The results of all past elections weigh like a nightmare on the brains of 2020 consultants. Democratic operatives hear talk of single-payer and softened borders and see George McGovern’s ghost. GOP strategists tally the casualties of Trump’s trade war and remember the last time a Republican presidency foundered on the shoals of “the economy, stupid.”
But recent election results weigh heaviest. Neither party can look ahead to 2020 without compulsively checking the rearview mirror for new insights into 2018 and (to a lesser extent) 2016. And one consensus takeaway from the past three years of American politics is that there are a lot of U.S. voters whose views on economics and immigration pull them in opposite directions, seemingly in competition with themselves. In a hyperpolarized era, when “cross-pressured” voters are few and far between, where Americans who like taxing the rich but not welcoming “your huddled masses” — or vice versa — choose to land goes a long way toward determining the balance of partisan power.
In 2016, the marginal Trump voter was ostensibly a blue-collar Midwesterner with a vestigial attachment to New Deal economics, but a stronger one to white identity politics. Last year, the bluing of suburbia led many to conclude that the Romney-Clinton voters of “Panerland” had opted to prioritize their affinity for globalism over their sympathy for Reagnomics.
Some Democrats look at these developments and see an argument for campaigning on a more emphatically populist economic platform in 2020, so as to heighten the salience of pocketbook issues for “cross-pressured” blue-collar voters. Others see a case for keeping an ideologically diverse coalition together by holding firm against left-wing demands on all fronts. Meanwhile, some Republicans believe another referendum on “migrant caravans” will keep the Rust Belt red, while others wish Trump would talk less about sending Americans back, and more about how many he’s put back to work.
The latest analysis of U.S. public opinion from the Voter Study Group (VSG) sheds new light on these debates (without necessarily resolving them). The VSG tracks the evolving views of thousands of voters, who were first interviewed in 2011. To keep its survey sample nationally representative, the project adds new respondents into the mix, but the data still works as a rough gauge of how various categories of voters are changing with the times.
Political scientist Lee Drutman drew on this data to examine precisely how questions of economics and immigration are dividing the electorate — and how “cross-pressured” voters’ allegiances have (and have not) been shifting since Donald Trump took office.
Here are four insights from his analysis.
1) Democrats made big gains with economically left-leaning “anti-immigration” voters in 2018.
Drutman uses voters’ responses to a battery of questions about immigration policy to sort them into six buckets, from most pro-immigration to least. He then does the same with responses to questions on economic policy, sorting voters into six categories on the basis of how “egalitarian” their economic views are. Crossing these two groupings against each other produces 36 different flavors of voter, each representing a distinct mix of views on immigration and the economy (i.e., voters who are a “one” on economics, but a “six” on immigration, voters who are a “one” on economics but a “five” on immigration, etc.).
He then looks at how each party performed with these 36 different categories of voter in 2016 and 2018. As one would expect, Trump did quite well with America’s most nativist economic liberals in the year he won the presidency, while Democrats did well with pro-immigration voters whose economic views were a shade right of center. But Drutman’s data paints a (somewhat) more surprising portrait of 2018. Even as Team Blue made inroads into historically Republican, affluent suburbs, Democrats made their biggest gains with economically liberal immigration skeptics:
Meanwhile, the GOP’s few improvements on its 2016 showing came disproportionately among economically center-right, pro-immigration voters.
These findings are consistent with previous analyses of voter file data, which found that Democrats improved their margins most in rural House districts (where economically liberal, anti-immigration voters disproportionately live) in 2018. And Drutman’s results also comport with previous research from the Voter Study Group, which suggested that the president had lost ground among Obama-Trump voters since 2016, even as he’d won over some “Never Trump” Republicans.
It is unclear what percentage of the Democrats’ gains in 2018 came from persuasion. Some number of 2016 Trump voters surely decided to vote blue last year out of concern for the rightward drift of fiscal policy. But it’s possible that the shifts Drutman documents were driven primarily by differential turnout: Perhaps the subset of “economically liberal, anti-immigration” voters who consistently prioritize bread-and-butter issues showed up in force at the polls last year, while those who care less about sharing the wealth than sealing the border did not.
Regardless, these findings suggest that the blue wave was not powered by suburban NeverTrumpers who are allergic to “big government” (though other categories of suburban voters certainly played a major part). Which isn’t surprising, since Bret Stephens’s corner of the ideological spectrum is a lonely one: In Drutman’s schema, only 8 percent of voters lean right on economics but left of center on immigration, while 19 percent hold the opposite pair of preferences.
The implications of all this for 2020 campaign strategy are debatable. But Drutman’s report gives the GOP cause for discomfort: In a VSG survey taken shortly after the 2018 midterms, respondents favored a “generic Democrat” over Trump by a margin of 48 to 36 percent, with the president losing significant support (relative to 2016) among both categories of cross-pressured voter (although, many such voters had gone from being “pro Trump” to merely “undecided”).
2) The GOP is more ideologically diverse than the Democrats.
In racial, ethnic, and religious terms, the Republican Party is exceptionally homogenous. Democrats, meanwhile, must hold together a motley coalition of disparate identity groups. But in ideological terms — at least, on questions of immigration and the role of government in the economy — Republicans are the ones with the biggest tensions beneath their big tent.
In part, this is a function of the broad unpopularity of conservative economic orthodoxy in 2019; some 68 percent of the electorate is left of center on economics, per Drutman. Democrats also ostensibly boast the majoritarian position on immigration (with 57 percent qualifying as “left of center” on the issues in Drutman’s schema), but their advantage on bread-and-butter issues is more pronounced.
The relative ideological uniformity of Team Blue also likely reflects the “great awokening” — the leftward lurch of college-educated white liberals’ preferences on racialized issues, including immigration. According to the VSG analysis, 15 percent of Democrats hold the most consistently left-wing positions on both economics and immigration (i.e. they sort into the most left wing of the six buckets on both question batteries), while just 4 percent of Republicans hold the most consistently right-wing views on both issues.
3) Female voters don’t have time for Reaganomics.
Drutman confirms the well-established correlation between high levels of educational attainment and ideological consistency. More intriguingly, he finds that female voters tend to have little reverence for the free market, no matter how they feel about immigration. And women account for an especially disproportionate share of voters who are maximally liberal on economic questions, but a shade to the right on immigration.
This is consistent with other surveys that suggest white working-class women will play an outsize role in deciding the 2020 elections — and that Donald Trump has reason to sweat his standing with that demographic.
4) Democrats didn’t campaign on health care last year for their health.
Ultimately, the typical voter’s issue preferences matter far less than her priorities. (There are a lot of people in this country who strongly support universal background checks but pull the lever for the NRA’s dearest friends.) Examining how each of our 36 different categories of voter rank the importance of disparate issues, Drutman finds that economically left-wing, immigration-skeptical voters overwhelmingly list health care as a top concern. And such Americans are also disproportionately likely to consider crime a top priority (“Kamala is a cop” might not be the Democrats’ worst general-election campaign slogan).
Unfortunately for Democrats (and/or humanity), only consistent liberals tend to see the environment as a “very important” issue.