Thursday, September 3, 2020

Poll Numbers and the Culture War

 Yesterday Grinnell College released their latest poll, one that the experts were anticipating due to its quality and methodology. Most people did not look beyond the headline, which has Biden up by eight points nationally. The misbegotten narrative that civil unrest helps an incumbent president had mystified too many Very Smart People, and so they had to reckon with the poll disproving that. 

I was all too aware that Trump does not benefit from disorder the same way he did in 2016 as a challenger, especially with his opponent being an old establishment moderate. I wanted to get into the weeds and look at who was supporting who. What I found was that Biden is well ahead not just in the cities, but in the suburbs. Trump is dominant in rural areas. A Fox News poll yesterday showed Biden up as well, and had results broken down by age. Biden is ahead both with Gen X voters and Millennials and Gen Zers of voting age. Trump is ahead by less with voters 55 and up.  It should be noted, while he leads with older voters, that lead has been cut from 2016. 

There's been a lot of analysis of poll numbers around race and class, and I think that information is super important. On my end, however, I'd like to highlight how geography and age compound race and class and can show us where the deeper veins of Trump's support lie. 

Trump's base is not just white and without a college degree (which is not necessarily the class distinction marker a lot of people think it is, but I don't have time for that right now.) His base is aged and rural as well. All of the talk of "economic anxiety" has failed to take into account how cultural anxiety is the dominant theme for his base, with the economy sort of slotted into it. 

The fundamental issue beneath this cultural anxiety is that the country is changing in ways that Trump's people don't like. It's becoming less white, less rural, less Christian. Trump voters are concerned that they will no longer be the unquestioned norm in American life. This is why "cancel culture" is such a potent meme for them. This is why my trip to an Italian deli in mid-June included an old white guy yelling a profanity-laced tirade at the owner about statues being toppled. To them the police are their guardians against all who they dislike and seeing them criticized feels like a fundamental threat to their existence. 

Back in 2016 I heard some great analysis from Farai Chideya on NPR, who actually went to Trumpy Rust Belt areas and talked to his voters. She found that they tended to be economically comfortable themselves, but were concerned about their communities changing and their children needing to leave in order to have opportunity. These people often had contempt for the poor in their own communities (and not just poor Black people.) 

Trump has not expanded his base. He is doubling down on people who feel left behind not because of their economic situation, but because they are losing their cultural primacy. While their numbers are dwindling because the country is changing, their feelings of resentment and being threatened make them far more dangerous than four years ago. They think America is "their" country and if anyone who is not a conservative is in power they will not see them as legitimate. They are opposed to wearing masks so vehemently because it is an assault on their identity to do a thing that a liberal (or perceived liberal) asks them to do. If they think that people who disagree with them are anti-American, they will have no qualms about taking away their vote or invalidating an election. 

The real question is whether the rest of us will be willing to put our lives on the line in two months to bring back democracy. Get ready.

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