In November, we learned that Joe Biden would be the next president of the United States (or, at least, those of us who don’t live in Republican America’s phantasmagoric fever-swamp learned this). But whether the new president would be able to appoint his own cabinet or enact a legislative agenda remained unclear — because control of the Senate remained undecided.
Whether Georgia will retain its Republican Senate incumbents David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, or swap them out for the liberal Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, is the most urgent question hanging over our polity today. And it is one that the Peach State will answer conclusively, if not tonight, then shortly thereafter. But there are other big-picture questions about the future of American politics that the 2020 race did not — and in some cases, could not — resolve.
November’s election couldn’t offer much insight into how the major-party coalitions will or will not shift once Donald Trump returns to the private sector. Nor could it tell us much about what sorts of campaign appeals will or will not prove fruitful for Democrats and Republicans in the post-Trump era. To be sure, Georgia’s Senate elections are a suboptimal test case for theories on these subjects. A double-header runoff contest for control of the U.S. Senate, held amid a historic pandemic and a lame-duck president’s coup attempt, is a rather atypical electoral event! So, today’s election cannot tell us anything definitive about where our democracy will head once Trump is evicted from the White House. But it will nevertheless yield the best preliminary data we’re going to get on that matter for a long time to come. Here then are four key questions that will shape U.S. politics in 2021 and beyond — and how the results in Georgia could bring us closer to answering them.
1) Have America’s affluent suburbs turned blue or are they just anti-Trump?
For decades now, white voters without college diplomas have been drifting rightward, while those with undergraduate degrees have been moving left. But the GOP’s nomination of an anti-intellectual, performatively populist celebrity — who was known by regular readers of the business press as a tragicomic conman and by credulous viewers of reality television as a genius entrepreneur — greatly accelerated this preexisting trend. Trump painted the Democrats’ erstwhile rural strongholds a darker shade of red, while inspiring many a cosmopolitan professional to defect to blue America.
For now, this doesn’t look like a great trade for the Democratic Party. Only about a third of U.S. adults have college degrees. And that minority is disproportionately concentrated in urban and suburban areas that are systematically underrepresented by America’s political institutions. The Democratic coalition’s geographic inefficiency was apparent in the 2020 results. Joe Biden beat Trump by 4.5 points nationally — a nigh-landslide by modern standards — thanks in large part to his robust support among college-educated voters. And yet the Democrat just barely edged past the president in enough battleground states to secure an Electoral College majority. Meanwhile, his party suffered down ballot, losing ground in Congress and in state legislatures across the country.
All this said, there is some upside to being the party of suburban professionals. For one thing, college-educated voters turn out more reliably for off-year elections than working-class ones do. And they also have far more disposable income to spend on ActBlue. Thus, if the Democrats’ 2020 gains with this constituency prove durable — and its losses among non-college-educated voters prove temporary — the party could emerge from the Trump era with an enviable coalition.
November’s results, however, suggested a more harrowing possibility for the Donkey Party: Perhaps, these suburban refugees from red America’s civil war had not assimilated; perhaps they were not born-again Democrats, but mere anti-Trump Republicans. After all, Biden ran ahead of Democratic House members in many suburban districts, indicating that a significant number of college-educated Biden voters backed Republicans down ballot. If the Romney-Clinton suburbs were to snap back to the right following Trump’s exit, while the GOP retains its rural converts, Democrats will be in big trouble.
It’s far from clear that this will happen. Ticket-splitting was a factor in November, but it was a marginal one. In Georgia, the Democrats’ Senate candidates ran only about one point behind Biden; which is to say, the vast majority of formerly Republican, college-educated anti-Trumpers voted for Democrats up and down the ballot.
Regardless, today’s runoffs will be a (highly imperfect) test of the durability of the Democrats’ suburban support. Although Trump has done his best to turn the elections into a referendum on himself (and/or, on the peaceful transfer of power), the stakes of the runoff are clear and inescapably partisan: A vote for Ossoff and Warnock is a vote for giving the Democratic Party unified control of the federal government. What’s more, the Democratic candidates have not campaigned as fiscal moderates. Rather, Ossoff has fashioned himself into a populist anti-corruption crusader, while Warnock has painted Loeffler as a plutocrat’s plutocrat. Both have promised that their election would trigger the disbursement of $2,000 relief checks — and, on Monday, Joe Biden personally vouched for that pledge. If the Atlanta suburbs deliver for Democrats in this context, it will alleviate the concern that Romney-Biden voters disdain left-of-center economic policy only a bit less than they loathe Donald Trump.
