Opinion

‘This Is Going to Be the Most Important Election Since 1860’

I recently sent out a list of questions about the 2024 elections to political operatives, pollsters and political scientists.

  • How salient will abortion be?

  • How damaging would a government shutdown be to Donald Trump and the Republican Party?

  • Will the MAGA electorate turn out in high percentages?

  • Will a Biden impeachment by the House, if it happens, help or hurt the G.O.P.?

  • Will the cultural left wing of the Democratic Party undermine the party’s prospects?

  • Will the key battleground states be Georgia, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Michigan and Wisconsin?

  • How significant will Black and Hispanic shifts to the Republican Party be and where will these shifts have the potential to determine the outcome?

  • Will Kamala Harris’s presence on the ticket cost Biden votes?

  • Why hasn’t Biden gained politically from his legislative successes and from improvements in the economy? Will that change before the 2024 election?

Why should Democrats be worrying?

From 2016 to 2023, according to Morning Consult, the share of voters saying that the Democratic Party “cares about me” fell from 43 to 41 percent while rising for the Republican Party from 30 to 39 percent; the share saying the Democrats “care about the middle class” fell from 47 to 46 percent, while rising from 33 to 42 percent for the Republican Party.

What’s more, the percentage of voters saying the Democratic Party is “too liberal” rose from 40 to 47 from 2020 to 2023, while the percentage saying the Republican Party was “too conservative” remained constant at 38 percent.

Why should Republicans be worrying?

Robert M. Stein, a political scientist at Rice, responded to my question about MAGA turnout by email: “Turnout among MAGA supporters may be less important than how many MAGA voters there are in the 2024 election and in which states they are.”

One of the most distinctive demographic characteristics of self-identified MAGA voters, Stein pointed out, “is their age: over half (56 percent) were over the age of 65 as of 2020. By 2024, the proportion of MAGA voters over 70 will be greater than 50 percent and will put these voters in the likely category of voters leaving the electorate, dying, ill and unable to vote.”

Because of these trends, Stein continued, “it may be the case that the absolute number and share of the electorate that are MAGA voters is diluted in 2024 by their own exit from the electorate and the entry of new and younger and non-MAGA voters.”

Along similar lines, Martin Wattenberg, a political scientist at the University of California-Irvine, argued by email that generational change will be a key factor in the election.

Between 2020 and 2024, “about 13 million adult citizens will have died” and “these lost voters favored Trump in 2020 by a substantial margin. My rough estimate is that removing these voters from the electorate will increase Biden’s national popular vote margin by about 1.2 million votes.”

The aging of the electorate works to the advantage of Biden and his fellow Democrats. So too does what is happening with younger voters at the other end of the age distribution. Here, Democrats have an ace in the hole: the strong liberal and Democratic convictions of voters between the ages of 18 and 42, whose share of the electorate is steadily growing.

Joe Trippi, a Democratic consultant, was exuberant on the subject:

Young voters, Trippi continued, “are not going to vote G.O.P. and they are going to vote. Dobbs, climate, homophobia, gun violence are all driving this generation away from the G.O.P. — in much the same way that Dems lost the younger generation during the Reagan years.”

Wattenberg was more cautious. He estimated that 15 million young people will become eligible to vote between 2020 and 2024.

“How many of them will vote and how they will vote is a key uncertainty that could determine the election,” he wrote. “Given recent patterns, there is little doubt that those that vote will favor the Democratic nominee. But by how much?”

There are some developments going into the next election that defy attempts to determine whether Democrats or Republicans will come out ahead.

Take the case of all the criminal charges that have been filed against Trump.

In more normal — that is, pre-Trump — days, the fact that the probable Republican nominee faced 91 felony counts would have shifted the scales in favor of the Democrats. But these are not normal times.

Frances Lee, a political scientist at Princeton, pointed out that the 2024 election has no precedent.

“How will the Trump prosecutions unfold amidst the primaries and the presidential campaign?” Lee asked in an email. “How will developments in these cases be received by Republicans and the public at large? We have little relevant precedent for even considering how these cases are likely to affect the race.”

Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California-San Diego, agreed, noting in an email: “How will Trump’s trials evolve and how will people react to them? What happens if he is convicted and sentenced? What happens if he is acquitted?”

Lee and Jacobson were joined in this line of thinking by Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster, who emailed his view that

Some of those I contacted observed that the prospect of one or more third-party bids posed a significant threat to Biden’s chances.

Paul Begala, a Democratic political operative and CNN contributor, wrote by email:

In Begala’s opinion, “Dr. West has more charisma, better communications skills, and greater potential appeal than Dr. Jill Stein did in 2016. If, in fact, he is able to garner even two to five percent, that could doom Biden and the country.”

And that, Begala continued, does not “even take into account a potential centrist candidacy under the No Labels banner. Biden won moderates by a 30-point margin (64-34), and 38 percent of all voters described themselves as moderate in 2020. If No Labels were to field a viable, centrist candidate, that, too, would doom Biden.”

Norman Ornstein, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, agreed, arguing that third-party candidates are a “huge issue”:

Among those I contacted for this column, there was near unanimous agreement that abortion will continue to be a major issue — as it was in 2022, when abortion rights voters turned out in large numbers, lifting Democrats in key races.

