13 min read

How 2024 is changing what we thought we knew about politics

Two pieces of conventional wisdom that are being punctured again and again by 2024 election polls.
How 2024 is changing what we thought we knew about politics

Good morning! It’s Wednesday, May 8, 2024. Election Day is 181 days away. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe here. If you want to contribute to support my work, donate here.

On its face, the 2024 election seems pretty static. We have the same two candidates we had four years ago. Both of them are old, white men who have already served as president and spent decades in the public eye. The race between them has been locked in a statistical tie for months now. Even with two wars and four criminal indictments, the high drama of the 2020 election — when racial upheaval, a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, and a uniquely divisive presidency kept emotions hot — has been difficult to replicate.

By all accounts, most Americans are checked out of politics and deeply unenthused by both their presidential choices. I don’t know what the political environment was like in 1956, during our country’s last presidential rematch, but I wonder if that election felt as anticlimactic as this one.

And yet, under the surface of the seemingly monotonous contest, data continues to come out suggesting that the tectonic plates of American politics might be shifting in important ways in 2024.

Specifically, poll numbers keep poking holes in two pieces of conventional wisdom that have governed political strategists and pundits for most of the 21st century. This morning, I’d like to walk through both of these commonly accepted narratives — and why there’s reason to think 2024 could put them both to pasture.

The first idea I’ll tackle: When turnout is higher, Democrats perform better.

This has been an article of faith for a generation of Democratic organizers, who preached the gospel of mobilization over persuasion: the idea that Democrats should focus their energy on turning out nonvoters, under the assumption that the party would do better if the electorate grew larger.

This theory was thought to be borne out by Barack Obama’s back-to-back presidential victories, which smashed turnout records and brought whole new groups of voters to the polls, a sugar high Democrats have been trying to recapture ever since.

It’s not hard to find proof that this brand of logic has permeated both parties. There’s a reason Obama went on the record endorsing mandatory voting, while Donald Trump once said that higher levels of voter participation would mean “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.” In the policy sphere, this also explains why Democratic politicians on the state and federal level generally support efforts to make it easier to vote while Republicans usually oppose them. (See the fights over voter ID, the Freedom to Vote Act, the Georgia election law, and many other examples.)

But there’s less and less evidence that the theory behind those actions still holds true.

The latest mark against the “turnout myth,” as some experts have called it, came from last weekend’s ABC/Ipsos poll, which found Biden down two points against Trump among all adults, up one point among registered voters, and up four points among likely voters. As the voter pool shrinks, Biden’s advantage increases.

This finding — which has also been recorded in other polls — would have come as a surprise just a few years ago. During the Obama era, it was assumed that registered voter polls would always lean towards the Democratic candidate, while likely voter polls favored the Republican. The opposite is true today.

In case you are a polling skeptic, you can also see this dynamic in recent election results. While Republicans were once advantaged in elections with lower turnout — like special elections and midterms — Democrats now routinely best GOP candidates in special elections. Democrats ran ahead of expectations in the 2018 and 2022 midterms, and behind expectations in the larger-turnout presidential years of 2016 and 2020.

There are a lot of stories one could tell to explain why these expectations around turnout have been inverted.

The most obvious one is demographic. What kind of people vote in low-turnout elections? White voters. Older voters. Suburban voters. The highly educated.

Pre-Trump, all four of those groups leaned Republican. In 2004, George W. Bush won college graduates 52%-46% and suburban voters 52%-47%; in 2020, Trump lost them 43%-55% and 48%-50%, respectively. White voters and older voters still lean Republican — but, importantly to understanding 2024 polls, Biden’s white and senior support has remained stable since 2020 while his minority and young support has collapsed. Hence, polls showing him doing better among likely voters (where his stable support among white and senior voters lets him coast to success) than registered voters (where more young voters and voters of color, who are unhappy with Biden, come into play).

Now that the groups who dominate midterm and special elections are either Democratic-leaning (college-educated and suburban voters) or remaining stable in their Democratic support (white and older voters), it is natural that the advantage in these races has flipped from red to blue, even as Democrats suffer among the groups that go to the polls in larger-turnout contests.

Narratively, one way to look at this is that Democrats simply misunderstood the non-voter. Obama did well among less-engaged groups like young voters and voters of color, and Democrats took that as a sign of support for the progressive agenda — convincing them that all they needed to do to win was convince this “silent majority” to turn out. But, perhaps, these voters were more attracted to Obama’s unique outsider appeal; in 2016, when another outsider, Trump, came along, they gravitated towards him, feeling none of the enduring attachment towards Democrats that the party felt towards them.

Conversely, though, Trump is a turn-off to more engaged voters, giving Democrats new voters that almost make up for the losses. One possible way to think about Democratic success in off-year election is to remember that midterm voters have long been driven to the polls to vote against the incumbent’s party. Maybe, in the Trump era, he is simply the permanent incumbent, such that distaste of him drives those highly engaged, low-turnout-election-voters to punish him at the ballot box whether or not he is in the White House.

