Democratic Defectors Bailed on Biden. Some Theories on Why


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Now, for an update to a column that ran exactly a week ago looking at how Joe Biden’s otherwise successful presidential campaign failed to win back about 90% of the counties that voted twice for Barack Obama and then for Donald Trump in 2016. In the 206 counties in question — from the area around St. Petersburg, Fla., to Augusta, Maine, to Olympic National Park out in Washington state — voters decided four years ago to break from die-hard Obama loyalties to consider what Trump could bring. Democratic Defectors are a curious bunch, and judging from my inbox, a lot of you spent a lot of time wrestling with this question.

Dozens of you wrote in with your own observations and experience. The candor was overwhelming. So, first, a thank-you note to folks who read this newsletter. Second, some top-line observations based on this totally non-scientific and haphazard amalgamation of anecdotes that will make my friends who are trained political scientists scream in agony.

The biggest take-away theory from my inbox, based on your notes from inside these counties and not, is this: voters in these so-called pivot counties could get behind the Black Lives Matter movement. The video footage has just become too much to ignore, especially for the folks I’ve been calling Democratic Defectors. In total, 57% of all voters told the exit polls they supported Black Lives Matter. Just 37% of voters said they did not. In all, 69% of voters said racism was a problem. As expected, the partisan gap was enormous. Trump won voters who said the criminal justice system treats all people fairly and considered racism a minor problem. Biden carried the others.

But, but but! Defunding the police — the slogan that got a lot of traction nationally as a potential corrective measure to racial injustice during protests this summer — soured a lot of folks in these mostly rural and suburban counties, you wrote. These Democratic Defectors were fine with an additive statement that Black Lives Matter, but it was a step too far to cut funding for the police. Your notes and polling data back this up, and it was a major source of friction when House Democrats hopped on a call last week.

Secondly, voters in these communities are tired of being told what to think. Politicians, journalists and pundits alike have been preaching from their bully pulpits for years, and the congregants are tired of the sermons. “A vote for Trump is a sign of rebellion against that authority,” reader Skip Orth of Navarre, Fla., wrote. By the same token, a vote for Trump was a rejection of “political correctness,” the antiquated notion that you should take into account how your words will impact others. In this paradigm, Trump is a giant middle-finger screaming profanity into the public square — and people find it refreshing.

Thirdly — and this is one I hadn’t considered in today’s climate — the most leftist voters may have sat this one out, despite overwhelming antipathy for Trump. A number of you said you just couldn’t get to yes on Biden. You said you loathed Trump but your votes were too valuable to affirm Biden’s middle-of-the-road persona, an agenda you didn’t think he’d enact and that damned 1994 crime bill that is still stuck in your craw. Despise Trump as you might, it was just not enough to get you to mark your ballot for him. I don’t suspect this is a vast majority of progressives, but I know more than a few friends who were willing to take the loss this year so that in 2024 they could come back and say toldja-so.

Finally, there is this reality: maybe Trump ran a decent campaign. Maybe the Trump team understood these counties and went after them with a laser focus. They were knocking on doors over the summer while Biden kept his campaign online. Trump knew how to target social media in an aggressive — and costly — way. Some of Trump’s appeal to pivot county voters may have been on social issues like abortion rights and marriage equality, although a lot of these Democratic Defectors come from outer-ring suburbs in the Midwest that aren’t exactly home to religious fervor. But push the right buttons? Hoo, boy!

We’re still waiting for a lot of numbers to come in, but it’s clear that Biden has won the White House despite not winning over voters who twice backed the Obama-Biden ticket in 2008 and 2012. They split with Democrats in 2016 and roughly nine-in-ten of those pivot counties stayed there. Some of that may have been a curiosity about Trump, who as a reality show host probably understood what keeps Americans tune-in for the full hour more than most. It’s why, despite his protests and demands, he isn’t likely to go away even after he leaves power on Jan. 20.

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Write to Philip Elliott at [email protected].

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