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  1. US Election 2020
9 December 2020updated 04 Sep 2021 8:16am

The 2020 US presidential election in data: why the Trump revolution will live on

American populism existed long before Donald Trump and is set to endure after he leaves the White House. 

By Ben Walker

Democratic candidate Joe Biden is president-elect of the United States. He is on course to win the popular vote by a margin similar to Barack Obama in 2012. And yet, the Trumpian revolution, unlike the battered and bruised Mitt Romney campaign of eight years ago, isn’t reassessing its overall position or conceding defeat. According to a new poll, over three-quarters of Republicans think Donald Trump is likely to run again for president in 2024.

However, while much US coverage this last election cycle talked interchangeably of Trump voters and Republican voters, a great many of the outgoing president’s supporters do not appear to identify with the Republican Party. 

Even in the closing days of his presidency, Trump was still pulling in new and disaffiliated voters. In September, a Guardian report from Florida found gala events and feel-good rallies organised not by county workers for the Republican Party, but by volunteers who were purely advocates of the Trump cause. Some attendees declared with pride that this was the first event of its kind that they had ever either been to or helped organise. In October, a Trump rally in Martinsburg, Pennsylvania, collected data on attendees. Of those that showed up, one in five hadn’t voted in 2016, and one in ten refused to identify as Republican.

That a perceived anti-establishment candidate’s most vehement supporters were previously disengaged from electoral politics is nothing new. In both the 2016 and 2020 primaries, county staff for Democratic senator Bernie Sanders’ campaign often came from the bottom up – people who, until Sanders, had had little enthusiasm for political activism. In Britain, similar examples throughout the 2010s were found among supporters of Jeremy Corbyn after he became Labour leader and the then Ukip leader Nigel Farage.

But unlike Sanders, Corbyn and Farage, Trump won in 2016 – and that win vindicated his base. He, and the politics he represents, has subsequently entrenched a new kind of voter within American politics, one that is not Democrat or even primarily Republican but, rather, Trumpian.

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Since the takeover by Trump, the Republican vote has become whiter, poorer and less educated than the one which backed Mitt Romney in 2012 or George W Bush in 2004. Trump’s ability to appeal to these demographics – America’s white working class – and to get them to turn out in numbers that exceeded the comparative numbers of younger and better educated voters was a major factor in turning the Rust Belt states red in 2016. It wasn’t enough to keep Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan in the Trump column in 2020; but the margins of Biden’s victories were markedly closer than the Obama wins of 2012.

Joe Biden may have won in 2020 on a national scale similar to 2012, but among white voters – particularly those outside the cities – he and the Democrats still have a lot of ground to make up.

Where did Biden 2020 outperform Obama 2012?
Circles are overlayed on the counties where Biden outperformed Obama, sized by vote share increase

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Data: NYT

Part of this struggle can be attributed to Trump’s success in turning out new voters. In 2016, exit polling found the number of Trump supporters who identified as first-time voters (8 per cent) was almost as high as for Hillary Clinton (12 per cent). This was remarkable: Republican supporters traditionally lean towards being older, and Democrats are usually expected to clean up among younger, more diverse first-time voters. In 2020, this newly established “base”, particularly in some of the whitest counties in the country, turned out in high numbers again – matching and sometimes exceeding turnout among traditional Democrat voters. As many as one in ten of Trump’s voters in both 2016 and 2020 had never voted before in their lives.

Yet, while many of Trump’s supporters reported high levels of enthusiasm for their chosen candidate (in 2020, 74 per cent of his supporters said they were enthusiastic about voting, compared to just 48 per cent of Biden’s), many have also questioned his suitability for the role.

In 2016, voters were asked whether they thought Trump had the temperament and skill for high office. The overwhelming majority thought not. Even among those that eventually voted for him, over one in four questioned his ability to be president. This was perhaps partly attributable to Trump’s lack of prior political service – yet, four years later, that figure still stood at a notable and above average 10 per cent.    

White America has always been Republican, but never more so than under Donald Trump
Data features counties more than 75 per cent white. Bubbles sized by population and charted by lead for the Democrats.

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These sceptical Trump voters may simply be Republicans who couldn’t bring themselves to vote Democrat. But, especially after Biden took such care to appeal to a wide coalition of voters, there is also an argument to be made that many of Trump’s voters don’t care about Trump himself, be it his personality or style, they just care about the kind of politics he represents.

If and when Trump departs the stage, his voters, instead of returning to moderate Republican candidates such as Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio, will likely look for another Trump-style candidate to support. Populism is out of the bottle and anti-establishment feelings are unlikely to subside. Take Fox News, for instance. After it projected a Republican loss for Arizona on election night, Trump took to Twitter to criticise the traditionally conservative network and recommend alternative news sources. His voters followed through: sentiment towards the network since election day took a slide among Republican voters to what is now a record low.

Mistrust of a perceived elitist status quo has been edging up year on year in the US. Distrust of establishment media is at a record high. This increase in populist feeling, it should be noted, is not necessarily wedded to specific policies or parties – for example, the policies of the Tea Party or the contents of a Trump manifesto – but rather to the emotional politics of all things anti-establishment.

Many GOP leaders are resolute in their continued support for Trump and some prominent figures are already declaring that he should run again in 2024. Others, however, such as former national security adviser John Bolton, have called for a stock take within the Republican movement. Yet if Donald Trump departs Republican politics for good after leaving office in January 2021, his previously disengaged supporters are unlikely to feel the need to compromise on their new politics, especially in light of what many perceive to be Trump’s unfair 2020 defeat.

For those who wish to defeat these populist-sympathising Trumpers, be they moderate Republicans or One Nation Democrats, there are two strategies: convince them, or depress them. The Republican Party can try to reject a Trump-style candidate and adopt the kind of strategy that was spoken about after the 2012 defeat. Or it can embrace the legacy of Trump, and try to build on his already-energised base.

Both are dangerous paths. Option one risks a split among America’s right, with loyal Trump supporters running a third ticket for the presidency; and option two relies on an ageing and ever-dwindling white base. 

American politics has an uncertain future. We don’t know how the Republican Party will look in the weeks, months and years to come, and we don’t know yet if the Democratic leadership will be successful, or if it would even attempt to neutralise a Trump comeback. But one thing is certain: the legacy of one-term president Donald Trump and his revolution among white working-class America will leave a lasting impression on US politics in a way that no candidate has ever done before.

[See also: How Joe Biden won]

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