Finally, another underrated factor here is simply that fewer people identify as Democrats than they used to. For a long time, it made sense that registered-voter polls and larger-turnout elections favored Democrats, because Democrats outweighed Republicans as a proportion of the electorate. That’s no longer the case.

According to Gallup, in 2023, 45% of Americans said they were Republican-leaning while 43% of Americans said they were Democratic-leaning. Republicans boasted a similar advantage in 2022.

Before that, you have to go all the way back to 1991 to find the last time more people called themselves Republicans than Democrats. In the 2000s, at the height of the Iraq war, there was even a point when Democrats hovered around 50% on that question, while Republican hovered around 40%, a 10-point gap. That gap has now closed, and then some, with Republicans moving ahead of Democrats in Gallup’s numbers.

This graph suggests Democrats might have a larger brand problem — more people now identify as members of the opposing party — and thus when the electorate (or a survey pool) is expanded to more participants, Republicans can now be expected to be benefit.

I promised you I’d pick apart two pieces of conventional wisdom today, and I won’t disappoint. Here’s #2: When an electorate is more diverse, Democrats perform better.

This idea is deeply rooted in the brains of many political observers. Perhaps the most representative text of the genre is the 2002 book, “The Emerging Democratic Majority,” by John Judis and Ruy Teixeira, who argued that a diversifying electorate — among other factors — would lead to a permanent era of Democratic dominance. The idea is so ingrained in American politics that it’s the source of many conspiracy theories.

This broader concept — not the conspiracy theories — was also thought to be confirmed by the Obama elections. “With their big political win, the new American electorate has arrived,” CNN announced days after Obama’s 2012 victory. In the article, Obama’s gains among Latino voters were credited with winning him states like Nevada, Colorado and Florida; at the time, many pundits thought it wouldn’t be long before Arizona, Texas, and others followed.

The CNN piece also notes a lesser-remembered part of Mitt Romney’s infamous 47% tape: “If the Hispanic voting bloc becomes as committed to the Democrats as the African American voting bloc has in the past, why, we’re in trouble as a party and, I think, as a nation.”

CNN goes on to add, in a helpful summation of 2012-era thought: “For generations, those who knew politics predicted this change would happen one day. On Tuesday, it did.”

But the change has not been permanent. Colorado has remained safely in Democratic clutches and Arizona has, in fact, been trending blue — but Democrats have only backslid in Nevada and Florida. Texas remains stubbornly out of the party’s reach, despite years of working to turn the state’s heavy Latino population into a Democratic bulwark.

Just as Democrats have been slow to realize they are now the low-turnout party, they have also been slow to accept the reality that a diverse electorate does not always equal a Democratic-leaning electorate. After Trump’s win in 2016, many strategists urged Democrats to move beyond the largely white Rust Belt states — Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania — and focus on Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, and other states in the Sun Belt.

But, in 2024, you’d be hard-pressed to find a Democratic strategist who believes that’s where Joe Biden’s best hopes. Instead, most operatives agree that Biden’s clearest path to victory is winning the Rust Belt — the whitest of the battleground states — not the more diverse Sun Belt. Indeed, broadly speaking, the whiter a swing state is, the better Biden polls there.

Data: FiveThirtyEight, U.S. Census Bureau

Again, a multitude of factors converge to make this true, some of which I detailed above. “Mr. Biden’s declining popularity in the Sun Belt states is the main reason Mr. Trump has an edge right now,” Democratic operative Doug Sosnik recently wrote in the New York Times. “According to 2020 exit polls, Mr. Biden won 65 percent of Latino voters, who comprised roughly a fifth of voters in Arizona and Nevada. And Mr. Biden won 87 percent of Black voters, who made up 29 percent of the Georgia vote and 23 percent of the North Carolina vote. He also won 60 percent of voters aged 18 to 29. Now look at this year: A New York Times/Siena College poll released last weekend showed support for Mr. Biden had dropped 18 points with Black voters, 15 points with Latinos and 14 points with younger voters nationally.”

Meanwhile, as noted above, Biden’s polling among white voters has held steady since 2020, giving him more cover in the Rust Belt states (although, of course, he is vulnerable in that region as well). Once again, a lot of this revolves around assumptions about voters — especially Latino voters, the nation’s largest non-white demographic — that have ended up proving false, with Democrats misunderstanding just how progressive they really were. A state can no longer be considered a Democratic opportunity solely due to a large Latino population if many Latinos are voting for Republicans. Election results from 2020 and 2022 confirm these realities.

Ironically enough, some of the best chroniclers of this dynamic have been Judis and Teixeira, who have recanted their “emerging Democratic majority” hypothesis and are now some of the loudest messengers warning Democrats that their social progressivism is losing them support among Black and Latino voters, many of whom are cultural conservatives. Despite this, Arizona, Georgia, and Nevada do remain top targets (and possible wins) for Biden in 2024 — but his worsening polling among non-white voters mean they are more reach states for him than a new “Blue Wall,” as some strategists envisioned not so long ago. Just because a state is more diverse does not mean Democrats will do better there, as was once believed — in fact, the opposite may now be true in some cases.

