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Commentary: The Angry Voter


When I attended the Midwest Political Science Association meeting in April I sat in on a number of good panels and brought back much good content for my classes at Columbia College and for these commentaries.  In a panel on the 2020 election one author made the case that the traditional metrics used to predict presidential elections may not apply in 2020, just as many of them failed in 2016.

He said that the Republican campaign in 2020 may not have much to do with the economy, whether it is good or bad.  A raw appeal to the Republican base may be more important. 

He said that provoking anger is the strategy, because an angry voter is a loyal voter.  He said anger creates negative partisanship; in other words, it is more important to beat the Democrat than it is for the Republican to win.  Angry voters are defined by who they are not.  The most important characteristic of a Republican is that she is not a Democrat, and vice versa.  So polarization is not a strategy, it is an outcome.

This phenomenon would not have been possible before what has been called The Great Sorting in America: people literally moving to states and communities where they are politically and socially like the residents who are already there.  So Blue states and metropolitan areas are getting bluer and Red states and countrysides are getting redder.  There are not many conservative Democrats left and liberal Republicans are scarcer than winning football seasons at the University of Kansas.  All of this is exacerbated by the “filter bubbles” of social media.

What is behind this?  Lots of things.  A coarsening culture that makes anger not just okay but often a default response in ordinary conversations.  The dominance of commercial talk media by aggressive conservative voices. And especially the political environment created by President Trump.

Right after Trump’s inauguration in 2017 I said there are three things you need to know about him:

  • He won’t change from his pre-presidential persona.  He certainly has not.
  • He doesn’t care what you think, unless you attack him, a member of his family, or one of his business interests.  This is certainly still true.
  • He is not a Republican.  This is true at its core in the sense that he has changed what it means to be a Republican.  Now if you are a Republican you fall into one of three groups:
    • A voter who is a Republican because you are angry at Democrats;
    • A member of the Republican “establishment” placed in a politically-induced coma by the shock of Trump’s unexpected successes; or;
    • A Never-Trumper, a shrinking, marginalized and dispirited faction, with some of you looking for salvation in a third party, and good luck with that.

Trump’s political skills, unpolished and improvised, marinated in and often expressed as anger, are formidable, as he continues to enchant his supporters and confound his opponents.
Terry Smith is a political science professor at Columbia College and a regular commentator on KBIA's Talking Politics.