After President Trump won the 2016 election, there was a big debate over the role “identity politics” played in his victory. Some scholars argued that many white voters without a college degree — a group that proved pivotal in that election — jumped from supporting then-President Barack Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016 largely because they liked Trump’s framing of identity issues, such as immigration, more than Hillary Clinton’s.1 After the election, some (usually white) liberal and Democratic-leaning voices said that Democrats needed to abandon “identity politics” or face more defeats like Clinton’s. Other liberal voices (often Black) said that Trump had successfully tapped into the racist views of many white Americans. Both of those perspectives implied that debating issues of identity and race was bad for Clinton and good for Trump, and in the future it would be good for the GOP and bad for Democrats.
Never mind all that, at least for now. America is talking about identity and race, and so are both presidential candidates. And all that racial talk seems to be helping Democrats, not Republicans. Joe Biden led Trump by about 6 percentage points in national polls on May 25, the day a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd. Biden leads Trump by an average of nearly 10 points now, after weeks of race and racism dominating the national discussion.
Obviously a lot of factors could explain Trump’s decline in the polls, most notably the coronavirus outbreak and the president’s failure to come up with any real plan to limit the virus’s spread.
But it’s worth exploring this question: Why aren’t identity politics backfiring on Biden and helping Trump? It’s hard to say for sure, but here are five theories, ordered roughly from strongest to weakest.
Trump is in the White House now
Some political science research suggests that public opinion on major issues tends to move against the sitting president. So if President John Doe says he hates Granny Smith apples, Americans will begin consuming them by the bushel. And that pattern has already played out with Trump, with Americans becoming more supportive of immigrants and Obamacare, likely in reaction to the president’s attempts to limit immigration and repeal the health care law.
Current polling — and even polls from earlier in the Trump presidency — has shown Americans expressing more liberal views on racial issues. Those numbers might suggest real change in racial attitudes among Americans. (More on that in a bit.)
But what looks right now like increasing racial liberalism may really just be anti-Trump sentiment. If Americans, particularly Democratic-leaning Americans, perceive that Trump is opposed to the Floyd protests and to racial justice causes more broadly, they might become more supportive of such causes, consciously or unconsciously, simply as a reaction to the president’s sentiments.
So in terms of identity politics and their role in presidential elections, it may have been that a racialized discourse was electorally bad for Democrats when their party controlled the White House, like in 2016. But this kind of discourse is fine and perhaps even electorally beneficial for Democrats with a Republican president in office.
Also, the story here could simply be that Trump is a flawed candidate who was going to struggle in 2020 no matter what issues were dominating the news at the time. After all, he was viewed unfavorably by 60 percent of voters on Election Day in 2016, according to exit polls, and he has remained fairly unpopular throughout his presidency. In 2019 and earlier this year, Democrats spent a lot of time debating which of their potential presidential candidates was most “electable.” But Biden’s almost-10-point lead suggests that basically any of the other 2020 Democratic presidential candidates would likely be leading Trump right now if he or she were the presumptive Democratic nominee.
2016 was a fluke and identity politics don’t always hurt Democrats
Part of the focus on identity issues as an electoral liability stems from the current makeup of swing states and the Electoral College. White voters without degrees have become increasingly Republican-leaning and represent a disproportionate share of the electorate in key swing states like Michigan and Wisconsin. So Democrats need to worry more about appealing to white voters without degrees to win an Electoral College majority than they would if presidential elections were decided by a simple national plurality vote. Thus, a lot of post-2016 coverage started from the assumption that Democrats have an identity and race problem because they must appeal to white voters without degrees and that voting bloc — at least based on the 2016 results — seemed to be put off by Democrats’ approach to identity issues.
But that framing might be wrong, or at least a bit overstated. Why? First, there’s an alternate reading of the 2016 results that suggests race wasn’t an unusually important factor in motivating the white voters who switched to Trump. Second, the overall racial dynamics of American politics are not that bad for Democrats and perhaps even favorable to them.
Zoom out beyond 2016 and take the long view: The last seven presidential elections have featured four Democratic victories in both the popular vote and the Electoral College (1992, 1996, 2008, 2012); one instance where the GOP won the popular vote and Electoral College (2004); and two kind of fluky GOP wins in which Republicans lost the popular vote but won the Electoral College (2000, 2016).
That long view doesn’t look great for Republicans, and identity and race help explain why. Democrats have been handily winning the vote among Asian, Black and Hispanic Americans, who combined are growing as a share of the electorate. (The share of nonwhite U.S. voters was about 26 percent in 2016, compared to about 13 percent in 1980.) Democrats’ status as the party of minorities helps them in some ways, requiring the GOP to consolidate an increasingly high percentage of the country’s white voters to win elections.