Of course, there is no guarantee these changes will come to pass.

Pollster Adam Carlson has noted that, on average, polls show Trump running just 0.1 percentage points better among white voters than he did in 2020, but 19 points better among Hispanics and 28 points better among Black voters than he did in 2024.

Those numbers would make the 2024 election the “largest racial realignment since the Civil Rights Act,” Carlson points out — as well as a historic age realignment (Trump is running 16 points better than 2020 among young voters, while Biden is running 1.8 percentage points better among voters 65+).

Still, of course, these polls could be wrong and these shifts could fail to materialize (or they could materialize to a much smaller degree). Mostly, the polls just serve as a reminder that nothing lasts forever in politics: there is no such thing as a “permanent majority.” People change, and so do larger demographic groups. Even if voters of color shift against Biden this year, that should not necessarily be taken as a sign of a permanent dalliance with the Republican Party; these groups can always shift again. We also don’t know how much of these dynamics are specific to Trump and Biden, and how much will hold true for other candidates in the parties after they leave the stage.

It is striking, however, how long it takes the political world — and the leading actors within both parties — to adapt to the changes being recorded by election results and surveys. The Trump campaign is barely doing any Black and Latino outreach, despite the opportunities that obviously exist there. The Biden campaign is still trying to reach young voters and voters of color by making moves to the left, even though it’s far from clear that progressivism is the winning strategy to attract these less-engaged demographics. Perhaps, if the first piece of conventional wisdom is no longer true, Republicans should be championing efforts to expand the vote, while Democrats should be clamoring for voter ID laws.

Don’t be too distracted by the seeming tedium of the 2024 race that you miss the big changes potentially brewing underneath it.

More news to know.

Stormy Daniels in 2018. (Victoria Pickering)

Adult film star Stormy Daniels testified in lurid detail about her alleged sexual encounter with Donald Trump at his New York criminal trial yesterday. The judge overseeing the trial sustained many of the Trump side’s objections to the testimony, although he ultimately squashed Trump’s request for a mistrial and reprimanded the ex-president for “cursing audibly” during the proceedings.

  • Here’s how the NY Times framed it: “These were the images Americans were presented on Tuesday about their two choices for president: One taking his grandchildren to Dachau to bear witness to the horrors of Nazi death camps, the other sitting on a hotel bed in his boxer shorts waiting for sex with a porn star.”

Meanwhile, Trump’s classified documents case in Florida has been postponed indefinitely by federal judge Aileen Cannon, who cited issues around classified evidence that still need to be sorted out. The trial was originally set to begin this month.

A State Department report on Israel’s human rights conduct — set to be released today — has been delayed. Per Bloomberg, the arms shipment to Israel that the Biden administration delayed was set to contain 3,500 bombs; the delay was due to Biden’s opposition to an offensive in Rafah.

TikTok has sued the U.S. government in response to a new law that requires the app to be banned in the U.S. if it isn’t sold by its Chinese owners. The company called the measure an “unprecedented violation” of the First Amendment.

Ukraine said yesterday that it had foiled a Russian plot to assassinate Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, arresting two of Zelensky’s security officers who were allegedly involved.

Lawmakers from both parties are calling for Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) chairman Martin Gruenberg’s resignation after a report revealed a pervasive environment of sexual harassment, discrimination, and bullying at the agency.

Gov. Kathy Hochul (D-NY) apologized after saying there are “young Black kids growing up in the Bronx who don’t even know what the word ‘computer’ is”... Rep. Mike Collins (R-GA) walked back his praise for a Mississippi counterprotester who made apelike sounds at a Black pro-Palestinian demonstrator... Rep. Jared Moskowitz (D-FL) deleted a tweet promoting a racist stereotype about Asian people... Trump says that Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) “looks pregnant.”

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. says doctors found a dead worm in his brain.

The day ahead.

The House will consider a census bill today. (Kansas State University)

President Biden will travel to the key battleground state of Wisconsin, where he will hold an official event and a campaign event, both in Racine County. Later today, he will travel to Chicago for a campaign fundraiser before returning to D.C. Biden is also set to record an interview with CNN’s Erin Burnett, which will air at 7 p.m. ET.

The Senate will resume consideration of the FAA reauthorization package.

The House is set to vote on the Equal Representation Act, which would include a controversial citizenship question in the decennial census. The chamber will also vote on measures related to mining and crypto accounting.

CIA Director Bill Burns is in Israel to meet with leaders after the latest rounds of ceasefire talks in Cairo. The White House said yesterday that a deal is still within reach, although the negotiations have reportedly sparked tensions between the U.S. and Israel.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is using his day off from his New York criminal trial to meet with supporters who bought his NFTs at Mar-a-Lago, some of whom will receive “pieces of the suit and the tie that Trump was wearing when he was arrested,” per Axios.

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