A hard 2020 lesson for the midterms: Our politics are calcified

In a few days, Americans will begin voting in the midterm elections. Control of the House and the Senate is up for grabs. Two years ago, Joe Biden and Donald Trump were locked in a similarly close battle for the White House. By that point, 2020 had already been extraordinarily eventful, even by the standards of presidential election years. The pandemic, the economic downturn, the protests following the murder of George Floyd — all appeared to herald political change. The moment seemed like a “plastic hour, ” a time that is ripe for national transformation because “an ossified social order suddenly turns pliable,” as George Packer wrote in the Atlantic then.

Instead, Biden’s victory was narrow. The Democrats won slim majorities in the House and Senate. The Republican Party didn’t consider the election to be a repudiation and has yet to reject Trump as an election loser.

The plastic hour hasn’t come, and we seem no closer to political realignment today. American electoral politics doesn’t feel malleable. It seems set in stone.

Part of the reason is the well-known and long-standing trend in partisan polarization. Voters and leaders in the two major parties are not only more ideologically distant from each other but also more likely to describe each other in harsh terms. In the fall of 2020, 90 percent of Americans said there were important differences in what the parties stood for — the highest number recorded in almost 70 years of American National Election Study surveys.

But polarization is not the whole story. Something more is happening. Voters are increasingly tied to their political loyalties and values. They have become less likely to change their basic political evaluations or vote for the other party’s candidate. This is not just polarization but calcification. And just as it does in the body, calcification produces rigidity in our politics — even when dramatic events suggest the potential for big changes.

Calcification derives from more than long-term polarization. It is rooted in very recent divides between the parties on issues tied to racial, ethnic, national and religious identities. A key driver of these differences was Trump, whose hard-line positions on issues such as immigration led Democrats to shift to the left. For example, in the seven years since Trump’s presidential campaign began, there has been more partisan polarization on whether to increase immigration than there was in the prior two decades, according to Gallup polls.

Americans’ political priorities also feed calcification. The issues that Americans consider most important tend to exacerbate their differences, not mitigate them. During the 2020 campaign, the most salient issues to Republicans included opposing Trump’s impeachment, building a border wall and fighting reparations for slavery. Democrats’ priorities included impeaching Trump, opposing Trump’s restrictions on immigrants from Muslim-majority countries, and abortion rights.

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By contrast, the issues on which there was more bipartisan consensus were less important to voters. For example, most Democrats and many Republicans are willing to raise taxes on the wealthy. In 2019 Nationscape surveys, 56 percent of Democrats and 33 percent of Republicans wanted to raise taxes on those making at least $250,000, with the rest opposed or unsure. But for both parties, tax policy was less important than abortion and immigration. This also helps explain why Trump could sign a tax bill that actually cut taxes on the wealthy without losing support from these Republicans. Within the GOP, identity politics appeared more important than economic populism.

Paradoxically, a calcified politics co-exists with frequent changes in who controls the government. This is because of the increasing parity in the two parties’ electoral strength. You can see partisan parity in the national electorate: By 2020, the Democratic advantage in party identification was the smallest in 70 years — just four percentage points. Partisan parity is visible in Congress as well, where the parties can expect to compete for control in most elections, producing what the political scientist Frances Lee has called “insecure majorities.” Right now, the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate certainly fit that description.

Calcified politics and partisan parity combine to produce a self-reinforcing cycle. When control of government is always within reach, there is less need for the losing party to adapt and recalibrate. And if it stays on the same path, voters have little reason to revise their political loyalties.

In our research on the 2020 election, we found evidence of calcified politics everywhere. Major events like the coronavirus pandemic and Floyd’s murder did not disrupt partisan alignments. Instead, those events were subsumed into the existing axis of partisan conflict. Trump’s push to reopen the country in April 2020 created partisan divisions on policies such as closing businesses and restricting travel. And after initially sympathetic comments about Floyd, Trump and other Republicans pivoted and attacked the racial-justice protests. Any “racial reckoning” that occurred was largely within the Democratic Party. When Floyd’s killer, Derek Chauvin, was convicted in April 2021, some conservative politicians and pundits attacked the trial, producing a historic gap between Republicans and Democrats in their views of the verdict.

Calcified politics was evident in the election’s outcome as well. To be sure, the changes between 2016 and 2020 were just enough to help Biden win. But those changes were small by historical standards. The average change in Democratic vote share in the states was just two points in absolute value, compared with 3.3 points between 2012 and 2016. At the county level, the average change between 2016 and 2020 was the smallest in consecutive presidential elections in at least 70 years, according to our analysis.

The same thing was true among individual voters. Drawing on surveys of the exact same voters in 2012, 2016 and 2020, we found more movement between 2012 and 2016 than between 2016 and 2020. For example, in 2016, 81 percent of those who voted for Barack Obama in 2012 reported voting for Hillary Clinton, 9 percent reported voting for Trump, and the rest reported not voting or voting for another candidate. Those 9 percent were the famous “Obama-Trump voters” who helped propel Trump to a slim electoral college victory. But in 2020, 95 percent of Clinton voters reported voting for Biden, and only 2 percent reported voting for Trump.

The greater stability between 2016 and 2020 flew in the face of speculation that Biden could somehow win back Obama-Trump voters. In fact, we found that 87 percent of Obama-Trump voters stuck with Trump. And most Romney-Clinton voters stuck with Biden. The swing voters of 2016 became loyal partisans in 2020.

Moreover, the election appeared to intensify the trends underlying calcification. There was continued partisan polarization: People saw Trump as more conservative than he was in 2016 and saw Biden as more liberal than Clinton. Democratic and Republican voters were further apart on a number of issues compared with 2016. And people’s views on key issues were more correlated with how they voted in 2020 than in 2016.

Polarization also helps explain a central puzzle of 2020 that remains relevant today: how Trump managed to increase his vote share among voters of color, especially Latino voters. After the election, there were various boutique explanations for specific groups: Biden was said to have lost votes among Cuban and Venezuelan Americans in Florida because they were concerned that the Democratic Party had become too “socialist”; for Mexican Americans in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, it was because they feared losing oil-industry jobs under a Democratic president who wanted to wean the country from fossil fuels.

But Biden lost votes among many kinds of Latino voters in many parts of the country, as well as among other voters of color. Polarization helps to explain that. We found that, compared with 2016, Trump gained support among conservatives in every major racial group, including Black and Latino voters. For Latinos in particular, these gains exceeded his losses among more liberal voters, leading to a small net change in his favor.

Those changes among Latinos were not enough to reelect Trump. But a shift of even a few percentage points can matter. This is the irony of calcified politics and partisan parity: Big events may produce only small changes, but small changes can have big consequences. Small changes were the difference between a Democratic or Republican president in 2020 and could be the difference between a Democratic or Republican majority in Congress after 2022.

The prospect of quickly regaining congressional majorities meant the GOP did little soul-searching after its loss of the White House. It refused any autopsy of the defeat, unlike after the 2012 election. In states where the party retained power, GOP leaders have pushed an ambitious conservative agenda, especially after the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade. Meanwhile, Trump has persisted as a force within the party, with candidates courting his endorsement and mimicking his beliefs and style. And thus the cycle of partisan parity and calcification has continued.

The aftermath of the 2020 election also revealed an especially pernicious consequence of this cycle: It increases the incentive for people to countenance their own party’s undemocratic behavior in order to win an election. After his loss, Trump and his allies endorsed baseless claims and even illegal means to overturn that election. If Republicans embrace or appease such measures in future elections, then a national transformation will really be upon us — and our democracy will hang in the balance.

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