But it isn’t easy or necessarily guaranteed that the Republicans will overwhelmingly win the white vote overall or the white non-college vote specifically — even in an election that’s centered on race. The 2017-2018 period was full of racialized political debate, most notably on immigration policy, but the exit polls suggest Democrats lost white voters without a college degree by 24 percentage points in 2018, compared to 37 points in 2016. So far in 2020, polls show Biden losing white voters without a degree by a margin closer to 20 points.
Meanwhile, Biden might carry white voters with a college degree by a large margin, in part because those voters have been turned off by Trump’s approach to racial issues. Indeed, white voters with a college degree or postgraduate education have been trending Democratic for years, and the GOP approach to race and ethnicity is likely a factor.
In short, the evidence suggests that Trump’s approach on racial issues never really appealed to people of color in the first place and, outside of November 2016, it has also been really off-putting to white voters with degrees and not that appealing to white voters without degrees.
It’s harder to use Biden as a wedge
On policy issues, including those around identity and race, Biden’s positions are clearly to the left of the ones Obama ran on in 2008 and arguably to the left of Clinton’s in 2016. In explicitly promising to pick a woman as vice president and a Black woman as Supreme Court justice, Biden has gone beyond Clinton or Obama in terms of allocating very important government posts based on gender and race. And Biden’s rhetoric on racial issues is similar to Clinton’s in 2016. After Floyd’s death, while Trump largely dismissed the protests, Biden called for “an era of action to reverse systemic racism.”
But Biden is an older white man. So his identity likely makes it harder for Trump to run an identity-based campaign against Biden than against Clinton and, to some extent, incumbent president Obama. (The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer made this argument explicitly in a recent piece.) Biden does not visually symbolize a changing America the way President Obama did and the way a President Hillary Clinton would have.
Also, Biden has self-consciously positioned himself as a more moderate Democrat and has distanced himself from more liberal elements of the party, including the causes favored by more liberal Black Americans, like defunding the police.
The electorate has really shifted on racial issues
It’s possible that Trump’s identity politics are less effective in 2020 than they were in 2016 because the events of the last four years have resulted in a real leftward shift on racial issues among Americans. And that shift is fundamental and real, not just about partisanship or anti-Trump sentiment, as I suggested above. After all, in interviews with reporters, more liberal-leaning people and even some former Trump voters are suggesting that they understand racial inequality more deeply now than ever before.
Institutions are aligned with Biden on these issues
Major U.S. businesses, corporations and other elite institutions are typically wary of being perceived as partisan. But in the wake of Floyd’s death, corporate America seems to have decided, for whatever reason, that support for Black Lives Matter and comprehensive, aggressive efforts to reduce racial inequality are either not that partisan or that they’re stances worth taking even if they annoy some Republicans.
So at least right now, it’s not really Biden and Democrats versus Trump and Republicans on issues of identity and race in America; rather, it’s Biden, Democrats, Facebook, Merck, JPMorgan Chase, Netflix, Nike, Stanford and lots of other major institutions versus Trump and Republicans.
This dynamic is not totally unique to the spring and summer of 2020. Major companies in America are often aligned with liberal cultural values — for example, supporting gay marriage even before the 2015 Supreme Court ruling that invalidated any remaining bans on same-sex unions.
But even if corporate America’s recent posture on racial issues isn’t that surprising, it’s still important. With a lot of major institutions in America echoing his general message, it’s not surprising that Biden’s identity politics are resonating more than Trump’s.
I’m writing this article at a particular moment in time. Perhaps there will be a backlash to the Floyd protests and public opinion will shift. Maybe Trump will benefit from that. If Biden picks a female vice presidential nominee, particularly one who is also a person of color, perhaps Trump’s identity tactics will resonate more with voters because he’ll then have a foil who is more like Clinton and Obama. Alternatively, Trump could make up ground in the polls due to unrelated issues and factors.
And even if Biden wins, that won’t totally answer the question of whether identity politics is bad or good for Democrats. Like I said, perhaps basically any Democratic candidate would beat Trump amid a viral outbreak the president mishandled.
All that said, it appears right now that the identity politics of 2020 are a net plus for Democrats — and perhaps they weren’t too big a problem for Democrats in the first place. It’s hard to prove any of this, but it’s an important discussion to have. In 2008, it seemed like Democrats won a presidential contest that was largely about race. But even though the presidential nominees were white in 2016 and 2020, those may have been more racialized campaigns. And if the current polls hold up, Democrats, after losing a very racialized campaign, may show that they can win one.