Just How Much Danger Is American Democracy In?

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

sarah (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): On Wednesday, a mob of pro-Trump rioters attacked the U.S. Capitol as Congress met to certify the 2020 presidential election results. But as shocking as Wednesday’s events were, they were, in many ways, the culmination of the past four years of Trump’s presidency.

President Trump has long spewed lies to his supporters about the election, refusing until very recently to concede, and routinely has shown his disdain for both the integrity of America’s elections and its tradition of a peaceful transfer of power. And right before the chaos broke out on Wednesday, Trump had just finished urging his supporters to protest Congress’s vote to certify the election results, telling them “[Y]ou’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength and you have to be strong.” Within an hour, the Capitol was under attack.

This violent episode raises many questions about the future of democracy in America — not only its continued health, but the extent to which the U.S. has already become less democratic. So let’s first unpack this question by diving into this data point: Polls show while the majority of Americans condemn what happened on Wednesday, a plurality of Republican voters support it. What does that say about the current state of democracy in the U.S.?

jennifer.mccoy (Jennifer McCoy, professor of political science at Georgia State University): It shows that Americans are terribly divided over the perception of democracy itself — including whether it is even under threat and who is responsible for the threat. This makes it extremely difficult to propose solutions. But it’s important to keep in mind that we’re talking about 15 percent of the population, maybe 20 percent, who said they condoned the violence.

lee.drutman (Lee Drutman, senior fellow at New America and FiveThirtyEight contributor): Democracy requires parties that are committed to free and fair elections and will accept the outcome — even if they lose. So if the dominant position in the Republican Party is that the only free and fair elections are those where Republicans win, and anything else is “stolen” and fraudulent, then we’re on the precipice of not having a democracy.

But as Jennifer said, the one silver lining here is that the overwhelming majority of Americans reject the anti-democratic rhetoric of Trump and his allies. This is important.

cyrus.samii (Cyrus Samii, professor of politics at New York University): I find it helpful to place this moment in a broader historical context, as I think there are two trends at play here. First, decades of mobilization and a fight for a more democractic, inclusive society have brought about generational changes in America’s politics, including more women, people of color and other long-excluded groups now having a seat at the table. That has made our politics more inclusive and more democratic, but there is a second trend here — a politics of resentment that cannot tolerate this growing diversity. This mindset is particularly rampant within the Republican Party, and part of what CNN’s Van Jones has called a “whitelash,” or conservative white Christian Americans mobilizing against the type of progress embodied by President Barack Obama’s time in office. The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer has also written on the pendulum swinging between moments of progress on inclusion and white resistance.

Last Wednesday embodied this dynamic in the span of a few hours: We had the historic election of two Democratic senators in Georgia, followed then by a mob, including a number of white supremacists sacking the Capitol in the name of Trump, and most Republicans to date being unwilling to do much about it.

jennifer.mccoy: Yes, and I think the question now is whether this unwillingness to condemn the mob, or call out their colleagues who are perpetuating the myth of a “stolen election,” is the dominant position in the Republican Party or only a faction that can be contained.

sarah: Do we have a sense of what is driving these attitudes?

jennifer.mccoy: The politics of resentment, written about by a number of scholars, including Kathy Cramer and Arlie Hochschild, who wrote definitive books on the topic, derives from perceptions of unfairness or injustice that accompany the diversification of one’s workplace or community, changing the power structures that Cyrus spoke about. The urban-rural divide in America’s politics exemplifies this. Rural Americans, mostly Republicans, perceive urban dwellers, more Democratic and more racially diverse, as receiving more than their “fair share” of tax revenues and opportunities. With wage stagnation and the growing service-based economy, white males without a college degree, in particular, feel a loss of social status that can lead to rage and support for more authoritarian politics. This is why “identity politics” are arguably more of an issue for the GOP than the Democratic Party today. What’s particularly troubling here, though, is that the political rhetoric from politicians and media personalities are really whipping up latent attitudes of resentment to create the politics of outrage we saw on display last Wednesday. Republicans have gone further than Democrats in using vilifying language and painting horrific scenarios if the “radical, liberal, socialist Democrats” and their “anarchic mobs” take over.

lee.drutman: To follow up on Jennifer’s point about politicians driving some of this, take what Vice President Mike Pence said at the Republican National Convention this summer. He said that the election was about “whether America remains America.” Those are incredibly high stakes, so when you add that kind of rhetoric to our winner-take-all election system, you have a recipe for a very angry minority convinced that the system is rigged against them. As we saw last Wednesday, one response is to take matters into their own hands through violence.

We also know that opposition to democracy is much stronger among Republicans who have beliefs that political scientist Larry Bartels has called “ethnic antagonism,” a measure of “unfavorable feelings towards Muslims, immigrants and other out-groups … [and] concerns about these groups’ political and social claims” in his research.

The chart below is extremely striking as it shows that among Republicans, the higher the level of ethnic antagonism, the more likely they are to say they don’t trust election results, use force as an alternative and support authoritarian stances. (Bartels “normalizes” the distribution so that half of Republicans are above zero on the ethnic antagonism scale, and then presents the data two ways — using statistical analysis to estimate values (left) and reporting the actual data in the limited survey sample (right).) Overall, though, the takeaway is clear: Bartels finds troublingly high support for these sentiments among Republicans.

sarah: Is what happened Wednesday, then, a somewhat expected consequence of what happens when a sizable portion of the electorate loses faith in our elections and institutions?

jennifer.mccoy: To be clear, the research we have doesn’t necessarily show that losing faith in elections and institutions leads to violence. It can, for instance, have repercussions like withdrawal and political apathy. We saw this in Venezuela when the opposition cried fraud, without evidence, after losing a referendum to remove President Hugo Chávez in 2004. They had trouble turning out supporters in governor elections right after, and then called for a boycott in the 2005 legislative elections, handing total control to Chávez’s party and enabling them to name loyalists to all of Venezuela’s political institutions. It took another decade before Venezuelans could mobilize to win back the legislature, but by that time, Chávez’s successor had turned even more authoritarian and remains in power today.

However, if political rhetoric is drumming up violence, using demonizing and dehumanizing language and glorifying battle language, then yes, supporters are likely to engage in violence, thinking their leaders are urging that, as we saw last Wednesday.

lee.drutman: Jennifer’s point about political rhetoric is extremely important. The level of nativism, or anti-immigration sentiment, has been roughly consistent in the population for a while now. But there are signs that it has become a much stronger partisan issue in the last decade or so as Trump and other Republicans have played with rhetorical fire. It’s true that far-right leaders have been stoking this issue in multiple western democracies, and as the chart below shows, it’s evident among Republicans in the U.S.

jennifer.mccoy: And the future of the Republican Party is absolutely key to what happens to U.S. democracy. Early signs after Jan. 6 are not encouraging — the party reelected Trump’s hand-picked candidates for the RNC, chair Ronna McDaniel and co-chair Tommy Hicks, and many party leaders have also avoided calling for any accountability for Trump, instead saying that this will further divide the country when we need to unify.

sarah: Some historians have argued if there isn’t accountability, this will all escalate. Is that accurate? How are you all thinking about the importance of consequences for what happened Wednesday for democracy moving forward?

Historian of coups and right-wing authoritarians here. If there are not severe consequences for every lawmaker & Trump govt official who backed this, every member of the Capitol Police who collaborated with them, this “strategy of disruption” will escalate in 2021

— Ruth Ben-Ghiat (@ruthbenghiat) January 7, 2021

cyrus.samii: If there is no accountability, then the lesson for Republicans will be that they can continue to use illiberal means to maintain a grip on power. And on the left, this might play into the hands of those who would say there is no point in sticking with liberal institutional processes when the other side doesn’t. A clear recipe, in other words, for escalation.

jennifer.mccoy: And if there isn’t any accountability for what happened Wednesday, it gives organized citizens, as well as the next generation of political leaders, license to engage in the same — or worse. Political learning is a real thing, and it can be positive or negative.

