What the Polarization Hawks Aren’t Saying
Growing polarization makes volatility the most important story of modern politics.
Have you come across the polarization hawks?
If you’re reading this newsletter, the odds are likely you have. From Ezra Klein to David French, the last few years have brought with them a growing body of new literature harping on the widening chasm dividing red and blue America and offering stark warnings about what that means for our democracy (spoiler: nothing good).
In many ways, we now live in a world shaped by the premise set forth by the polarization hawks in the media and echoed by candidates, issue groups, and “political hobbyists” who treat politics like sports. Democrats have, at large, moved to the left in recent decades as Republicans have moved to the right. Growing extremism at the fringes has also mobilized each party’s base to show up and vote against the other side’s base, contributing to historic increases in turnout across the board.
But meet us on the flip side: growing polarization also means that volatility among the shrinking (yet still substantial) population of swing voters in the middle still determines control of government. As more Americans become diehard partisans, we should place increased value on those depolarized voters — and the candidates who can reach them.
More below on the electoral volatility that now defines our politics, but first a few things our team was reading and talking about this week.
Sunday Reading in the Big Tent
1. The AP on the Democratic Party’s toxic brand with rural voters:
“Even if Democrats continue to eke out victories by piling up urban and suburban votes, former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota fears her party will have ‘unstable majorities’ if they cannot stop the bleeding in rural areas. ‘Democrats have the House, they have the Senate, the presidency, but it’s an unstable majority. By that, I mean, the narrowest kind, making it difficult to advance ideas and build coalitions,’ said Heitkamp, who now heads the One Country Project, which is focused on engaging rural voters…
‘We’re letting Republicans use the language of the far left to define the Democratic Party, and we can’t do that,’ Heitkamp said. ‘The trend lines in rural America are very, very bad. ... Now, the brand is so toxic that people who are Democrats, the ones left, aren’t fighting for the party.’”
2. POLITICO on new DCCC polling confirming the potency of GOP culture war attacks on Democrats, and the need to counteract them:
“If Democrats don’t answer Republican hits, the party operatives warned, the GOP’s lead on the generic ballot balloons to 14 points from 4 points — a dismal prediction for Democrats when the GOP only needs to win five seats to seize back the majority. But when voters heard a Democratic response to that hit, Republicans’ edge narrowed back down to 6 points, giving candidates more of a fighting chance, especially since those numbers don’t factor in Democrats going on the offensive.”
3. Kara Voght in Rolling Stone on Rep. Hakeem Jeffries’ PAC protecting Democrats from far-left challenges, in which Justice Democrats, which is creating the primary challenges in the first place, suddenly awakens to the opportunity cost of spending precious money in primaries:
“The lawmakers united in an effort to provide resources to the increasing number of House Democrats who face primary challenges — in particular, from the left. That circumstance faces the five incumbents who received endorsements on Wednesday: Reps. Shontel Brown (D-Ohio), Danny Davis (D-Ill.), Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), Donald Payne Jr. (D-N.J.), and Dina Titus (D-Nev.). Davis and Maloney face opponents backed by Justice Democrats; Brown faces a rematch from Bernie Sanders ally Nina Turner, who had the support of the left-wing group during a special election to fill the seat last year.”
Volatility Explains Our Political Moment
Last fall’s electoral swings in Virginia and New Jersey are only the most recent examples of the power and prevalence of volatility among voters. In each of those races, Republicans made gains of nearly 12 points over their performances just one year before.
These drastic swings can’t be explained through the myopic lens of polarization. In Virginia, independents swung 28 points in one year, from favoring Biden by 19 to Younkin by 9.
American partisans may be intensely polarized, but the electorate is not as broadly polarized as advertised — otherwise independent voters would not be swinging by 28 points in Virginia, nor would Hispanic voters by 23 points nationally over the same period.
The stories of Virginia and New Jersey also track with a broader national shift: over the course of the last year, political affinity has swung from a 9% Democratic advantage in Q1 to a 5% Republican edge in Q4 — the most dramatic swing since Gallup began its polling.
The far-left likes to counteract sober concerns about swings among independents and voters in the middle with the argument that across-the-board increases in turnout inherently benefit Democrats. But that belief is a fallacy: bipartisan increases in turnout mean increased volatility in who turns out for each party. As turnout expands, less-ideological voters with weaker partisan commitments account for a greater share of the votes. (Ruy Teixiera has had a lot to say about this myth.)
Bottom line: swings in partisan affinity among volatile voters will decide who controls congress next year — and what happens to our democracy in 2024.
The Ubiquity of Volatility
Examples of electoral volatility abound.
As Sean Bock and Landon Schnabel report in the Washington Post, party switching among voters is unusually high right now. In their words:
“We found that 70 percent of partisans — Democrats and Republicans alike — kept the same political identifications between 2016 and 2020. But that leaves a significant minority who did not. About 10 percent of Democrats and Republicans switched to the other party. An additional 15 percent of both Democrats and Republicans in 2016 identified as independents by 2020. The most volatile group was independents: Over 50 percent of independents in 2016 identified with either the Democratic or Republican party in 2020.”
Volatility appears in even the most seemingly partisan contexts. Writing for Sabato’s Crystal Ball, Louis Jacobson sorted all 50 states by the three demographic characteristics most closely correlated with partisanship: education level, race, and urbanization. As he put it:
“When the states are rank-ordered by their composite scores on these 3 measures, the Republican-voting states for the 2020 presidential election cluster on one end of the spectrum, while the Democratic-voting states cluster at the other end, with many battleground states somewhere in the middle.”
Yet four of the top ten most Republican-aligned states in Jacobson’s rankings have elected a Democrat in a statewide race within the last four years — including two (WV and KY) in the top three.
And four of the five states with the highest share of white working class citizens have also elected a statewide Democrat in the last four years.
Consider as well that Joe Manchin, a Democrat, is more popular in his home state than 86% of senators. Also in the top half of popular senators are the other three Democrats from states where Trump won in 2016: Jon Tester of Montana, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, and Sherrod Brown of Ohio.
Oh, and of the five most popular governors in the country, four are Republicans in states with all-Democratic senate delegations that Trump lost twice.
The data are clear: in an increasingly polarized political landscape, Democrats can harness volatility to their advantage — as they have many times in recent history.
Learning From The Depolarizers
With so much volatility driving contemporary politics, we need more focus on the depolarizers who have been able to win crossover voters while supporting our democracy. These are candidates such as Jared Golden, a Democrat who handily won his Maine district on the same ballot where Trump won by 7 points.
Yes, Americans are more polarized now than at any point in recent history — and the most deeply partisan are more intensely polarized. Yet we still get wild swings in major demographic groups (educated whites, Hispanics, etc.) and in individual states between elections (not only in Virginia and New Jersey).
The path to saving democracy runs through this volatility, and that requires understanding how to harness it, intensely investing in it, and demonstrating that depolarization can be replicated.
Jared Golden should not be an exception to the rule. He should be a case study for a generation of depolarizers.