A few weeks ago, I was talking to a local pastor here in Tennessee, and he started the conversation by asking a question I hear all the time: “Can anybody beat Trump?” He was desperate for someone else, anyone else, to claim the Republican nomination. He ticked through the names — DeSantis, Haley, Scott, Pence (he was still in the race then) — and they were all better. Why can’t they gain traction? “It’s not a binary choice anymore,” he said. “It’s not Trump or Biden.”
“But,” he quickly added, “if it is Trump or Biden, then I’m voting Trump. It’s just who I am.”
It’s just who I am. I thought of that conversation when I saw last weekend’s headlines. Donald Trump is now leading Joe Biden in five swing states, and if the race goes the way the poll suggests, Trump could win the presidency with more than 300 electoral votes. At the same time, we know from previous Times/Siena College polling that the hard-core MAGA base is 37 percent of the Republican Party. Another 37 percent can be persuaded to oppose Trump, while 25 percent are completely opposed to his nomination.
How is it possible that a person whose true base is only 37 percent of his party, who faces four separate criminal indictments, and who already lost once to Biden, might sit in the electoral driver’s seat?
I’ve written quite a bit on the enduring bond between Trump and his base. There’s the strange combination of rage and joy that marks the MAGA community. They’re somehow both furious about the direction of the country and having the time of their lives supporting Trump. There’s also the power of prophecy. Millions of Christians are influenced by claims that Trump is divinely ordained to save the United States. But the MAGA millions aren’t enough to put him back in the White House.
To understand his general election prospects, we have to go beyond Trump’s MAGA core. He needs millions more votes — including from my pastor friend, a man who’s desperate to see Trump leave American politics.
Trump’s viability in the Republican Party depends on the loyalty of his base, but his viability in the general election depends on a dark combination of negative partisanship and civic ignorance. Negative partisanship is the term political scientists use to describe partisan loyalty that exists not because a voter loves his party or its ideas, but because he loathes the opposing party and the people in it. And why do voters loathe the opposition so darn much? That’s where civic ignorance plays its own diabolical role. Partisan Americans are wrong about each other in a particularly dangerous way — each side thinks the other is more extreme than it really is.
This hostility is what permits Trump to convert his primary plurality into a potential electoral majority. This hostility both predated Trump and powered his election. In previous American political generations, nominating a person perceived to be an extremist or a crank was the kiss of electoral death. You wouldn’t merely expect to lose. You would expect to lose in a landslide.
When Republicans nominated far-right Barry Goldwater in 1964, for example, he won six states and lost the popular vote by 23 points. Eight years later, when Democrats nominated far-left George McGovern, they won one state and also lost the popular vote by 23 points. There was enough partisan mobility in the electorate to decisively reject two different candidates, from opposing edges of the political spectrum.
But now? It is unthinkable for many millions of partisans — or even for those independents who lean right or left and maybe secretly don’t want to admit to themselves that they’re truly partisan — to either vote third party or cross the aisle and vote for a candidate of the opposing party. They simply hate the other side too much. The result is that virtually any Republican or Democratic nominee begins the race with both a high floor and a low ceiling, and no one has much margin for error. Every nominee is going to be fragile, and every national presidential race is going to be close. The margin in the last two races has been agonizingly slim. A few thousand votes cast differently in key swing states and Hillary Clinton wins or Joe Biden loses.
To understand the power of negative partisanship, it’s important to understand the sheer scale of the mutual partisan hatred. Dating back to June 2014 — a full year before Trump came down that escalator — the Pew Research Center reported an extraordinary increase in polarization. Between 1994 and 2014, the percentage of Democrats and Republicans who expressed “very unfavorable” views of their opponents more than doubled, to 38 percent of Democrats and 43 percent of Republicans. Overall, 82 percent of Republicans and 79 percent of Democrats had either unfavorable or very unfavorable views of their political opponents.
During the Trump era, this mutual contempt and loathing only grew. A June 2019 report by More in Common found that 86 percent of Republicans believed Democrats were brainwashed, 84 percent believed Democrats were hateful and 71 percent believed Democrats were racist. Democrats also expressed withering disgust for Republicans: 88 percent believed Republicans were brainwashed, 87 percent believed Republicans were hateful and 89 percent believed Republicans were racist.