If Congress or others fail to act, the road remains open to Trump (and anyone else) to continue to act with impunity, run for office again or support future violent acts. Congress has the ability to impeach Trump and take the extra step of disqualifying him from running again, and the power to censure and even expel the members of Congress who spread the same disinformation about the election and voted against the certification of results in two states. This is important because failing to condemn the exclusionary and hate-filled rhetoric Trump used in his presidency means that catering to the fears, anxieties and resentments of a portion of the electorate might remain a viable political path moving forward.

sarah: Let’s take a step back. In November, The New Yorker’s Andrew Marantz wrote a feature on how civil resistance can stop authoritarian-style leaders from cementing their power, comparing what’s happened in the U.S. under Trump to other parts of the world. “In the past 15 years, there has been a marked global increase in what international relations scholars call ‘democratic backsliding,’” wrote Marantz, “with more authoritarians and authoritarian-style leaders consolidating power.” To what extent is there democratic backsliding in the U.S.?

lee.drutman: If democracy depends on a set of shared rules for free and fair elections, we are definitely in a period of backsliding.

cyrus.samii: I don’t know, the term “democratic backsliding” is problematic in my opinion insofar as it fails to clarify how the conflict in the U.S. is between those using democratic means to achieve progressive change (and succeeding at some moments) versus those who want to push back against that change by undermining democracy. The fact is, a lot of progress is occurring through the ballot box, the U.S. Senate runoffs in Georgia being a prime example, and this is precisely why Republicans are intent on throwing up obstacles to its broad-based use. Republicans have been trying to disenfranchise minority voters, for example, and these efforts are subject to heated legal fights.

sarah: So as Cyrus said, democratic backsliding may be too toothless of a term, but how would we describe the trajectory of democracy in the U.S.? Are we less democratic than one year ago? Four years ago?

jennifer.mccoy: According to international rankings, U.S. democracy is eroding faster than what we see in other major western democracies — it is more on par with Brazil, Bangladesh, Turkey and India, according to the global think tank V-Dem Institute’s 2020 democracy report. The Economist Intelligence Unit also downgraded the U.S. to a flawed democracy in 2016. Expert surveys of political scientists, such as Bright Line Watch and Authoritarian Warning Survey, also measure higher threats.

Each of these groups measure democracy using different measures — electoral integrity, rule of law, media and academic freedom, civil liberties, to name a few. But one measure I want to zoom in on is “toxic polarization” (which I call “pernicious polarization” in my research with Murat Somer), as we’ve found it’s especially delegitimizing and on the rise. Essentially, it’s when society is divided into two mutually distrustful camps and there is increased demonization and delegitimization of opponents. Our research has found that it can often result in calls to violence, too.

It’s also something V-Dem uses in its assessments. It found in a 2020 paper that the Republican Party was on par with autocratic parties in Turkey, India and Hungary on their new illiberalism index, especially in their use of demonizing language to describe political opponents, disrespect for fundamental minority rights and encouragement of political violence.

lee.drutman: (If you’re interested in how these various surveys evaluate the quality of a country’s democracy, here’s a great paper that outlines the different ways they measure democracy — summary table below.)

sarah: It’s true that in survey after survey, Republicans, as you all have said, have expressed less support for democracy than Democrats, but I was hoping we could unpack a little more the debilitating effect that this has had on American democracy writ large.

For instance, in the wake of the protests in Portland, Oregon, last summer, FiveThirtyEight’s Maggie Koerth and contributor Shom Mazumder found evidence of members of both parties holding anti-democratic views.

As the chart illustrates, this was especially true among Republicans, so I’m not trying to “both sides” this, but I do want to unpack the effect that severe polarization might have on democratic erosion. That is, how do you factor in polarization when looking at how the U.S. has become less democratic? Is it the number one factor driving what we’re seeing? Or is that too simplistic?

cyrus.samii: Breakdown by party is exactly the right way to look at it. Democrats are involved in a bottom-up struggle to broaden political inclusion while Republicans have been fighting to limit that, including in this past year’s elections. And so it is not so much a question of democratic backsliding at the country level, but rather in terms of whether parties see themselves as being competitive democratically or whether they need to use anti-democratic strategies to maintain their grip.

lee.drutman: Jennifer’s work on pernicious polarization is incredibly important here, and has really influenced my thinking. When politics becomes deeply divided in a binary way along cultural and identity lines (as it is now in the U.S.), democracy is in a really dangerous place.

jennifer.mccoy: And this type of polarization is more likely to lead to democratic erosion because it is based on an “us vs. them” division, not just disagreement on issues.

lee.drutman: On that chart, Sarah, showing support for strong leader/army rule, I’ve co-authored two recent reports on the topic, one in 2018 and another in 2020. And it’s true, we did find some support for these alternatives to democracy on both sides, which is worrying. But again, the overwhelming majority of Americans are in support of democratic institutions.

But here is where political leadership is so important. That some voters have weak connections to democracy is not a new problem. In fact, research has found that is typical among those who are the least educated and least politically engaged. The new problem is having political leadership that encourages and stokes these anti-democratic sentiments.

jennifer.mccoy: And as partisan antipathy grows, perceptions of out-party threat grow, and that leads people to challenge democratic norms so as to keep their own party in power and keep the others out.

cyrus.samii: The way I interpret the question, Sarah, is: How does polarization affect Republicans’ thinking on whether or not to abandon the strategy of limiting democratic processes to retain their hold on power, rather than seeking new coalitions, broadening their appeal and making themselves more competitive democratically?

In other words, it’s all about the strategy that the Republicans pursue. So when you take that into consideration, increased polarization — by which I mean distancing oneself from and dehumanizing outgroups — could sustain Republicans’ fixation on limiting democracy because they cannot see themselves forming any new alliances with people outside their traditional white Christian base.

lee.drutman: Cyrus — that is the central question, but I think there is a significant division among Republicans. So let me reframe your question slightly: What will it take for Republicans who want to build a more inclusive, pro-democracy party to triumph over those who are committed to ethnonationalism and grievance?

cyrus.samii: Yes, Lee, exactly.

lee.drutman: And as long as we think of this as a zero-sum Democrats vs. Republicans fight, we’re stuck. But if we think of this in terms of the forces of democracy vs. the forces of ethnonationalism (or whatever you want to call it), I do think we can make some progress.

sarah: Are there institutional changes (abolishing the Electoral College, reforming the Senate, etc.) that would bolster American democracy or make it less vulnerable to similar challenges in the future?

lee.drutman: I’ve written a lot about what would happen if the U.S. moved to a more proportional voting system, and I do think that would enable a center-right party to operate independent of a far-right party. It also might allow for a broader governing coalition that could keep the far-right out of government, as has happened in many Western democracies with more proportional voting systems.

And maybe we see this play out a little in the U.S. That is, I could see a pro-democracy faction within the Republican Party joining with Democrats to support electoral reforms (such as the Fair Representation Act, a piece of election reform legislation that would establish multi-member districts with ranked-choice voting).

cyrus.samii: Institutional changes to the Electoral College or the Senate would certainly make a difference, since those institutions are a part of what Republicans currently rely on in the anti-democractic aspects of their strategy. But changing them is probably too hard, politically.

