What the 2020 election revealed about conservatism in the U.S.

Some pundits say conservatism is shrinking in the U.S. but ‘down ballot’ races suggest otherwise

A year ago, Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg wrote an obituary for the Republican Party in his book “RIP GOP.” Since then, other pundits have continued the dirge, saying that conservatism is on the decline as a political force in the U.S. because of changing demographics and social mores.

It’s true that there are more registered Democrats than Republicans in the states that require voters to choose a party when registering to vote. And losing the White House is a blow to the party, especially since incumbent presidents seeking a second term usually win.

But the GOP can steal a line from Mark Twain and say confidently that reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated. The numbers from Election Day show it’s alive and kicking. Republicans fared well in national and statewide elections across the country, and some analysts say the GOP’s performance signals promising prospects in 2022.

While President-elect Joe Biden received more votes than any presidential candidate in history (81,053,483, according to The Cook Political Report), Trump got 74,114,805. That’s more than he got in 2016, when nearly 63 million votes put him in the Oval Office.

“The party seems to be pretty healthy in terms of electoral competitiveness. And for Democrats, despite Joe Biden’s victory, which was incredibly important to Democrats, there’s a feeling of not just disappointment, but concern about the future, given how Trump was able to increase significantly his raw vote totals,” said Daniel Cox, director of the Survey Center on American Life and a research fellow on polling and public opinion at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.

Republicans did so well, in fact, that many analysts say that it’s time to bury the “RIP GOP” talk, most recently seen in The New York Times, when the editorial board said in October that Trump had destroyed the Republican Party, “leaving it a hollowed-out shell devoid of ideas, values or integrity.”

The numbers from the 2020 election suggest that a substantial number of Americans see the GOP much differently, and by extension, conservatism.

The Trump effect

In “RIP GOP,” Greenberg argued that the Republican Party is doomed, in part, because it fails to change to accommodate a “modernizing” nation, which he calls “the New America.”

“The New America believes in their country’s diversity. They think immigration enriches. They believe in women’s aspirations. They want a fairer country that reins in corporate control of government,” Greenberg wrote.

A few years earlier, conservative scholar Ramesh Ponnuru had acknowledged in Politico Magazine that, from a certain perspective, “it would be easy to get the impression that the country is moving — even galloping — left.” 

He cited the rapid change in Americans’ views on same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization, once causes of progressives that are now widely embraced, and noted that the number of white, married Christians, “the core of the Republican Party,” is shrinking.

Incumbent Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, waves to supporters after speaking during an election night gathering on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, in Bangor, Maine. | Robert F. Bukaty, Associated Press

But Ponnuru, a senior editor at National Review, says now what he said in 2015: that it’s not true that conservatism in the U.S. is in decline. As NPR reported, “The 2020 election was a good one for Republicans not named Trump.” In many competitive races, Republicans did better than the polls predicted, winning races that many thought would go to Democrats, such as the Senate seats retained by Republicans Lindsey Graham in South Carolina and Susan Collins in Maine, and the House seats that Republican Nancy Mace took from incumbent Rep. Joe Cunningham in South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District and that Burgess Owens recaptured for Republicans in Utah’s 4th District.

While a few House seats are still in question — including a House seat in Iowa that went to a Republican by a margin of six votes — it appears Democrats will still control the House of Representatives for the next two years. But with a win by a Republican in Montana’s gubernatorial race, GOP governors are in the majority, numbering 26.

“Like a lot of people, I thought Trump would be more of a liability down ballot, but there was evidence of a fair amount of ticket splitting,” Cox said.

Ryan Williamson, an assistant professor of political science at Auburn University, said that for Democrats, the 2020 election was a story of wrong expectations, particularly about how Trump’s unfavorable ratings would affect other races.

“Donald Trump was pretty unpopular, but that didn’t have a tremendous negative effect down ballot, at least not the effect that many prognosticators anticipated leading up to the election,” he said. “There had been talks of Democrats picking up as many as 15 to 20 seats (in the House) and they ended up losing seats.”

