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Analysis: Why the stability of the 2020 race promises more volatility ahead

September 15, 2020. Summarized by summa-bot.

In a presidency of unprecedented disruption and turmoil, Donald Trump's support has remained remarkably stable. That stability, paradoxically, points toward years of rising turbulence in American politics and life.

Trump's approval ratings and support in the presidential race against Democratic nominee Joe Biden have oscillated in a strikingly narrow range of around 40%-45% that appears largely immune to both good news -- the long economic boom during his presidency's first years -- and bad -- impeachment, the worst pandemic in more than a century, revelations that he's disparaged military service and blunt warnings that he is unfit for the job from former senior officials in his own government.

The durability of both support and opposition to Trump shows how the motivation for voters' choices is shifting from transitory measures of performance, such as the traditional metrics of peace and prosperity, toward bedrock attitudes about demographic, cultural and economic change.

The immovability of the battle lines in 2020 captures how thoroughly the two parties are now unified -- and separated -- by their contrasting attitudes toward these fundamental changes, with Trump mobilizing overwhelming support from the voters who are hostile to them, no matter what else happens, and the contrasting coalition of Americans who welcome this evolution flocking toward the Democrats.

"That is certainly what gives Trump a floor: By stoking those cultural war fires you are going to win over a certain share of the electorate that has this more racist and sexist and xenophobic views," says Brian Schaffner, a Tufts University political scientist who has extensively studied the correlation between political preferences and cultural attitudes.

Just as Trump's backing hasn't collapsed during the pandemic, his support didn't soar during the economic boom times of his presidency's first years: he's the only president in Gallup's history to never win approval from 50% of Americans at any point during his tenure.

With Trump basing so much of his campaign on charging that a Biden victory would unleash mobs of protesters in suburbia -- and in the process appealing so openly to White racial resentments -- Schaffner says it's highly likely that attitudes about race relations and gender roles will predict support in the presidential contest even more powerfully in 2020 than in 2016.

Already, striking recent polling from the nonpartisan Pew Research Foundation has found that the gap in attitudes about demographic and social change is even wider between voters backing Trump and Biden than it was between supporters of Trump and Clinton in 2016.

Similarly, while about 4 in 5 Democratic voters and 55% of all registered voters say women still face significant obstacles in getting ahead (both up slightly since 2016), nearly three-fourths of Trump supporters reject that idea as well, also slightly more than four years ago.

Even among voters in the same demographic group, Pew found, there's an enormous gulf in views on these questions between those supporting Biden and those supporting Trump.

Three-fourths of the college-educated Whites backing Biden, for instance, say it's "a lot more difficult" to be Black than White in America today; fewer than 1 in 12 college-educated Whites backing Trump agree.

All of these results underscore how Trump has intensified the long-term process of reconfiguring the parties more along lines of cultural and racial attitudes than economic class.

But it's simultaneously sentenced Trump and his party to huge deficits among young people and people of color, as well as White voters holding at least four-year college degrees.

As Schaffner notes, some voters remain conflicted about these demographic and cultural changes and are open to switching sides depending on their assessment of the individual nominees; with Biden, he believes, Democrats may win more older and non-college Whites who probably lean slightly right on these questions than they might have with a more liberal nominee.

Trump's relentless rhetorical salvos against immigrants, "mobs" and African American leaders from politics to sports and his insistence that religious traditions (like Christmas) are under siege all inflame a deep-rooted anxiety among conservative White Christian voters, Jones notes.

With the Democratic Party identifying much more unreservedly than even 10 or 20 years ago with the demands for change, and Trump so clearly stamping the GOP in opposition to all of them, the grinding trench warfare between these competing coalitions in the 2020 race probably only previews the struggle looming through the 2020s.

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