There is an interesting additional wrinkle to the More in Common report. Yes, it found that the two sides hated each other, but it also discovered that both sides are were wrong about their political opponents. Both Democrats and Republicans believed their opponents were more politically extreme than they really are. The findings are startling: “Overall, Democrats and Republicans imagine almost twice as many of their political opponents … hold views they consider ‘extreme’ ” than is actually the case.
The media compounds the problem. More in Common found that consuming news media (with the exception of broadcast news on ABC, NBC and CBS) actually increased the perception gap. As a practical matter, this means that parties are almost always defined by their ideological extremes, and each party uses the existence of those extremes to generate fear and increase turnout. Even if a party does try to moderate to appeal to the middle, partisan media still highlights the radicals that remain, and the perception gap persists. The fear persists.
We can start to see why Trump is viable beyond his base. When you ask right-leaning voters to abandon Trump, you’re asking them to empower a political party they view as brainwashed, hateful and racist. You’re asking them to empower a political party they view as extreme. That’s the source of Trump’s strength in a general election. He’s surfing on top of a huge wave of fear and animosity, a wave he did not create, but one that he’s making bigger through his own malignant, destructive influence.
That’s not to say that we face a political stalemate. After all, we’ve seen MAGA candidates perform poorly in multiple swing state elections, but many of those elections — even against plainly incompetent or corrupt candidates — have been extraordinarily close. Trump’s loss in 2020 was extraordinarily close. In a narrowly divided country, it becomes difficult for one party to deliver the kind of decisive blows that Republicans suffered in 1964 or Democrats suffered in 1972.
When the Trump Republican Party is forced to take three steps back, it often consoles itself with two steps forward. It lost the House in 2018, but it gained seats in the Senate. It lost the presidency and the Senate in 2020, but it gained seats in the House. It lost ground in the Senate in 2022, but it did (barely) win back control of the House. There weren’t many bright spots for Republicans in the 2023 elections, either, but there weren’t many races, and MAGA will still believe that Joe Biden is weak even if other Democrats have proven stronger than expected.
Already Trump and his allies are blaming electoral setbacks on the Republican establishment. Radio host Mark Levin claimed that the Republican nominee for governor in Kentucky, Daniel Cameron, lost to Democrat Andy Beshear because Cameron is a “Mitch McConnell protégé.” Trump himself echoed the same theme, declaring on Truth Social that Cameron “couldn’t alleviate the stench of Mitch McConnell.” MAGA’s solution to electoral setbacks is always the same — more MAGA.
There are two potential paths past this Republican dynamic. One is slow, difficult and dangerous. That’s the path of the Democratic Party defeating Trump and other MAGA candidates, race by race, year by year, with the full knowledge that the margin of victory can be razor-thin, and that there’s always the risk of a close loss that brings catastrophic consequences for our Republic. One negative news cycle — like Anthony Weiner’s laptop surfacing in the closing days of the 2016 election — can be the difference between victory and defeat.
The other path — the better path — requires the Republican Party to reform itself, to reject Trump now. A two-party nation needs two healthy parties. Any republic that depends on one party defeating the other to preserve democracy and the rule of law is a republic that teeters on the edge of destruction. A Nikki Haley nomination, for example, might make Biden’s defeat more likely, but farsighted Democrats should welcome a potential return to normalcy in the Republican Party. It would mean that politics will perhaps return to a world of manageable differences, rather than a series of existential threats to democracy itself.
As of now, however, internal Republican reform is a pipe dream. Ron DeSantis is falling, and while Haley is rising, she hasn’t even hit 10 percent support in the RealClearPolitics polling average. Trump leads by a staggering spread of 43.7 points. Perhaps a criminal conviction could reverse Trump’s primary momentum, but after watching Trump’s Republican approval rating survive every single scandal of his presidency and political career, the idea that anything will shake his Republican support is far more of a hope than an expectation.
Until that unlikely moment, we’re stuck with the current dynamic. Love for Trump fuels his support in the Republican primary. Hatred of Democrats makes him viable in the general election. American animosity gave Trump the White House once, and so long as that animosity remains, it threatens to give him the White House once again.
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