Of course, once, say, Texas goes blue, those institutions will come to have the opposite effect and lock out Republicans — unless they change who they can attract. Also, Sarah, I think the idea that “overall trends point to increased illiberalism” is only true when it comes to the kinds of strategies that Republicans are using to try to maintain a grip on their power, rather than with respect to U.S. democratic politics as a whole.

lee.drutman: Yes, changing the Electoral College or the Senate would require constitutional amendments. Enacting proportional representation, interestingly enough, is entirely within Congress’s power, though.

jennifer.mccoy: I want to go back to an earlier point about HOW we get here. I’ve written with Somer about how democracies could solve this dilemma by “repolarizing” along democratic lines vs. authoritarian lines, and what we found is very similar to Lee’s and Cyrus’s point about inclusive movements vs. exclusionary ethnonationalist movements. That is, shifting the axes of polarization to the principle of protecting democracy instead of a divide between different partisan and social identities could actually help protect democracy, as long as it’s not done with demonizing or hyperbolic language.

And that’s important, because as political scientist Daniel Ziblatt has written, a principled conservative or center-right party is essential for a functioning democracy. Even President-elect Joe Biden has reiterated the need for a Republican Party for the health of our democracy. The problem is our two-party system is currently mired in toxic polarization and so the extreme elements within the parties are amplified. We need institutional reforms to allow for political incentives to change.

lee.drutman: I do think the events of Jan. 6 have been a tremendous wake-up call to many on the urgency of democracy reform.

cyrus.samii: It certainly was a wake-up call, Lee. I also think that the incredibly tumultuous times that current 18- to 35-year-olds have endured — 9/11, the Iraq War, the Great Recession, Trump’s presidency, the events that inspired the Black Lives Matter protests this summer, and of course, COVID-19 — could generate a political consciousness that we haven’t seen since the 1960s or 70s.

lee.drutman: Cyrus — yes, there are lots of similarities to the Great Society Era which was the last era of major democracy reform and included major voting rights reform. There are also lots of similarities to the Progressive Era, which was the previous era of large-scale democracy reform.

So if you believe in political scientist Samuel Huntington’s theory that there is a 60-year cycle of democracy reform movements — that every six decades or so, American democracy falls short of its democratic ideals and reform movements emerge to expand our democracy, we’re right on schedule.


Biden’s Record-Breaking Cabinet, In One Chart

Joe Biden’s Cabinet is set to make history. If all of his nominees are confirmed, 12 of the 24 offices he has designated as Cabinet-level1 will be held by women. And as the chart below shows, that would break a record. Up until now, the most women to serve in these positions at once was eight, first during Bill Clinton’s administration and then again during Barack Obama’s administration.2 What’s more, under Biden, women will occupy three high-profile Cabinet-level posts for the first time: vice president, secretary of the treasury and director of national intelligence.

An equal number of men and women in the Cabinet is a rare accomplishment indeed. It would be the first gender-balanced Cabinet in U.S. history. And it’s rare globally, too. According to data from the Inter-Parliamentary Union and UN Women, as of Jan. 1, 2020, only 14 countries had cabinets or cabinet equivalents where at least half of the appointments were held by women. (The U.S. would also be the largest of these countries by far.)

Biden’s Cabinet is also poised to reach another remarkable milestone: A majority of its members aren’t white, and many will break barriers by serving in their future role.3 Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, for instance, will be the first Black person and first South Asian American to serve as vice president. And Lloyd Austin would be the first Black secretary of defense in American history, while Xavier Becerra and Alejandro Mayorkas would be the first Latinos to lead, respectively, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Homeland Security. Meanwhile, Deb Haaland would be the first Indigenous person to lead the Department of the Interior, which includes the Bureau of Indian Affairs and has jurisdiction over all public lands, which Native Americans have been fighting the federal government over for centuries. And Council of Economic Advisers Chair-designate Cecilia Rouse, Office of Management and Budget Director-designate Neera Tanden and U.S. Trade Representative-designate Katherine Tai would also be the first women of color in their respective roles. In total, Biden’s Cabinet picks include six Black people, four Latinos, three Asian people and one Native American.

This all represents progress, to be sure, but some barriers remain unbroken. For instance, the “inner Cabinet” — the vice president, attorney general and secretaries of state, defense and treasury, who typically have the closest ties to the president — will still be three-fifths white and three-fifths male. And the most diverse part of Biden’s Cabinet will be the Cabinet-level positions that are not part of the presidential line of succession (the bottom grouping of offices on the chart). So just because women and people of color are equal in number to men and white people does not mean they are equal in terms of influence. And even though Biden has appointed a historic number of women, they still struggle to gain a foothold in stereotypically male Cabinet posts; we have still never had a female secretary of defense, secretary of veterans affairs or chief of staff.


Georgia Was A Disaster For Republicans, And It’s Not Clear Where They Can Go Next

The terrifying mob attack on the Capitol on Wednesday, among its many effects, quickly shifted focus from the other big news of the week: the runoffs for U.S. Senate in Georgia. Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff defeated Republicans Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, respectively, giving Democrats control of Congress.

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Like a lot of recent political events, the Georgia runoffs are more significant the further you zoom out the lens. In one sense, the results were not that unpredictable. The final polling averages showed both Democrats ever-so-slightly ahead, and it was clear that the races were shaping up in such a way as to make the Democrats extremely competitive.

[Related: How Democrats Won The Georgia Runoffs]

But the Georgia runoffs were full of practical and symbolic significance. They exposed the limitations of the Republican coalition, with or without President Trump, leaving the party further in the electoral wilderness — it’s not clear where the Republican Party goes from here, especially in the wake of the violent insurrection by Trump supporters at the Capitol.

First, the significance of Georgia specifically. I’ll spare you some of the boilerplate about the more obvious implications, but having a Senate majority is a big deal. It means that Democrats should be able to confirm Supreme Court justices and President-elect Joe Biden’s Cabinet. They’ll likely be able to pass additional COVID-19 stimulus legislation at the very least, along with other budgetary policies through reconciliation. Other policy changes would require eliminating the filibuster — unlikely — or getting cooperation from enough Republicans. But at least Democrats will have the chance to bring to the floor election-reform bills like H.R. 1 and policies like Puerto Rico statehood, giving them a fighting chance instead of having Majority Leader Mitch McConnell squash them from the start.

And symbolically? Well, it’s Georgia. With the possible exception of Texas, no other state has been as much of a symbol of an emerging Democratic coalition of college-educated white voters and high turnout among Black voters and other minority groups. Both Warnock and Ossoff are breakthrough candidates, not the moderate, white Blue Dogs that Democrats have traditionally nominated in Georgia. Warnock, the senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. preached, will become the first Black senator from Georgia and the first Black Democrat ever to serve in the U.S. Senate from the South. Ossoff will become the youngest senator elected since Biden, in 1973, and the first Jewish senator elected to the U.S. Senate from the South since the 1880s.

Then there’s the fact that the runoffs came during a lame-duck period in which — in a predicate to Wednesday’s violence — Trump and other Republicans tried to overturn and subvert the results of the election and undermine faith in the democratic process. If Republicans get the message that anti-democratic actions have negative electoral consequences, they may be less inclined to push democracy to the brink in the future.

[Related: Trump Helped Take Extremist Views From The Fringes Of Society To A Mob Attacking The Capitol]

Republicans may not take away that lesson, though. One school of thought is that because Warnock’s and Ossoff’s wins were narrow — once all votes are counted, Warnock should win by around 2 percentage points and Ossoff by about 1 point — we shouldn’t make too much of them.

I don’t find this convincing. The way political actors react to elections is usually based on who wins and loses, not on their margins of victory. For example, nobody thought that Hillary Clinton and John Kerry were brilliant politicians because they only narrowly lost in key Electoral College states.

