The Battle Lines for 2020

A new study finds that polarization on immigration may actually benefit Democrats

By G. Elliott Morris / August 07, 2019

 in US Politics 2020 Election


Lee Drutman has a new report out using Voter Study Group data to understand the issues dividing voters ahead of the 2020 presidential election. The top of his report offers the conclusions that I’ll share with you now:

Key Findings:

  • Democrats and Republicans are polarized on both economic and immigration issues, but views among Democrats are more concentrated than views among Republicans. Compared to Democrats, Republicans are more ideologically diverse.
  • About a quarter of the electorate are “cross pressured” on economics and immigration — aligning with Democrats on one issue and Republicans on the other. The number of Americans who are liberal on economics but conservative on immigration is much larger than the number of Americans who are conservative on economics and liberal on immigration.
  • Since the 2016 presidential election, Trump has lost support among both economically liberal/anti-immigration Americans and economically conservative/pro-immigration Americans. However, he may yet gain it back; these cross-pressured Americans are more likely to be undecided ahead of the 2020 presidential election.
  • The political center is a lonely place to be. Few voters have consistently middle-of- the-road views on both economics and immigration.

Before we get into the weeds, let me offer a bit of framing. Stanley Greenberg has a new report for Democracy Corps out in which he writes:

Just as in 2018, President Trump is surely making immigration the top voting issue for Republicans; that is hurting his electoral prospects, not helping. The percentage saying immigrants strengthen the country, are not a burden, has risen from 54% after the election to 65% now, 52% strongly. Only 26% agree with the president that they are a burden because they take jobs, housing, and health care.

Combining Greenberg’s comments with anecdotal media accounts floating around in my head, I think the conventional wisdom is currently offering up two theories about race and 2020:

  1. Trump will benefit from centering his campaign around racist appeals
  2. Trump’s immigration policy is increasingly unpopular

I think there is tension in these two points, but I don’t think they are mutually exclusive. But I also think pundits should not be taking (1) for granted. This is where Drutman’s work comes in. Check out this plot from the report:

And this one:

The first plot shows that Democrats have actually made gains among anti-immigration voters since 2016, but only among those with progressive economic views. This is likely due to two things: first, continued party polarization on economic issues; and second, a salience of pocket-book issues in last year’s midterm elections.

The second plot moves beyond the midterms to explores Trump’s standing in the electorate today. Drutman finds that most types of voters support Trump less than they used to, but he has especially lost ground among these “cross-pressured” voters who hold contradictory views on immigration and economic policy. The only good news for Trump is that market conservatives (who are more likely to vote for Trump than his Democratic opponent next year) make up a disproportionate share of undecided voters.

I don’t think the evidence supports the idea that Trump’s race-baiting is actually good for him. The most recent evidence suggest it could hurt him.

If you want more, I have written longer and better-polished thoughts for The Economist.



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