underestimate the magnitude of opposition to Trump in places that don’t elect Republicans: the GOP knows cities are blue, but it doesn’t appreciate just how blue they can be if the right (or wrong) candidate is on the ballot.

Barack Obama drew blue-city voters out in droves because they loved him.

Urban voters came out in even greater numbers against Trump in 2020.

Yet if Republicans were amazed by the scale of the anti-Trump vote, Democrats were astonished by how well House and Senate Republicans performed anyway. Why weren’t they drowned by the tide that flooded Trump?

Republicans gained seats in the House of Representatives and kept their losses in the Senate below what pollsters predicted.

The difference between expectation and reality was down to Trump: the man is great for democracy, in the simple sense of getting people out to vote. He drives turnout for Republicans and Democrats alike.

That explains the mixed verdict of the 2020 election and the weak GOP showing in last year’s midterms.

Without Trump on the ballot in ‘22, many of his voters simply stayed home, so the GOP struggled to win back the House and lost seats in the Senate.

With Trump on the ballot in 2020, Republicans outside of urban areas flocked to the polls, lifting the House GOP.

Unfortunately, Trump maximized urban Democratic turnout as well, which was fatal to him in purplish-red states like Arizona and Georgia.

Maximize the urban vote in Phoenix and Atlanta and those states are lost to the GOP.

The same is true for Pennsylvania when Philadelphia votes in force.

(Wisconsin’s story was slightly different: Milwaukee’s urban turnout dropped in 2020, but Democrats made up the difference with huge margins in Madison — home to liberal students and state government employees.)

House Republicans looking to 2024 are comfortable with Trump because few of them represent districts that will flip if the urban vote explodes.

Instead, they reap every benefit from Trump’s capacity to turn out the GOP base.

Senate Republicans are more nervous, and Republicans with an eye on gubernatorial and other state contests are even more worried, because in most competitive states, a sudden surge in the cities can tip the election.

That applies to the Electoral College, too.

Trump’s head-to-head national numbers against Biden look fine. But if voting against Trump gives urban Democrats a stronger reason to go to the polls than voting for Biden, states like Arizona and Georgia will again be in jeopardy.

Republican strategists would prefer to make the election about Biden, not Trump, and to keep turnout low.

They’re optimistic that just the prospect of throwing Biden out of office will deliver the GOP all the turnout it needs — and Democrats won’t be equally eager to show up to keep an aged and uncharismatic incumbent in office.

The only flaw in the plan is the Republican base, which adores Trump and appears determined to nominate him.

In truth, it’s never safe to build a strategy on the assumption that voters won’t vote.

Whatever happens next year, the rural-urban divide will continue to bedevil both parties, each fearful that the voters it doesn’t know will show up in unexpected numbers.

The GOP’s problem, though, is that the cities are growing while rural and post-industrial America is withering.

The party can’t ditch the base Trump has cultivated — but it can’t win with those voters alone.

Trump reconnected Republicans to Americans the Democrats had written off; soon some GOP leader will have to reconnect the party with voters who don’t know any Republicans.

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