David Shor on Why Trump Was Good for the GOP and How Dems Can Win in 2022

By Eric Levitz | Intelligencer | March 3, 2021

In the United States, every season is campaign season. Four months after America last went to the polls, Democrats are still refining their autopsies of the 2020 race and already governing with an eye toward the 2022 midterms. Meanwhile, on the other side of the aisle, Republicans are trying to figure out just how firm Donald Trump’s grip on their party really is — and debating whether that grip should be stronger or weaker.

To gain some insight into these matters, Intelligencer turned to our favorite socialist proponent of ruthlessly poll-driven campaigning, David Shor. A veteran of the 2012 Obama campaign, Shor is currently head of data science at OpenLabs, a progressive nonprofit. We spoke with him last week about how his analysis of the 2020 election has changed since November, what Democrats need to do to keep Congress after 2022, and why he thinks the Trump era was great for the Republican Party (in strictly electoral terms).

What are the most important things you’ve learned about the 2020 election between the last time we spoke and today?

What’s changed since November is that we now have individual-level vote-history data in a bunch of states. And we also have a lot more precinct-level data. And people have had more time to run surveys. So the picture has gotten clearer.

One high-level takeaway is that the 2020 electorate had a very similar partisan composition to the 2016 electorate. When the polls turned out to be wrong — and Trump turned out to be much stronger than they predicted — a lot of people concluded that turnout models must have been off: Trump must have inspired higher Republican turnout than expected. But that looks wrong. It really seems like the electorate was slightly more Democratic than it had been in 2016, largely due to demographic change (because there’s such a large partisan gap between younger and older voters, every four years the electorate gets something like 0.4 percent more Democratic just through generational churn). So Trump didn’t exceed expectations by inspiring higher-than-anticipated Republican turnout. He exceeded them mostly through persuasion. A lot of voters changed their minds between 2016 and 2020.

At the subgroup level, Democrats gained somewhere between half a percent to one percent among non-college whites and roughly 7 percent among white college graduates (which is kind of crazy). Our support among African Americans declined by something like one to 2 percent. And then Hispanic support dropped by 8 to 9 percent. The jury is still out on Asian Americans. We’re waiting on data from California before we say anything. But there’s evidence that there was something like a 5 percent decline in Asian American support for Democrats, likely with a lot of variance among subgroups. There were really big declines in Vietnamese areas, for example. Anyway, one implication of these shifts is that education polarization went up and racial polarization went down.

In other words, a voter’s level of educational attainment — whether they had a college degree — became more predictive of which party they voted for in 2020 than it had been in 2016, while a voter’s racial identity became less predictive?

Yeah. White voters as a whole trended toward the Democratic Party, and nonwhite voters trended away from us. So we’re now somewhere between 2004 and 2008 in terms of racial polarization. Which is interesting. I don’t think a lot of people expected Donald Trump’s GOP to have a much more diverse support base than Mitt Romney’s did in 2012. But that’s what happened.

Does the available data give us any insight into why? Do you have any sense what was behind the large rightward shift among Hispanic voters?

One important thing to know about the decline in Hispanic support for Democrats is that it was pretty broad. This isn’t just about Cubans in South Florida. It happened in New York and California and Arizona and Texas. Really, we saw large drops all over the country. But it was notably larger in some places than others. In the precinct-level data, one of the things that jumps out is that places where a lot of voters have Venezuelan or Colombian ancestry saw much larger swings to the GOP than basically anywhere else in the country. The Colombian and Venezuelan shifts were huge.

One of my favorite examples is Doral, which is a predominantly Venezuelan and Colombian neighborhood in South Florida. One precinct in that neighborhood went for Hillary Clinton by 40 points in 2016 and for Trump by ten points in 2020. One thing that makes Colombia and Venezuela different from much of Latin America is that socialism as a brand has a very specific, very high salience meaning in those countries. It’s associated with FARC paramilitaries in Colombia and the experience with President Maduro in Venezuela. So I think one natural inference is that the increased salience of socialism in 2020 — with the rise of AOC and the prominence of anti-socialist messaging from the GOP — had something to do with the shift among those groups.

As for the story with Hispanics overall, one thing that really comes out very clearly in survey data that we’ve done is that it really comes down to ideology. So when you look at self-reported ideology — just asking people, “Do you identify as liberal, moderate, or conservative” — you find that there aren’t very big racial divides. Roughly the same proportion of African American, Hispanic, and white voters identify as conservative. But white voters are polarized on ideology, while nonwhite voters haven’t been. Something like 80 percent of white conservatives vote for Republicans. But historically, Democrats have won nonwhite conservatives, often by very large margins. What happened in 2020 is that nonwhite conservatives voted for Republicans at higher rates; they started voting more like white conservatives.

And so this leads to a question of why. Why did nonwhite voters start sorting more by ideology? And that’s a hard thing to know. But my organization, and our partner organizations, have done extensive post-election surveys of 2020 voters. And we looked specifically at those voters who switched from supporting Hillary Clinton in 2016 to Donald Trump in 2020 to see whether anything distinguishes this subgroup in terms of their policy opinions. What we found is that Clinton voters with conservative views on crime, policing, and public safety were far more likely to switch to Trump than voters with less conservative views on those issues. And having conservative views on those issues was more predictive of switching from Clinton to Trump than having conservative views on any other issue-set was.