But it’s also not clear that these races really had any business being close to begin with. Consider the following:

Georgia is obviously a purple state now, but it’s still somewhat to the right of the country overall (Biden won in Georgia by 0.2 points compared with 4.5 points in the national popular vote). And the state has historically been redder in runoffs than in regular elections.Perdue was an elected incumbent (and Loeffler was an appointed incumbent, though appointed incumbents have much worse track records) whereas Ossoff and Warnock had never won an election before. Although the bonus associated with incumbency is much less than it used to be, it’s still hard to beat incumbents, especially with inexperienced opponents.Although the Georgia runoffs occurred under unusual circumstances, it was reasonable to think the electoral environment might resemble that of a midterm election. Typically, what happens in midterms is that voters seek out balance and the president’s party loses ground in Congress. (The “midterm penalty” we encode into our congressional model works out to around 5 points.) In this case, one might expect that to work against Biden, with voters keeping the GOP in charge of the Senate as a check against Democratic power. Instead, there was roughly a 3-point shift toward Democrats relative to the November vote.1

Indeed, after Georgia, Republicans’ track record in the three general elections (2016, 2018, 2020) plus the various runoffs and special elections that took place under Trump now starts to look mediocre:

Republicans went 1-1 in the Electoral College.They lost the popular vote for president twice, extending their streak to seven popular-vote losses in the past eight elections.Republicans narrowly lost control of the U.S. Senate, which it held 54-46 prior to the 2016 election.The GOP also narrowly lost control of the U.S. House, which it dominated by 247-188 heading into 2016. This had a complicated trajectory, however: Republicans lost a few House seats in 2016 and a ton of seats in 2018 before regaining some ground in 2020.Republicans have gone about 50-50 in gubernatorial races in major swing states, winning in Florida, Georgia and Arizona, for example, while losing in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.On the positive side of the ledger, the GOP has done well in keeping control of state legislatures, although many of those are dependent on gerrymandering.

So, it hasn’t been a terrible time to be a Republican running for office, but it hasn’t been a good one, either. Typically, a party would be looking to move beyond a one-term president who had cost his party control of both houses of Congress. Actually, that’s being kind: Typically, a party wants nothing to do with a losing presidential candidate.

When it comes to Trump, though, that calculation isn’t necessarily so simple because of his tendency to punish his intraparty adversaries: Republicans who tried to cross him, such as former Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, were sometimes forced to retire rather than face the president’s wrath in a primary.

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Yet the GOP has done especially poorly in Trump-era elections without Trump on the ballot, too. Republicans lost the popular vote for the U.S. House by 8.6 points in 2018 without the president on the ticket. And while some Republicans are blaming Trump for their losses in Georgia, the fact is that Perdue won the plurality of votes in November with Trump on the ballot but lost to Ossoff without him. Tuesday’s loss came primarily because of lower turnout, especially in red, rural counties where Trump can bring voters to the polls.

To step back a bit, the success of an electoral strategy basically comes down to four dimensions:

How good is it at turning out the party base?How much does it turn out the other party’s base?How well does it do with swing voters?How efficiently is the party’s coalition configured electorally?

In Trump-era elections, Republicans have tended to do well along two of these dimensions and poorly along the other two. Namely, Trump gets very high turnout from his base. What’s just as important, rural white voters who are the core of that base have far more power in the Electoral College and U.S. Senate than their raw numbers would imply, making their coalition electorally efficient. Hence, their strategy has performed well along dimensions No. 1 and No. 4.

Conversely, Trump is extremely motivating in turning out many parts of the Democratic base (dimension No. 2). And he’s a big turn-off to swing voters, or at least he’s proven to be after four years in office (dimension No. 3). After narrowly beating Clinton among independent voters in 2016, Trump lost them to Biden by 13 points in November. Swing voters also haven’t been very happy with the GOP with or without Trump on the ballot: They backed Democratic candidates for the U.S. House by 12 points in 2018. Republicans have had especially big problems with suburban swing voters, including in places that were once GOP strongholds.

We’ll have to wait and see, but the violence at the Capitol last week may only exacerbate the GOP’s problems on dimensions No. 2 and No. 3. In the few polls conducted since, solid majorities of Americans overall, including almost all Democrats and a majority of independents, said the storming of the Capitol represented a threat to democracy. Similar shares of Democrats and independents said Trump and congressional Republicans bore at least some blame.

[Related: Storming The U.S. Capitol Was About Maintaining White Power In America]

Republicans are in a fairly precarious position. At best, they are often fighting to a draw, and one that would often be a losing strategy without the structural advantages built into the system for rural voters. And if Republicans don’t get spectacular turnout from their base, everything else potentially starts to crumble. Even a modest decline in turnout from people who are pro-#MAGA but not necessarily part of the traditional Republican base can leave the GOP in a losing position.

Nor do Republicans have any sort of obvious role model for how to achieve consistent electoral success. The previous Republican president, George W. Bush, saw his second term in office end with landslides against Republicans in 2006 and 2008. A series of recent presidential nominees associated with the party establishment (Mitt Romney, John McCain, Bob Dole) all lost their elections, meanwhile. You really have to go back to Ronald Reagan for an example of an unambiguously broad and successful Republican electoral coalition, and that was a generation ago. Republicans who cast their first votes for Reagan at age 18 in 1984 will be 58 years old in 2024.

This doesn’t mean Republicans are helpless, by any means. Under McConnell and former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, their congressional agenda has also been largely unpopular. If you’re consistently pushing positions that a majority of the public opposes, you’re liable to pay a price for it. Republicans’ structural advantages (especially in the Senate), and Trump’s ability to drive turnout in the places where those structural advantages matter, served as cover for a minoritarian agenda.

For all that said, the tendency of the opposition party to regain ground at the midterms is very strong. One would not want to bet that much against the GOP winning back one or both houses of Congress in 2022. (The House, where Republicans should pick up some seats from redistricting, might actually be the better bet than the Senate, where Democrats have a relatively favorable map.)

After last week, though, I’m not sure I’d want to place a lot of money on the GOP in 2022, either. If the Georgia runoffs served as a quasi-midterm, they might suggest that the GOP can’t count on the sort of gains that a party typically wins in midterms. As in the primaries leading up to 2010, the GOP is likely to have some vicious intraparty fights, possibly leading it to nominate suboptimal candidates in some races. And with the violence last week and Republican efforts to contest the Electoral College outcome in Congress, Democrats may be very motivated again in 2022, feeling — not unreasonably — as though democracy itself may be on the line.

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Why many Republicans are still attempting to overturn the election


The Authorities’s Tepid Response To The Capitol Breach Wasn’t An Aberration

As images from Wednesday’s riot by pro-Trump extremists at the U.S. Capitol filled our TV screens and social media feeds, one thing was notably absent: the kind of confrontation between police and protesters that we saw during the Black Lives Matter protests last summer. Even though the Capitol mob was far more violent — and seditious — than the largely peaceful BLM demonstrators, police responded far less aggressively toward them than toward BLM protesters across the country. Researchers who track this sort of thing for a living say that fits a pattern.

What Trumpism has cost the GOP and the nation | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

Instead of National Guard troops being posted en masse around landmarks before a protest even began, we saw the Defense Department initially deny a request to send in troops — and that was after the Capitol had been breached. Instead of peaceful protesters being doused in tear gas, we saw a mob posing for selfies with police and being allowed to wander the corridors of power like they couldn’t decide whether they were invading the Capitol or touring it. Instead of President Trump calling these violent supporters “thugs,” as he called racial justice protesters, and advocating for more violent police crackdowns, we saw him remind his followers that they were loved before asking them nicely to go home.

