Have the last four years disrupted politics? Yes and no.
Norms, normal, norm-breaking. These have been the buzzwords of the Trump era, describing the ways in which an unlikely presidential candidate turned into a chief executive with a shaky – at best – commitment to basic democratic values. But the less emphasized story of the Trump era is the ways in which normal political forces – that is, forces that had influenced politics for years before Trump came on the scene – have continued to shape political outcomes. Lots of factors have made 2020 an exceptional year and loom over the 2020 elections. But it’s worthwhile to look at how these factors reflect long-standing features of American politics.
First, let’s look at the partisan response to COVID-19. As cases spike throughout the nation, the policy response has been bipartisan in some areas, while sharply divided by party in others. This latter category includes Wisconsin, a pivotal swing state and a state that leads in new cases this fall, where clashes between Republicans in the state legislature and the Democratic governor have defined the response.
The conventional wisdom suggests that a crisis can unite the nation. The pandemic hasn’t done that, with significant partisan differences in reported attitudes and responses. A recent Morning Consult poll after the president’s positive covid test revealed Republicans and Democrats to be more divided over the state of the president’s health than over their evaluations of his advice not to be afraid of the virus. At the same time, surveys find some similarities across experiences with the pandemic and its economic fallout. And research suggests that when Republicans and Democrats have similar levels of fear of covid infection, partisan differences decrease substantially.
The thing is, this mix of division and commonality is not new. In the early decades of the 21st century, Republicans and Democrats reported different perceptions of the economy. And for all the talk about crisis bringing the country together, the sharpness of American political divides seems to have emerged as a result of the mid-2000s War on Terror, with a significantly more divided public in the 2004 election than in 2000 or 1996. Not long after the 9/11 attacks temporarily brought the nation together in mourning and patriotism, the policy response helped to crystallize our divisions along identity, issues, and ideology. In this regard, the covid crisis is unique in some ways and not in others; surveys show some cross-partisan compliance with mask-wearing recommendations and individual measures to counter the disease. But they also suggest that identity and values not only inform disparate responses, but different perceptions of reality, including the threat posed by the disease and the state of the president’s health.
It’s easy to look at partisanship and covid response and conclude that Trump has extraordinary sway over his party. But a closer look once again reveals that Trump’s considerable, but limited, influence as a party leader represents a long-term set of political forces. Presidents serve as the symbolic faces of their parties. This means they do have some capacity to alter the policy views of partisans, as we’ve seen with Trump and issues like trade and immigration.
Nevertheless, other evidence suggests that Trump has not transformed the GOP so much as been changed by it. He’s embraced orthodox Republican positions on taxes and the economy despite promises in 2015 and 2016. Trump’s presidency will also likely be notable for a long time because of his appointment of movement conservatives to the courts. But this illustrates the extent to which presidents are ideological followers, not leaders. These appointments are the result of decades of organization and mobilization by the conservative legal movement. Trump’s limited influence is also evident in thwarted stimulus deals. Clearly, Trump is loathe to hand a win to Pelosi and the Democrats. But his reelection interest is closely tied to the economy and the general state of the nation. He has been able to bring congressional Republicans around to these positions in order to strike a deal for larger stimulus measures – or more recently, any deal at all. This limited control over the president’s party in congress, who have their own constituencies and incentives, is a normal feature of presidential politics. Partisanship can appear to have become heavily personalized around the president in the Trump era. But this development only goes so deep, with long-standing political forces continuing to limit presidents’ abilities to complete remake their parties.
Finally, what does this mix of ordinary political forces and extraordinary political circumstances mean for the November elections? First, the polls suggest that the national popular vote for president will reflect the usual factors – partisanship and the evaluations of the status quo. Trump may not be hurt by the economy as much as some models predict, but so far the national averages reflect a troubled incumbent who struggled with flagging approval even when the economy was strong. The president has received low marks on his handling of the pandemic, but neither our unprecedented circumstances nor his unprecedented presidency have fundamentally altered how voters make decisions.
This is also evident in Congressional contests throughout the country. Candidates tied to an unpopular incumbent, particularly in purple areas, are in trouble (like Colorado’s Cory Gardner and Iowa’s Joni Ernst). In House races, Democrats look like they might pick up seats in racially diverse urban areas in Texas and Georgia, while remaining more vulnerable in areas like rural New Mexico. Some races, especially in the Senate, might be closer than anticipated or more favorable to Democrats than expected. But it’s not surprising which races have emerged as the most competitive.
Politics in the era of disruption has proven to be predictable. Trump’s approval ratings, even through the tumult of 2020, have remained remarkably stable. Politicians promise to upend politics, but political forces outweigh the influence of even the most raucous rallies or active Twitter accounts. Perhaps the most surprising feature of politics in 2020 is how unsurprising it is shaping up to be.