This lines up pretty well with trends we saw during the campaign. In the summer, following the emergence of “defund the police” as a nationally salient issue, support for Biden among Hispanic voters declined. So I think you can tell this microstory: We raised the salience of an ideologically charged issue that millions of nonwhite voters disagreed with us on. And then, as a result, these conservative Hispanic voters who’d been voting for us despite their ideological inclinations started voting more like conservative whites.

Are these problems with Democratic positioning or with “disinformation”? Obviously, Joe Biden didn’t campaign on police abolition and worker control of the means of production. So there was a disconnect between the reality of the party’s platform and how it was perceived. Closing that gap, through a “Latino Anti-Disinformation Lab,” appears to be a focus of Democrats’ postelection efforts to fix their problem with Hispanic voters. Does that make sense as a path forward?

I’d say this: The decline that we saw was very large. Nine percent or so nationwide, up to 14 or 15 percent in Florida. Roughly one in ten Hispanic voters switched their vote from Clinton to Trump. That is beyond the margin of what can plausibly be changed by investing more in Spanish media. And I don’t think a shift that large can be plausibly attributed to what was said in WhatsApp groups or not buying enough in YouTube ads. I think the problem is more fundamental.

Over the last four years, white liberals have become a larger and larger share of the Democratic Party. There’s a narrative on the left that the Democrats’ growing reliance on college-educated whites is pulling the party to the right (Matt Karp had an essay on this recently). But I think that’s wrong. Highly educated people tend to have more ideologically coherent and extreme views than working-class ones. We see this in issue polling and ideological self-identification. College-educated voters are way less likely to identify as moderate. So as Democrats have traded non-college-educated voters for college-educated ones, white liberals’ share of voice and clout in the Democratic Party has gone up. And since white voters are sorting on ideology more than nonwhite voters, we’ve ended up in a situation where white liberals are more left wing than Black and Hispanic Democrats on pretty much every issue: taxes, health care, policing, and even on racial issues or various measures of “racial resentment.” So as white liberals increasingly define the party’s image and messaging, that’s going to turn off nonwhite conservative Democrats and push them against us.

When you say that white liberals are to the left of the typical Black Democrat on racial issues, how much does that depend on the definition of a racial issue? For example, one policy fight that often pits the interests of white liberal Democrats against those of the Black working class is housing and school integration. There are a lot of highly educated, white, liberal areas — full of “Black Lives Matter” lawn signs — which nevertheless oppose affordable-housing projects or school-redistricting plans that would bring less wealthy, less white students to their kids’ classrooms. The white liberals who oppose efforts to end de facto segregation may know the enlightened answer to abstract questions about the nature of racial inequality, but I’m not sure that puts them to the left of nonwhite voters on racial issues, properly defined.

Yeah, no, absolutely. White liberals do give more progressive responses across a wide battery of traditional racial resentment questions like, “Do you believe that the reason why African Americans can’t get ahead is due to discrimination or due to other factors?” But I think it’s important to put “racial resentment” in quotes whenever you talk about it. I’m not claiming that white liberals are somehow less racist than people of color, to the extent that question even makes sense. And I do think if you asked about affirmative action and inclusionary zoning, rather than these more abstract questions that political scientists use for measuring racial resentment, you could find a different breakdown.

But I think the split on those abstract questions captures something real. In liberal circles, racism has been defined in highly ideological terms. And this theoretical perspective on what racism means and the nature of racial inequality have become a big part of the group identity of college-educated Democrats, white and nonwhite. But it’s not necessarily how most nonwhite, working-class people understand racism.

How do they differ?

I don’t think I can answer that comprehensively. But if you look at the concrete questions, white liberals are to the left of Hispanic Democrats, but also of Black Democrats, on defunding the police and those ideological questions about the source of racial inequity.

Regardless, even if a majority of nonwhite people agreed with liberals on all of these issues, the fundamental problem is that Democrats have been relying on the support of roughly 90 percent of Black voters and 70 percent of Hispanic voters. So if Democrats elevate issues or theories that a large minority of nonwhite voters reject, it’s going to be hard to keep those margins. Because these issues are strongly correlated with ideology. And Black conservatives and Hispanic conservatives don’t actually buy into a lot of these intellectual theories of racism. They often have a very different conception of how to help the Black or Hispanic community than liberals do. And I don’t think we can buy our way out of this trade-off. Most voters are not liberals. If we polarize the electorate on ideology — or if nationally prominent Democrats raise the salience of issues that polarize the electorate on ideology — we’re going to lose a lot of votes.

Don’t these ideological self-descriptions carry similar definitional problems as “racial resentment”? Most voters may not identify as liberals. But judging from opinion polls, most voters do reject the lion’s share of the conservative movement’s governing priorities. In Congress, a “conservative” is typically a lawmaker who supports tax cuts for the rich and funding cuts for Medicaid, while opposing a higher minimum wage and another round of stimulus checks. Those are all extremely unpopular positions.

Absolutely.

It seems important then to get clarity on what these ideological labels do and don’t mean. If taken at face value, the data looks pretty ominous for Democrats: They’ve built a coalition premised on overwhelming support from these nonwhite groups, but that support was rooted in historically contingent social conditions — not substantive agreement — and now those conditions are eroding, clearing the way for an emerging “conservative”