[Related: Storming The U.S. Capitol Was About Maintaining White Power In America]

“It feels really unbelievable,” said Roudabeh Kishi, director of research and innovation with the nonprofit Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project. But, she said, it’s also totally unsurprising.

That’s because the discrepancies we saw Wednesday are just another example of a trend Kishi’s team has been tracking for months as they collect data on protester and law enforcement interactions across America. “We see a different response to the right wing,” she said.

While protesters themselves have long perceived that police tend to crack down on left-wing protesters and align with those on the right wing, there hasn’t really been data to demonstrate that effect before, said Ed Maguire, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at Arizona State University and an expert on police and protester interactions.

But in 2020, Kishi’s ACLED — a data-reporting project that began documenting armed conflicts and protests in African nations — extended its work into the United States. Using information gathered from local media, NGOs, individual journalists and partner organizations, ACLED researchers have catalogued months of detailed information about protests, including when clashes with law enforcement have happened and the type of force used by police. “We don’t necessarily have information on the number of Black vs. white protesters … but we do have a larger view,” Kishi said. “How is law enforcement responding to demonstrations associated with the Black Lives Matter movement versus demonstrations by the right wing … in support of [a] president that may or may not involve organized armed illegal groups?”

What they have found is striking.

What Trump revealed about America | FiveThirtyEight

Between May 1 and November 28, 2020, authorities were more than twice as likely to attempt to break up and disperse a left-wing protest2 than a right-wing3 one. And in those situations when law enforcement chose to intervene, they were more likely to use force — 34 percent of the time with right-wing protests compared with 51 percent of the time for the left. Given when this data was collected, it predominantly reflects a difference in how police respond to Black Lives Matter, compared with how they respond to anti-mask demonstrations, pro-Trump extremists, QAnon rallies, and militia groups.

[Related: QAnon Isn’t Going To Take Over Congress In 2020. But It’s Found A Home In The GOP.]

The differences in intervention weren’t because BLM protests were particularly violent. ACLED found that 93 percent of the protests associated with BLM were entirely peaceful. “Even if we were to put those [7] percent of demonstrations aside and look purely at peaceful [BLM protests], we are seeing a more heavy handed response [compared with right-wing protests],” Kishi said.

This data is new and limited, but it is in keeping with long-documented biases in how police think about and treat Black people compared with white people, and with research that shows police and military personnel overlapping significantly with the same far-right groups they treat preferentially.

It is also in keeping with how different groups of protesters perceive the situation themselves, Maguire said. In his years spent traveling to protests and embedding in crowds to observe and document police and protester interactions, he has interviewed protesters extensively. “Protesters on the left virtually universally believe that police are rougher on them. And protesters on the right almost universally believe police are on their side,” Maguire said. Some of that sentiment was evident yesterday:

“This is not America,” a woman said to a small group, her voice shaking. “They’re shooting at us. They’re supposed to shoot BLM, but they’re shooting the patriots.” https://t.co/XN2pSct54i

— The Nation (@thenation) January 7, 2021

Even absent statistical evidence, those beliefs have consequences, Maguire told me. “I think protesters on the right, because they view the police as in their corner, they feel a sense of tacit permission,” he said. This is only exacerbated when police live up to those expectations. But, while it is true that law enforcement responded with far less force to Wednesday’s storming of the Capitol than to Black Lives Matter protests, there was some force, which resulted in one woman being shot and killed by police.

And Maguire says this represents a jarring breach between the treatment right-wing extremists expect and the reality. The consequences of that worry him. He’s been watching this year as those extremists’ beliefs about themselves and their relationship with police grew increasingly religious and apocalyptic. “[They told me] that leftists are godless and they hate god and hate America. That’s what I heard from folks on the right. [But] they were god fearing moral people and police would always back them for that reason,” he said. Now, you have a situation where police are giving these people more leeway and, at the same time, right-wing groups may perceive their relationship with police being undermined. “I can … see the possibility that people who feel the police have broken some type of implicit or imagined pact may try to outmaneuver police and behave destructively,” he said.

[Related: How Trump Changed America]

The police, meanwhile, he worries, are likely to see criticism of a lack of force in D.C. and respond with more force elsewhere — whether that be against right-wing or left-wing groups. “Every other police department facing an angry crowd will be concerned about being overrun, and overcorrecting in response to that concern may lead to overly forceful, unconstitutional responses.”

Violence, as they say, begets violence. And disparities in police force may well beget more disparities.

Why many Republicans are still attempting to overturn the election

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Storming The U.S. Capitol Was About Keeping White Power In America

On Wednesday, after weeks of refusing to accept the outcome of the election, President Trump’s supporters stormed the Capitol of the United States as members of Congress were meeting to carry out their duties to certify the election results and confirm Joe Biden’s victory.

Much will be said about the fact that these actions threaten the core of our democracy and undermine the rule of law. Commentators and political observers will rightly note that these actions are the result of disinformation and heightened political polarization in the United States. And there will be no shortage of debate and discussion about the role Trump played in giving rise to this kind of extreme behavior. As we have these discussions, however, we must take care to appreciate that this is not just about folks being angry about the outcome of one election. Nor should we believe for one second that this is a simple manifestation of the president’s lies about the integrity of his defeat. This is, like so much of American politics, about race, racism and white Americans’ stubborn commitment to white dominance, no matter the cost or the consequence.

What Trumpism has cost the GOP and the nation | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

It is not by chance that most of the individuals who descended on the nation’s capital were white, nor is it an accident that they align with the Republican Party and this president. Moreover, it is not a coincidence that symbols of white racism, including the Confederate flag, were present and prominently displayed. Rather, years of research make clear that what we witnessed in Washington, D.C., is the violent outgrowth of a belief system that argues that white Americans and leaders who assuage whiteness should have an unlimited hold on the levers of power in this country. And this, unfortunately, is what we should expect from those whose white identity is threatened by an increasingly diverse citizenry.

[Republicans Control Whether Trump Stays Or Goes]

Let’s start here: Scholars interested in the sociological underpinnings of white racism often call our attention to concerns about group status as starting places for understanding white Americans’ attitudes toward members of other social groups. In a famous essay from 1958 on the topic, entitled “Race Prejudice as a Sense of Group Position,” Herbert Blumer, a noted sociologist, wrote the following:

There are four basic types of feeling that seem to be always present in race prejudice in the dominant group. They are (1) a feeling of superiority, (2) a feeling that the subordinate race is intrinsically different and alien, (3) a feeling of proprietary claim to certain areas of privilege and advantage, and (4) a fear and suspicion that the subordinate race harbors designs on the prerogatives of the dominant race.

Building on Blumer’s early work, other scholars have highlighted the consequences that result when white Americans perceive threats to their dominant position in the social hierarchy. Some research by social psychologists Maureen Craig and Jennifer Richeson, for example, finds that reminding white Americans of changing racial demographics causes them to adopt more negative racial attitudes toward minority groups. These same researchers also find that these reminders lead politically unaffiliated white Americans to report a stronger attachment to the Republican Party and to express greater political conservatism. These findings make sense, as the GOP is widely perceived to be a party that caters to white interests, a perception that predates the election of Trump but that has undoubtedly been strengthened by his ascendance to power in the party. In her award-winning book, “White Identity Politics,” Ashley Jardina goes further than any scholar to-date in documenting the causes and consequences of white identity, arguing that the increased salience of whiteness as a social category corresponds largely with how demographics have changed in this country. Jardina finds in her research that this, in turn, has created a fear among some white Americans that their hold on power has become increasingly precarious, highlighted most sharply by the ascendance of Barack Obama, a Black man, to the White House.

