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Can Republicans Get Trump-Style Turnout Without Trump on the Ballot?

Say what you will about Donald Trump, he’s very good at turning out Republican voters. But will they turn out when he’s not on the ballot?

That’s probably the most important question in American politics right now. Three simultaneous trends have combined to create a political dynamic that is both dysfunctional and socially explosive–and Donald Trump, in own way, lies at the heart of all three.

The first is that the slow demographic death spiral of the GOP is still continuing apace. Donald Trump embodies the Republican Party’s doom: older, mostly white, mostly male voters yearning for the imagined cultural dominance of decades past and increasingly divorced from the reality of America today.

Yes, the Emerging Democratic Majority has been long promised without overwhelming success–so much so that it is now often widely mocked as a fallacy. But it is still very real. The oldest Millennials are now turning 40, and they haven’t gotten any more conservative with age. Zoomers, once hoped by conservatives to be a new vanguard for them, are even more progressive than Millennials (despite a very loud and obnoxious fascist minority of young white men.) Generation X has turned into a surprisingly conservative bastion for Trumpism, but Generation X is also smaller than the Baby Boom or the Millennials. The country gets less white every year. Women are becoming more hostile to conservatism.

The greatest political divides in America outside of generation, race and gender are education and geographic polarization. There again, the trends are very much against conservatives. Americans are becoming more educated than ever, and moving away from rural areas and small towns into cities and suburbs. The greatest bulwark against white racism is a college degree, and as younger whites become better educated the overall percentage of the white population becomes more immune to the appeal of Trumpist demagoguery. And, of course, there is the fact that the suburbs are trending rapidly blue.

And yes, Republicans did make some gains with non-white voters this year–including in cities–by using a combination of culture war tactics. But while these shifts were enough to affect a few close races and states, the net effect of this aspect of the realignment will not be nearly enough to stand as a bulwark against the rest of the demographic tides.

The second is much more concerning for Democrats, but an outgrowth of the first. If America’s electoral system were fair and representative, Democrats would be enjoying a nearly unprecedented string of dominance. Republicans have only won the popular vote for president once in the last eight tries–and that once was with an incumbent himself elected by minority vote the first time, barely re-elected despite riding a wave of popularity during a war after a terrorist attack. That is a historic string of defeats rescued only by the quirks of the anti-majoritarian electoral college system.

Republicans current represent 15 million fewer Americans in the Senate, yet perversely hold the majority due to an imbalance of representation favoring rural white conservatives in states like Wyoming and the Dakotas. Democrats consistently win the majority of votes in the House, but end up in the minority or a slim majority due to geographic sorting but especially aggressive gerrymandering in GOP-controlled states. And Republicans continue to control a number of state legislatures where they get badly beaten overall in the popular vote due to the same dynamic–which in turn allows them to continue to draw unfair lines after every census year.

Donald Trump’s strategy of polarizing the electorate along the ugliest cultural battle lines has exacerbated this effect. Republicans are the beneficiaries of an apartheid electoral system. Trumpism, meanwhile, has strengthened the GOP’s iron grip on rural white and white-passing communities while ceding control of the cities and suburbs. It’s an unsustainable powder keg: by 2040, two-thirds of Americans will be represented by just 30% of the Senate–a body that currently requires 60% to pass any non-budgetary legislation. That in turn has made a rickety electoral system explosive, and increased the necessity for Democrats to blow up the apartheid rules as soon as they possibly can as a matter of both justice and political survival.

The third is Donald Trump himself. Democratic strategists and non-partisan professional pollsters alike underestimated Trump not once, but twice. Both times Trump was on the ballot he outperformed his polling by considerable margins, especially in swing states. The first time in 2016 was easily attributed to the last-minute intervention by James Comey. The second time the polling errors were much greater–and on both sides.

Democrats did an extraordinary job in 2020 of turning out their voters. An earth-shattering record 80+ million voters will have pulled the lever for Biden when all the votes were counted. It should have been a monumental defeat for both Trump and the GOP, but for the fact that an unexpected 75+ million voters also came out for the incumbent president. Democratic gains were partly to be expected from increased mail-in balloting during the pandemic, and the fact that Trump had so suppressed his own mail-in vote should in theory have harmed his turnout.

But no. Tens of millions of mostly older Trump voters came out to vote in person during a raging pandemic to support their leader, well beyond expectations. It is frankly astonishing. And more than a little disheartening, given the depth of Trump’s abyssal moral deficits, turpitudinous character, totalitarian overtures and catastrophically inept leadership.

One might be inclined to believe that this juiced GOP turnout and overperformance of the polling will be a fixture of our system going forward. Yet one major data point runs against it: the 2018 election. Trump was very much engaged in the 2018 contest, endorsing and promoting Republican incumbents and challengers. The same GOP voters who elected him in 2016 and tried to re-elect him in 2020 were still here. And yet Democrats rode to a wave of victories that won the House. They also won a string of special elections both prior to and after the 2018 election.

The only discernable difference was that Trump himself was not on the ballot.

Georgia’s Senate runoff elections in January will present another test of this hypothesis. By January it will be clear that Trump has no path to stopping Biden’s inauguration, whether he ultimately concedes or not. It’s possible that Trump’s supporters in the nearly evenly divided Peach State will be furiously mobilized for revenge. But they could just as easily wind up dispirited and locked in an internal civil war that delivers the slimmest of Senate majorities to the Democrats and the gavel into the hands of Vice-President Kamala Harris.

It’s also theoretically possible that Trump could run again in 2024. But he might just be attempting to do so from jail or bankruptcy court as a 78-year-old shell of himself. It’s possible that another conservative like Tom Cotton, Tucker Carlson or even Donald Trump, Jr. could try to re-ignite Trump’s magic. But many downballot Republicans tried to emulate Trump in 2018 only to lose to the blue Democratic wave. And it’s not at all clear that any heir apparent (including his literal heir) could mimic Trump’s unique combination of celebrity, faux bravado and utter sociopathic shamelessness that appeals to so many deeply insecure men and authoritarian personalities.

Time will tell. If Trumpism can continue to pull strong numbers even without Trump himself on the ballot, the country (and the world) will be in for a very difficult next decade or two. But if it can’t, generational trends will compound the interest on a bad demographic deficit for the GOP that will overwhelm even its artificial geographic advantages. And if Democrats manage to change even a few of the rules, from the electoral college to adding states to reversing gerrymandering, the disaster for the GOP may be irreversible.

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