“It is the single most significant factor helping Democrats,” Ornstein declared, adding, “The fact that red states move more and more to extremes — including banning abortions for rape and incest, watching women bleed with untreated miscarriages, seeing doctors flee, criminalizing going to another state — will fire up suburban and young voters.”

Justin Gest, a professor of policy and government at George Mason University, pointed out in an email that

Citing a June Ipsos poll that found “public opinion around the Dobbs decision and abortion remains mostly unchanged compared to six months ago,” Gest argued “that abortion remains salient more than a year after the revocation of abortion rights by the U.S. Supreme Court, but Democrats in many states will also use ballot measures to ensure it is top of mind.” Gest also noted that “supermajorities of the country favor preserving access to abortion to some extent.”

Stein, however, wrote by email that while a majority of voters have remained in favor of abortion rights, they appear to be placing less importance on the issue than was the case immediately after the Dobbs decision.

Stein pointed to a March Morning Consult survey that found “10 percent of voters in the most competitive congressional districts rank issues such as abortion as their top voting concern, down from 15 percent in November.”

But, Stein added, Republican state legislators are not helping their own political fortunes by muting discussion of abortion; instead, they have been unrelenting in their efforts to elevate the prominence of abortion. “The recent sentencing of a mother in Nebraska who provided her daughter abortion pills,” he wrote, “puts a very real face on the consequences of Dobbs and restrictions on abortion rights,”

There was some disagreement among those I contacted over the political consequences of a government shutdown, something that could well happen within days unless Speaker Kevin McCarthy can find a path to enactment of budget legislation.

Frances Lee said that she

Michael Podhorzer, former political director of the AFL-CIO, however, contended that it is “hard to imagine it won’t blow back on them — every previous shutdown has, and this one’s justifications seem nonexistent.”

William Galston, a senior fellow at Bookings, agreed, writing by email:

Begala, in character, was the most outspoken:

There was also some disagreement among those I queried over whether Kamala Harris would cost Biden votes.

Begala dismissed the possibility:

Ornstein was succinct: “Vice-presidential candidates do not cost votes.”

Gest, however, argued against this idea:

There is one issue that has been increasingly troubling for Democrats: Will the modest but significant shifts among Black and Hispanic voters toward the Republican Party continue and will they increase?

Gest wrote that “if Republicans suddenly make significant inroads with Latinos in the Southwest, they could change the dynamics” in states like Arizona and Nevada.

But in order to do so, Gest cautioned, shifts to the Republican Party among minorities “would need to outnumber the pandemic-era arrival of left-leaning transplants from coastal urban cities. To the extent that these transplants have settled in their new homes, they can solidify Democratic support.”

In a December 2022 Politico article, “How Demographic Shifts Fueled by Covid Delivered Midterm Wins for Democrats,” Gest made the case that

Gest cited large population growth coinciding with much stronger than expected Democratic gains in places like Arizona’s Maricopa County — which, between 2018 and 2022, “gained nearly 100,000 people, and Democrats’ margins rose by 17 points since that year: and Pima County, including Tucson, gained 16,000 people and its margins in the gubernatorial race swung 16 points for Democrats.”

One source of uncertainty is the media, which can, and often does, play a key role in setting the campaign agenda. The contest between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is a prime example.

In the aftermath of the 2016 election, the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard conducted a study, “Partisanship, Propaganda, & Disinformation: Online Media & the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election.” It that found that reporting on Hillary Clinton was dominated “by coverage of alleged improprieties associated with the Clinton Foundation and emails.”

According to the study, the press, television and online media devoted more space and time to Clinton’s emails than it did to the combined coverage of Trump’s taxes, his comments about women, his failed “university,” his foundation and his campaign’s dealings with Russia.

Going into 2024, it is unlikely the media could inflict much more damage on Trump, given that the extensive coverage of the 91 felony counts against him does not seem to affect his favorable or unfavorable rating.

Biden, in contrast, has much more to gain or lose from media coverage. Will it focus on his age or his legislative and policy achievements? On inflation and consumer costs or economic growth and high employment rates? On questions about Biden’s ability to complete a second term or the threats to democracy posed by the ascendant right wing of the Republican Party?

Herbert Kitschelt, a political scientist at Duke, argued that matters of immense concern are at stake: “This is going to be the most important election since 1860, because it is going to be about the future of this country as a democracy.”

It will be an election, he continued,

The 2024 election, in Kitschelt’s view, “is the last stand of the nationalist ‘Christian’ white right, as their support is eroding in absolute and relative terms, and of all those who believe that white supremacy across all U.S. institutions needs to be protected, even at the cost of giving up on democracy.”

But, on an even larger scale, he argued, “The 2024 election will also be about whether this country will preserve a universalist sense of citizenship or devolve into a polity of splintered identity pressure groups, rent-seeking for shares of the pie.”

Unfortunately, Kitschelt concluded, “if the Democrats let the Republicans succeed in priming the identity issues that divide the potential Democratic coalition, the white Christian nationalists will have a greater chance to win.”

And that, of course, is a central goal of Trump’s — and of his campaign.

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