And most recently, Larry Bartels, a renowned scholar of American politics at Vanderbilt University, wrote the following in his research focused on the erosion of Republicans’ commitment to democracy:

The support expressed by many Republicans for violations of a variety of crucial democratic norms is primarily attributable not to partisan affect, enthusiasm for President Trump, political cynicism, economic conservatism, or general cultural conservatism, but to what I have termed ethnic antagonism. The single survey item with the highest average correlation with antidemocratic sentiments is not a measure of attitudes toward Trump, but an item inviting respondents to agree that “discrimination against whites is as big a problem today as discrimination against blacks and other minorities.” Not far behind are items positing that “things have changed so much that I often feel like a stranger in my own country,” that immigrants get more than their fair share of government resources, that people on welfare often have it better than those who work for a living, that speaking English is “essential for being a true American,” and that African-Americans “need to stop using racism as an excuse.”

To summarize Bartels’s claims, white Republicans who have come to oppose democracy do so, in part, because they don’t like those whom they believe democracy serves. And, more than that, they believe that the interests of nonwhite Americans have been given priority over the interests of their racial group. Many white Americans seem to be asking themselves, Why act in defense of a democracy that benefits “those people”?

[The Police’s Tepid Response To The Capitol Breach Wasn’t An Aberration]

So, let’s return to the images of Wednesday, when a crowd of white people gathered at the Capitol with American flags and Trump flags and symbols of the Confederacy. For these white Americans, the notion of America itself is likely one that is white, making the American flag they so proudly wield as a symbol also one of white supremacy and white racial domination. Of course, the iconography of the failed Confederacy, alongside other reminders of white racial violence, including the placing of a noose around a tree near the Capitol, are intentional, too. For those who broke glass in windows of the Capitol, who marched in opposition to American democracy, who held up as a model the seditious behaviors of slaveholding states, who threatened the lives of elected officials and caused chaos that lays bare the dangerous situation we are in as a country — these are not political protesters asking their government for a redress of grievances. Nor are they patriots whose actions should be countenanced in a society governed by the rule of law.

Instead, we must characterize them as they are: They are a dangerous mob of grievous white people worried that their position in the status hierarchy is threatened by a multiracial coalition of Americans who brought Biden to power and defeated Trump, whom back in 2017 Ta-Nehisi Coates called the first white president. Making this provocative point, Coates wrote, “It is often said that Trump has no real ideology, which is not true — his ideology is white supremacy, in all its truculent and sanctimonious power.” So, when we think about those who gathered in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday and who will surely continue their advance in opposition to democratic rule, let it not be lost on us that they do not simply come in defense of Donald Trump. They come in defense of white supremacy.

Why many Republicans are still attempting to overturn the election

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Republicans Control Whether Trump Stays Or Goes

Graphics by Ryan Best

More than half the Democrats in the House are calling for President Trump’s impeachment and removal from office in the wake of his supporters invading and taking control of the Capitol on Wednesday. That’s according to a whip count by the left-leaning site Daily Kos as of Thursday afternoon. While many of the pro-impeachment Democrats are from very liberal districts, the effort has fairly broad and growing support.

So an expanding majority of the 222 House Democrats are backing impeachment, and at least 16 senators, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, also joining the call.

That leaves four big questions:

Will Trump administration officials invoke the 25th Amendment and remove the president from office by declaring that he’s unable to perform his duties, rather than waiting for Congress to act?Will House Speaker Nancy Pelosi bring the House back to vote to impeach Trump a second time, as she suggested on Thursday that she might do if Trump’s Cabinet does not remove him?Would the House then actually impeach Trump, which would require basically all Democrats to be on board, as it’s unlikely any House Republicans would support that effort?And if the House impeaches Trump, are there 66 senators (including 18 Republicans) who would vote to remove him from office this time around?

Let’s look at those questions one by one. According to Section 4 of the 25th Amendment, which has not been invoked before to remove a sitting president, the vice president and a majority of the members of the Cabinet can sign a written statement saying that the president is not fit to perform his duties, which allows him to be temporarily replaced by the vice president.

But removing Trump from power for his final 13 days in office would be super complicated, and there are a couple of reasons that this probably won’t happen. For starters, Section 4 seems designed to deal with a president being seriously injured or mentally incapacitated — it’s not written like a tool that allows officials to replace someone whose decisions people disagree with, as is the case with Trump. It’s not clear either if the “acting” members of Trump’s Cabinet, who have not been confirmed by the Senate, would be able to participate in such a vote. There’s also the reality there might not be enough votes. Trump has sacked Cabinet officials who aren’t loyal to him, like one-time Defense Secretary Mark Esper. And the Cabinet secretaries horrified by Trump’s actions may simply resign, as Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao did on Thursday, joining a number of other senior administration officials.

Impeachment might be a long shot too, as there are two big reasons that House Democrats might not wind up with an overwhelming majority of their caucus joining that push. First, Trump has less than two weeks left in office, so some of them may view trying to remove him earlier as fairly fruitless. And secondly, some House Democrats may be reluctant to impeach Trump if there is no appetite to remove him in the Senate, where convicting him would require a lot of Republican votes. The Democrats tried to get Trump out of office once before and Republicans wouldn’t go along, so some might be reluctant to try again.

There are likely procedural ways to force an impeachment vote, but realistically I would assume a vote won’t be held unless Pelosi favors the idea. On Thursday, she pushed for the Cabinet to invoke the 25th Amendment, but she did leave open the possibility of a House impeachment vote if that doesn’t happen. I tend to think impeachment would pass the House if it came to a vote, with nearly all Democrats in favor and most Republicans opposed.

The Senate currently has 99 members (Georgia’s David Perdue, who just lost his reelection bid, left a vacant seat when his term ended Jan. 3) so it would need 66 votes to remove Trump — including 18 Republicans. Earlier this year, only one Republican senator, Mitt Romney of Utah, backed Trump’s removal. You could imagine that perhaps Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Ben Sasse of Nebraska would back Trump’s removal this time around, motivated by a combination of anger over Wednesday’s events, frustration with Trump’s refusal to concede and the security of knowing they won’t face reelection for another six years. But even though many Republican lawmakers were furious about Wednesday’s invasion of the Capitol, most of them have not been directly criticizing Trump, perhaps worried that he still has a lot of pull with the party’s base. It is hard to see eight Republicans backing Trump’s removal, much less 18.

In short, neither the executive-branch-driven 25th Amendment process nor the congressional impeachment-and-removal process seem likely to force Trump out of office, and both processes would likely fail for the same reason: They would require Republicans who have been aligned with Trump — like Sen. Lindsey Graham and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, or Secretaries Mike Pompeo (State) and Ben Carson (Housing and Urban Development) — to dramatically turn on the president. Wednesday was a terrible day in America, as many Republicans have publicly said. But it still seems unlikely that, after having been allied with him for four years, these Republicans will embarrass Trump by forcing him out of the White House days before he will have to leave office anyway.


How Democrats Won The Georgia Runoffs

On Tuesday, Democrats won both Georgia runoff elections — and control of the U.S. Senate. Democrat Raphael Warnock defeated Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler 50.8 percent to 49.2 percent in the special election, and Democrat Jon Ossoff defeated Republican David Perdue, whose term as senator expired on Sunday, 50.4 percent to 49.6 percent in the regularly scheduled contest.1

It’s hard to overstate how precedent-shattering this election was. Going into 2020, it was a political axiom that Democrats always fared worse in runoff elections than in the general; Republicans had improved on their margins in seven out of the eight previous runoff elections in Georgia history. But this week, Ossoff and Warnock won despite Republicans getting more votes than Democrats in both races in November.