2) Will the Trump coalition outlive the Trump presidency?
Under Trump’s leadership, the Republican Party hasn’t just gained the support of formerly Democratic non-college-educated white voters — it has also won the first-time ballots of many formerly non-voting working-class whites.
If you had told Democratic operatives four years ago that the next presidential election would witness the highest voter turnout since 1900, they would have expected to win the Electoral College in a landslide. But 2020’s record turnout did not redound entirely to Democrats’ advantage. The Midwest’s battleground states were home to a great many non-college-educated whites who’d never cast a ballot. Trump’s campaign brought many Americans who fit that description into the ballot box for the first time.
Whether such voters will remain politically engaged when the Republican Party is led by a garden-variety GOP “populist” (i.e. one of these creepy debate-club dweebs) rather than a charismatic celebrity is unclear. And it’s also uncertain whether Republicans will be able to retain their converts among secular, non-college-educated whites in the Midwest once they nominate a non-libertine as their standard-bearer. The GOP’s alliance with Evangelical Christians is among the party’s greatest strengths: At a time when most of civil society is in bad decline, the Christian right remains a well-organized and disciplined voting bloc. But the alliance comes at some cost. There are a lot of working-class voters in 2021 America who find bible-thumping off-putting. And there’s some evidence that Donald Trump’s status as an infamous sexual degenerate eased such voters’ fears of theocracy. Should Republicans nominate a more overtly credible believer in fundamentalist Christianity, it is possible some of these secular voters could revert to their previous partisan allegiance (especially if the conservative Supreme Court majority hands down rulings that heighten the salience of secular-traditionalist divides).
The Georgia runoffs won’t tell us much about the plausibility of that last hypothetical. But they will provide an indication of whether the Trumper proletariat is likely to remain an electoral force when their champion isn’t on the ballot.
3) Does sedition come with a political cost?
Much to the GOP’s chagrin, Trump has decided to make “openness to abetting a quixotic coup attempt” into the one true measure of any Republican politician’s conservative bonafides. Reporters on the ground in Georgia say they have struggled to find a single Republican voter who believes that Joe Biden won the 2020 election, while a great many do not believe that the Democrat will be inaugurated later this month. Trump’s influence with the GOP base has therefore led Loeffler and Perdue to endorse an anti-constitutional effort to have Congress overrule the Electoral College. It is possible that the median U.S. voter is less afraid of empowering an openly authoritarian political movement than of giving Joe Biden and Joe Manchin the power to pass popular center-left legislation. But it would be nice if the truth proved to be otherwise. Tonight’s results should give us — and, more consequentially, Republican leaders — a sense of just how many antidemocratic hijinks American voters will let the GOP get away with.
4) Can direct appeals to voters’ material interests win Democrats new supporters?
Mitt Romney infamously attributed his 2012 loss to Democrats following the “old playbook of giving a lot of stuff” to voters (for the Republican, “medical care that is affordable to working people” qualified as a crass “gift” to African American voters). Yet, in the estimation of many progressives, the Democratic Party has not played “Santa Claus” nearly enough in recent election cycles. In both 2016 and 2020, a great deal of Democratic messaging was aimed at immaterial themes — the importance of healing national divisions, the incompetence of Donald Trump, etc. Further, under Obama, Democrats actually went out of their way to make the president’s working-class tax cuts less discernible to the voters who benefited from them. If Democrats made more of an effort to turn elections into referenda on popular, progressive economic policies, the theory goes, the party would reap major dividends.
The Georgia runoffs offer a test of this hypothesis. By demanding $2,000 stimulus checks, Donald Trump handed Democrats a tailor-made wedge issue: Public support for larger relief checks is overwhelming, but Senate Republicans’ opposition is nevertheless unwavering. Ossoff and Warnock happily adopted the $2,000 check cause. And on his visit to the state Monday, Biden spelled out the material stakes of the election in the clearest terms imaginable.
Gleaning the motives behind voter behavior is never easy. But if Democrats win, the pattern of returns and exit-poll surveys might tell us whether the joint Romney-progressive prescription for Democratic victory — promise to give voters things that will make their lives easier — is indeed a political winner.