Members Only | July 5, 2019 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Cold-Blooded Partisan Can Win

Politics isn't fair. The Democratic Party needs to remember that.

Share this article

In light of the Supreme Court’s recent ruling permitting political parties to gerrymander the opposition into extinction, one thing we should keep in mind:

Politics isn’t fair.

Of course, it wasn’t ever truly fair, but it’s increasingly and drastically more unfair in the wake of three other high court rulings that weakened labor unions, legalized corruption and allowed for the political disenfranchisement of racial minorities. 

Being unfair isn’t going to change how the media covers politics. The Washington press corps, by and large, continues to insist that the parties are equally bad (or good, depending). In doing this, the press corps, in the run up to 2020, is going to distort political reality in ways deleterious to the American electorate. There is no alternative outcome from applying a lens of equity to things that are truly inequitable.

This isn’t the only way reality gets distorted.

Because we can’t know what the future holds, we naturally apply the lessons of the past to circumstances in the present. All things considered, this is a sensible tack. It gets dangerous, though, when incentives are involved. Some people have powerful reasons for insisting today’s political parties are the same as they were 20 years ago (or four years ago, for that matter). We need to be aware of these incentives—for instance, careers, reputations, ideology, etc. If we don’t, we’re setting ourselves up to be fools. 

No amount of “moderating” is going to change the president’s many structural advantages.

Two decades ago, it was conventionally sensible to suggest the Democratic Party appeal to some Republican voters in order to create a winning coalition in a presidential election. The same was suggested of the GOP. Indeed, 20 years ago, both parties spent a great deal of time and money trying to flip “moderate” voters. 

Yesterday’s parties are not today’s parties for three reasons. One, the electorate is polarized. Two, Donald Trump is unpopular. Three, he isn’t even pretending to try to flip “moderates.” Sure, you could argue that the eventual Democratic nominee should chase after the “moderates” that Trump is ignoring, but remember: the electorate is polarized and Donald Trump is hugely, historically, gravely, amazingly unpopular. It’s sensible to say the Democrat should appeal as broadly as possible. But in this political climate, it’s equally sensible to say that he or she just needs to act like a Democrat. 

None of this is to say Trump can’t win reelection. As I said, politics is unfair. The Supreme Court has restructured the landscape to give a structural advantage to the incumbent. The court’s rulings are in addition to an already existing advantage, which is the Electoral College. States vote for president in this country, not people. And you don’t need to win a majority of a state’s voters to win a state. So there may be a method to Trump’s madness. He panders to his base, but his base may be all he needs. 

Moreover, there’s always Russia.

Researchers at the University of Tennessee Knoxville released a study this week that showed that the Kremlin’s propaganda predicted the polling in the 2016 election. The study demonstrated, according to NBC News, “that Trump’s gains in popularity during the 2016 campaign correlated closely with high levels of social media activity by the Russian trolls and bots of the Internet Research Agency, a key weapon in the Russian attack. … The study found that every 25,000 re-tweets by accounts connected to the IRA predicted a 1 percent increase in opinion polls for Trump.” 

We can’t know if the Russians moved the election in Trump’s favor. We can’t know with empirical certainly, that is. But we do know he won by a hair in three states. We also know the Russians blasted voters in those states with terabytes of propaganda. Add Russian propaganda to Supreme Court rulings and the Electorate College and yeah: Donald Trump could win. He is going to have these advantages whether or not the Democratic candidate “moderates.” Indeed, moderating may have no effect.

But the opposite might.

Bloomberg’s Karl Smith has argued that the best thing the Democratic Party can do might be to nominate a cold-blooded partisan. Rachel Bitecofer seems to agree. A data scientist at Christopher Newport University, she predicted that Trump will lose states that won him the presidency, because the Democratic Party is so “agitated.”

Using the same model she used to predict the Democratic wave of last year’s midterm elections, Bitecofer wrote that: “The complacent electorate of 2016, who were convinced Trump would never be president, has been replaced with the terrified electorate of 2020, who are convinced he’s the Terminator and can’t be stopped. Under my model, that distinction is not only important, it is everything” (my italics).

With so much agitation among Democratic voters, Bitecofer said, it may not matter who the party’s nominee is (unless it’s “a disruptor like Bernie Sanders”). But: “If the ticket has a woman, a person of color or a Latino, or a female who is also a person of color, Democratic Party turnout will surge more in really important places.”

Politics isn’t fair. Let’s stop acting like it is.

—John Stoehr

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

Leave a Comment

Want to comment on this post?
Click here to upgrade to a premium membership.