For just the second time, Dems gained in the runoffs

Shift in vote margin between the general election and the runoff, for statewide races in Georgia

YearOfficeGeneral MarginRunoff MarginDiff.2020U.S. SenateR+1.8D+0.8D+2.62020U.S. Senate*R+1.0D+1.7D+2.72020Public Service CommissionR+2.9R+1.1D+1.82018Secretary of StateR+0.4R+3.8R+3.42018Public Service CommissionR+2.1R+3.5R+1.42008U.S. SenateR+2.9R+14.9R+12.02008Public Service CommissionD+0.6R+13.0R+13.72006Public Service CommissionD+2.6R+4.4R+7.01998Public Service Commission*D+15.8D+31.4D+15.61992U.S. SenateD+1.6R+1.3R+2.91992Public Service CommissionR+0.7R+13.6R+12.9*Special election.

Results for 2020 runoffs are unofficial and collected as of 10:45 a.m. on Jan. 7.

Georgia rules require a candidate to win a majority of the vote in general elections or special elections; if no candidate wins a majority, there is a runoff between the top two finishers. If a special election took place on a regular general election date, it is included in this table. In these cases, there may be multiple candidates from each party running, so the Democratic and Republican totals are the combined vote share of all candidates from that party.

Sources: Georgia Secretary of State

That might have been made possible by the fact that turnout was completely off the charts. Over 4.4 million people voted in Tuesday’s election — more than double the number who voted in Georgia’s 2008 Senate runoff, which was previously the highest-turnout runoff in Georgia history. A full 60 percent of eligible voters (as estimated by Michael McDonald of the University of Florida) cast a ballot — higher than Georgia’s turnout rate in the 2016 presidential election! It looks like the high stakes of the election (it determined control of the Senate) and the massive amount of money spent ($833 million between the two races) really motivated people to vote.

Turnout in the Georgia runoffs shattered records

Three ways to measure turnout in every runoff election in Georgia

Share of …CycleOfficeRunoff TurnoutNov. TurnoutEligible Voters2020U.S. Senate*4,444,83290%60%2020U.S. Senate4,444,78090602020Public Service Commission4,397,40791602008U.S. Senate2,137,95657342008Public Service Commission2,010,32956322018Secretary of State1,473,90438202018Public Service Commission1,465,82038201992U.S. Senate1,253,99156261992Public Service Commission1,159,60557242006Public Service Commission215,0921141998Public Service Commission*114,34392*Special election.

Results for 2020 runoffs are unofficial and collected as of 10:45 a.m. on Jan. 7.

Sources: Georgia secretary of state, United States Elections Project

Indeed, turnout was nearly 90 percent of what it was in the general election. That probably made the runoff electorate look more like the general-election electorate than it does in a typical runoff, which may help explain why Democrats gained ground rather than lost it.

Looking at county-level results, we can see a couple of trends, the most important of which is that Warnock and Ossoff both tended to improve on Joe Biden’s margin in places with a large share of Black voters. (To keep things simple, the charts below show just Ossoff, but Warnock’s results look almost identical.) This includes both suburban counties like Clayton, in the Atlanta metropolitan area, where Warnock did 6 percentage points better than Biden, as well as more rural counties like Randolph, in Georgia’s Black Belt. And turnout among Black voters seems to have been up, as well: According to the Fox News Voter Analysis, Black Americans made up 32 percent of the runoff electorate, up from 29 percent in November. This corresponds with trends at the county level, which also show higher turnout in counties where a larger share of the population is Black.

At the same time, though, Warnock and Ossoff actually slightly underperformed Biden in counties with a particularly high share of college-educated voters, such as Forsyth, where 52 percent of the population has a college degree but only 3 percent is Black.

It’s obviously hard to know whether these demographic relationships we see at the county level will hold among voters across the state — we won’t know that until we have more detailed voter data. But after suburbanites, especially white college-educated ones, were credited with swinging the state blue in the presidential election, these charts suggest that the Democratic senators-elect owe their wins to Black voters. It seems that split-ticket voters from the general election — who voted Biden for president but Republicans for the Senate, and who were largely concentrated in the wealthy Atlanta suburbs — were not key to the Democratic victory after all.

The second trend we can spot at the county level is that GOP turnout seems to have been down. Headed into the election, party officials worried that some Republicans might be discouraged from voting due to Trump’s continued false claims of election fraud that have now resulted in violence and insurrection at the Capitol. Early and absentee voting lagged in redder parts of the state, for instance, and while Republicans hoped Election Day turnout would make up for this deficit — GOP voters were generally less likely to vote by mail or at early-voting locations — it seems their fears were somewhat realized. As the chart below shows, the better Trump did in a county in November, the more its turnout tended to drop in the runoffs compared to the general election.

We should be careful, though, not to overstate the extent to which Trump’s claims discouraged Republican participation. After all, plenty of Republicans still showed up to vote — enough to help set a record for runoff turnout. But critically, turnout tended to be just a bit higher in more Democratic-leaning areas of the state. So the upshot is that while Trump’s approach may have encouraged plenty of Republicans to vote, he probably pushed plenty of Democrats to go to the polls, too.

Of course, there are two other factors here that are a bit harder to untangle. First, some Republican voters may have been harder to motivate than they were in November because Trump himself wasn’t on the ballot — after all, the runoffs mirrored other off-cycle elections, like the 2017 Alabama Senate special election or the 2018 midterms, where Republican voter turnout was down and the Democrats outperformed their recent presidential benchmark. Additionally, the fact that Trump’s approval rating has slipped since November probably hurt the GOP, too. (For context, Trump’s approval rating in November 2018, when Democrats won back the House of Representatives, was roughly the same as it now — in the low 40s.)

Whether Democrats can keep their foothold in Georgia is another question. Trump’s unpopularity likely contributed to a Democratic-leaning national environment that may not hold in, say, 2022, when Warnock will have to run for a full six-year term. And according to the presidential results, Georgia is still a slightly Republican-leaning state (Biden won the state by 0.3 points, but he won the national popular vote by 4.4 points, so Georgia remains more Republican than the country as a whole). Tuesday’s results certainly hold promise for Democrats hoping to turn Georgia into the next Virginia — a formerly Republican Southern state turned solidly blue by demographic change — but nothing is guaranteed.


The Case For Republicans In Georgia vs. The Case For Democrats

The two Senate runoffs in Georgia are tighter than a 35-minute connection at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. According to FiveThirtyEight’s polling averages as of 6 p.m. Eastern on Jan. 3, Democrat Jon Ossoff leads Republican Sen. David Perdue 49.2 percent to 47.4 percent in the regular Senate election, while Democrat Raphael Warnock leads Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler 49.5 percent to 47.2 percent in the special Senate election.

And the two races have consistently been about that close since the first round of voting on Nov. 3. So at this point, we don’t really need more polls to tell us what we already know: These races could go either way. In fact, between the polls, the fundraising numbers, the early-voting data and the November results, both parties can find reasons to be optimistic heading into election day tomorrow. So we thought we’d lay out the case for each side, high-school-debate style. Nathaniel will outline all the reasons why Democrats are favored, and then Geoffrey will make the case for why Republicans will come out on top. Then, you be the judge as to which argument is more persuasive — let us know in the comments or on Twitter. (And don’t forget to tune into our live blog on Tuesday night as well.)

Nathaniel: The case for Democrats

As mentioned, Ossoff and Warnock each lead in our polling average by about 2 percentage points. To be sure, those numbers still point to an election that could go either way, but if you had to choose a favorite based on them, you’d have to pick the Democrats. I know polling had an off year in 2020, but the reality is that polls are still our best tool for forecasting elections, and it’s really hard, if not impossible, to predict which direction any polling error will run. Plus, while it’s true that polling of the 2020 election overall wasn’t very accurate, polls of Georgia were actually pretty good: FiveThirtyEight’s final polling average of the presidential race in the Peach State was just 1 point off the final margin.

