At FiveThirtyEight this week, Perry Bacon Jr. explores a very important political mystery: why a Republican Party that lost control of the White House and Congress over the last four years — and that is at the north end of a southbound brontosaurus when it comes to demographic trends — seems so completely happy with standing pat on its ideology and leadership.
Bacon goes through multiple theories for this resistance to introspection, including activist and media love for Trump and Trumpism; rank-and-file complacency with the current direction of the GOP; Trump’s own refusal to go away; and perhaps most important, the realization that this is an old story by now, that we are looking at a “[c]ollective decision of conservative activists and Republican elected officials to stay on the anti-democratic, racist trajectory that the GOP had been on before Trump — but that he accelerated.”
Since we are talking about people operating in what is largely a winner-take-all political system, who are following a leader who professes to be all about “winning,” perhaps the most interesting reason for the manifest Republican complacency is the belief that an immediate comeback is not simply possible but likely. Some of this is a matter of degree, says Bacon:
Historically, parties have done more self-reflection and been more likely to change course when they’ve hit electoral low points …
In contrast, Trump would have won reelection had he done only about 1 percentage point better in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and about 3 points better in Michigan. Republicans would still control the Senate had Republican David Perdue won about 60,000 more votes (out of nearly 4.5 million cast) against Democrat Jon Ossoff in Georgia’s Senate runoff. A slew of court rulings that forced the redrawing of House district lines in less favorable ways to the GOP helped the Democrats win several seats — otherwise, Republicans might have won back the House. Add all that up, and 2020 wasn’t that far from resulting in a Republican trifecta.
But close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. Republicans have now lost three of the last four presidential elections, and have won the national popular vote just once in the last eight presidential elections. They are still getting clobbered among the younger voters (61 percent of under-30 voters preferred Biden to Trump, according to a Tufts study) who will increasingly dominate elections. Trends among the youngest voters, from increased diversity to decreased church attendance, are not friendly to the GOP.
So where does the Republican optimism come from? There are several factors, as I explore below:
The 2022 midterms look sunny
The over-performance by Republicans in 2020 House races gives them what is historically a very good chance to retake that chamber in 2022, as Kyle Kondik recently noted:
Since the Civil War, there have been 40 midterm elections. The party that held the White House lost ground in the House in 37 of those elections, with an average seat loss of 33. Since the end of World War II, the average seat loss is a little smaller — 27 — but still significant.
Based on the House as it was shaped after November 2020, Republicans would only need to flip five net seats to regain the majority. The Senate is iffier thanks to a landscape dotted with GOP retirements. But busting up the Democratic trifecta would have a massive effect on the Biden administration’s ability to enact legislation.
Redistricting will beef up Republican gains
The decennial process of reapportioning and redistricting congressional and state legislative seats will soon be underway. And thanks to what one analyst called “an abysmal showing by Democrats in state legislative races” in 2020, Republicans are in a good position to reinforce their advantage over the next decade.
At the congressional level, reapportionment of seats between the states will give GOP-controlled state legislatures new seats to play with (especially in Florida, which will gain two seats, and in Texas, which will gain three). Redistricting is harder to predict, but as Geoffrey Skelley noted in November, it will likely favor Republicans:
The GOP is set to fully control redistricting for about two-fifths of all House seats, while Democrats will only hold sway over one-tenth of them, with the remaining seats are in states with divided governments or where redistricting is done by a commission system. The Republican line-drawing advantage should help the party draw favorable maps that could help the GOP win more seats than we might otherwise expect.
Republicans will do more with less popular support
The redistricting factor is one of several examples of the GOP’s willingness and ability to counter Democratic popular support with institutional arrangements that magnify minority power, from gerrymandering to the Electoral College to the Senate filibuster to voter suppression efforts. Perhaps Republicans didn’t get close enough in 2020 to convert such bonus points into trifecta control, but they understand that actual popular majorities are not the point.
They think Trumpism is a strategy for party expansion
While most Democrats tend to think of Trumpism as the last-gasp effort of a reactionary party to hold onto power by polarizing the country and eking out narrow electoral victories by mobilizing culturally threatened voters with hate and rage, Republicans naturally don’t see it that way. As Representative Jim Banks illustrated in his recent memo to Kevin McCarthy about GOP messaging in 2021 and beyond, they think Trumpism is about making a country-club party the “party of the [white] working class,” which can appeal to a growing segment of minority voters as well. This notion is mostly based on the theory that cultural conservatism is more powerful among white working-class voters and Black and Latino men than the more tangible economic offerings of Democrats.
It’s an approach that Republicans have been pursuing since the days of Richard Nixon, when the white working-class portion of the population was vastly larger, but it’s still exciting to those who think Trump invented it.
Many of them think they really won in 2020
While those of us in the reality-based community scoff at the claims of the MAGA wing of the Republican Party that Democrats stole the 2020 election (and presumably control of Congress along with it), the fact remains that it’s an article of faith among many of the rank-and-file Republicans (55 percent of them, according to a recent Reuters-Ipsos survey) who are the most important consumers for GOP messaging going forward. Accordingly, the current crusade in Republican-controlled state governments in key battleground states to restrict voting rights isn’t viewed by them as a matter of vengeance or of panic-stricken authoritarianism, but as a blow to fraudsters that is likely to produce or expand Republican victories in the near future.
This factually challenged but emotionally powerful perspective — which has been reinforced constantly by Trump-aligned media, a big share of Republican elected officials, and state and local party leaders — also explains the strong interest in a Trump comeback in 2024. Anyone who thinks the Republican Establishment is easing the 45th president toward the dustbin of history should examine this new fundraising message from the National Republican Congressional Committee:
In the bloody-shirt campaign so many Republicans think they are now waging, the alleged “victim” of the “rigged election” is an indispensable figure, even though no defeated incumbent president has successfully staged a comeback since 1892. And that is why even if Trump decides against running again in 2024, Trumpism in all its particulars will very likely remain dominant until the stain of 2020 is erased.
And if you are a follower of the man who said over and over again that “we can’t lose unless it’s rigged,” victory is always just over the horizon.
Maybe winning isn’t everything after all
Perry Bacon offers one more angle on Republican optimism that’s worth pondering: There’s an “‘own the libs’ bloc exemplified by many Fox News personalities and elected officials such as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene”:
For the “own the libs” bloc, winning elections isn’t that important anyway — they aren’t really invested in policy or governing and will be fine if Republicans remain out of the White House and in the minority on Capitol Hill.
Maybe Democrats and these happy losers can both get their way.