It’s not just the polling, though: The fundraising numbers look even better for Democrats. From Oct. 15 to Dec. 16, Ossoff raised $106.8 million and Warnock raised $103.4 million. Not only is that more than Perdue’s $68.1 million and Loeffler’s $64.0 million, but it’s also more than any Senate candidate had ever raised in a single quarter before (and Oct. 15-Dec. 16 is only two months, not three!).

True, when you factor in spending by outside groups, the money race is closer. Pro-Republican outside groups have spent $180.5 million on TV ads since Nov. 10, while pro-Democratic outside groups have spent just $63.1 million. However, outside groups pay full freight for TV airtime, whereas TV stations are required to charge candidates their lowest rates. So even though pro-Republican forces (i.e., the campaigns and outside groups combined) have spent more on TV advertising than pro-Democratic forces, the Democratic side is actually airing more ads because they are getting better bang for their buck.

Early-voting data is also encouraging for Democrats, as it shows solid turnout among the Democratic base in Georgia: Black voters. According to www.georgiavotes.com, an unofficial vote-tracking website that uses publicly available data from the secretary of state, 31 percent of voters so far are Black. That’s significant because that’s a much higher share than at this point in the general election (when the Black share of the electorate reached its lowest point since 2006, hurting Democrats in November but giving them ample room to grow in the runoff). Now, that’s no guarantee that Black turnout will stay that high when all is said and done, but so far it looks like Democrats are doing what they need to do in order to improve upon their November performance and win the runoffs.

Indeed, Georgia has changed; it’s not the stubbornly red state it once was. In November, Joe Biden became the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry Georgia since 1992. And while Republicans ran a hair ahead of Democrats in both Senate races in the general, that low Black voter turnout suggests Democrats underachieved their true potential. Plus, our estimates suggest that, had the special election been a head-to-head matchup between Warnock and Loeffler, Warnock might have won. According to our research into past runoffs, both the two-party margin and the margin between the top two finishers are predictive of runoff results, so it’s actually pretty promising for Democrats that Warnock finished 7 points ahead of Loeffler in November.

And to counter an argument you’ll hear when Geoffrey takes the floor, there’s no guarantee Republicans will do better in the runoffs than they did in the general election. The factors that have hurt Democrats in past runoffs are arguably no longer true. More people have voted in this runoff than any other runoff in Georgia history, making the general election a better comparison than past runoffs. Black voter turnout has generally decreased in past runoffs; this year, it looks like it might increase. The suburbs — which have historically punched above their weight in runoffs — have shed their ancestral Republicanism and now lean Democratic. What’s more, President Trump’s refusal to concede the election could keep Democratic voters motivated, while his bogus claims that American elections are “rigged” could actually depress Republican turnout (why vote at all if your vote allegedly isn’t going to count?).

Basically, with this runoff having the unusual distinction of deciding control of the entire U.S. Senate, all precedents — which tend to favor Republicans — are out the window. Instead, we have a bunch of data that looks promising for Democrats.

Geoffrey: The case for Republicans

Republicans may be slightly behind in the polls, but we should be cautious about reading too much into these surveys as it’s hard to say the slim Democratic edge is all that meaningful. Polls have routinely disagreed over who is in the lead and nearly every survey has fallen within the margin of error. What’s more, there just haven’t been that many high quality polls — just two of the 16 firms that have surveyed Georgia since November have a FiveThirtyEight pollster rating that is higher than a B. This is unfortunate, but not surprising given many pollsters are gun-shy after polling misses in November. Simply put, a small polling error in the GOP’s direction wouldn’t be that surprising and furthermore, it would be enough to give Loeffler and Perdue the advantage.

Republicans also trail in fundraising, but here, too, it’s unclear whether Democrats really have an advantage. First, both Loeffler and Perdue have still raised plenty of moolah, and studies find that in situations where both campaigns are well-funded and neither side has a real ad-buy advantage, their efforts tend to cancel each other out. Second, much of the money fueling these campaigns is from out of state. This is true for the Republicans’ campaigns, but it’s especially true for the Democrats’, meaning the mountains of cash pouring in doesn’t tell us all that much about Georgia voter preferences. As we saw in November, strong fundraising numbers for Democratic Senate nominees were largely a smoke screen — many fell short despite significantly outraising their GOP opponents. Granted, some of these races were in states far redder than Georgia, but this was also true in Maine, a state Biden carried, and North Carolina, a state Trump narrowly carried.

True, Republicans don’t have a clear upper hand in the polls or fundraising game, but that might not tell as much about what will happen as the actual results from November. In both Senate contests, Republican contenders had a stronger down-ballot performance, meaning they have less ground to make up than the Democrats. In the regular Senate election, Perdue led Ossoff by about 1.8 points and finished just 0.3 points shy of an outright majority, even as Trump lost to Biden by about 0.3 points at the top of the ticket. And in the special Senate election, in which multiple candidates from both parties ran, the aggregate Republican vote led the aggregate Democratic vote by 1 point. And perhaps most importantly, Republican Senate candidates did slightly better than Trump in the Atlanta metropolitan area, helped by split-ticket voters in affluent and predominantly white communities such as Buckhead in north Atlanta. Provided these voters stick with the GOP tomorrow, that could be enough for Loeffler and Perdue to carry the day.

The early vote numbers hold some promise for the GOP, too. While the increase in the share of Black voters is an auspicious sign for Democrats, there are signs the runoff electorate will be older, which may be promising for Republicans as older voters are more likely to identify as Republican. Voters 56 and older have already cast 52.1 percent of early and absentee ballots in the runoff, according to data from the U.S. Elections Project, up from 45.5 percent in the general election. Now, it’s impossible to know in advance whether an older electorate will, in fact, prove more Republican-leaning. The New York Times’s Upshot found in November, for instance, that areas with high concentrations of older Georgia voters moved slightly to the left from 2016. Nonetheless, a stronger performance among early voters for the GOP would probably be all she wrote — especially considering early and absentee voters cast 80 percent of all votes in November and the in-person Election Day vote is likely to lean heavily Republican; Trump won these voters by 22 points in November.

Lastly, while Nathaniel poo-pooed it, the GOP does have a history of doing better in runoffs than the Democrats. Outside of one 1998 runoff for a seat on the state’s public service commission, Republicans have always gained at least a little ground in the runoff compared to the general election. True, we only have a sample size of eight, but some of the factors that contributed to Republican runoff success in the past could still come into play, like an older electorate. And remember, if the Republicans improve on their November showing — or even just hold serve — they win.

There are some pretty good arguments on both sides, if we do say so ourselves! In fact, it’s entirely possible that we’ll both be proven right. Partisanship will ensure that almost all voters vote a straight Democratic (Ossoff and Warnock) or Republican (Perdue and Loeffler) ticket, but as the slightly different polling averages suggest, there are probably a handful of Perdue-Warnock (or Ossoff-Loeffler) voters out there. And if the races are super close — and by all accounts, they will be — a split outcome isn’t out of the question. (Of course, that would qualify as a loss for Democrats, given that they need to win both seats in order to achieve a 50-50 split in the Senate, which would then grant them control of the chamber thanks to Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’s tie-breaking vote.)

We’ll find out on Tuesday night — maybe. Although Georgia counted the vast majority (upward of 90 percent) of its votes on election night, a close race would take a few more days to resolve. Indeed, that is exactly what happened in the general election. No matter what, we’ll be live-blogging it all from start to finish, so be sure to join us back here on Tuesday evening. Polls close at 7 p.m. Eastern.