As for the Senate, the best Democrats can hope for, pending the results of the Georgia runoffs in January, is a tie and then have Vice President Kamala Harris being the deciding vote when needed, Williamson said.

“Democrats generally underperformed relative to expectations,” he said. “But, typically Republican voters are still pretty loyal to the Republican Party at this point.”

‘Unhealthy’ imbalance

Not every state requires voters to declare a party when they register to vote. But, according to Richard Winger, a San Francisco political expert and publisher of Ballot Access News, in the 32 jurisdictions that do, just under 40% of Americans registered as Democrats, compared to 29.5% who registered as Republicans and about 28% who registered as independents.

Pew Research Center shows 33% identifying as Democrat, 29% as Republican and 34% as independent.

Winger, who started Ballot Access News 35 years ago, noted that there was a time that control of the U.S. House was something of a pipe dream for Republicans.

“After the 1952 election, the Republicans never got a majority of seats in the U.S. House until 1994. That was shocking,” he said. “It was 40 years of one-party rule in the House. Every year you would know it was going to be a Democratic majority; ho-hum. That was not healthy.

“But since 1994, it’s been quite a battle, almost unpredictable every election. It goes back and forth.”

Winger said he is eager to see the total number of votes for the U.S. House along party lines, but is refraining from tallying them until all the votes are in and certified. It’s possible to have a majority of votes be Democratic, but still see the Republicans claim more new seats — another reason it’s tricky to draw conclusions about how red or blue the nation is by vote tallies alone.

A number that should be comforting to Republicans as they look to the future is the percentage of Americans who identify as conservative.

Republican Nancy Mace, center left, hugs a supporter during her election night party on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, in Mount Pleasant, S.C. | Mic Smith, Associated Press

In Gallup’s most recent polling on ideology, 37% of Americans identify as conservatives, compared to 35% who say they are moderate and 24% liberal.

Another number that holds promise is the year 2022.

“Republicans are now the prohibitive favorite to win control of the House of Representatives in 2022. Democrats currently have a pretty slim majority and the president’s party usually loses quite a few seats in the midterm elections. So even if we were to declare the GOP dead in 2020, they should be completely revived by 2022,” Williamson said.

Who gets to decide who is a conservative?

Durable and stable

Ponnuru, of National Review, notes that disparate factions of the GOP have one thing in common: dislike of the policies of the left.

“The anti-left coalition in American politics is pretty strong and is a potential majority of the country. We have seen that manifest itself in a number of ways, from Bernie Sanders’ drubbing in the primaries to the congressional election results.”

But, he added, “The anti-left majority is split and doesn’t know what it stands for. That is its biggest potential weakness. You can see that Republicans know that from this complicated and ignoble straddle where they don’t say the election was stolen from Trump but they don’t deny it either. They’re trying to hold this coalition together.”

But the Democratic Party has its own internal divisions, as detailed in a New York Magazine article headlined “The 2020 Election Has Brought Progressives to the Point of Catastrophe.”

And despite winning the popular vote in 7 out the past 8 presidential elections, they are frustrated by Republicans’ continued strength. As Nicholas Riccardi wrote for The Associated Press, “Democrats may be winning over more supporters, but as long as those votes are clustered on the coasts or in cities and suburbs, they won’t deliver the congressional victories the party needs to enact its policies.”

Simon Rosenberg, a veteran Democratic strategist, told Riccardi, “What we have to get better at is not just winning more votes, but winning in more parts of each state, and in more states.”

To do that, Democrats would have to make inroads into America’s heartland, the wide red swath of Republicans and moderates who show up on the 2020 electoral maps.

The economic policies of Democrats are popular with these Americans, but Democrats lose them when it comes to cultural issues, like abortion, Cox said. “That’s where Democrats get into trouble,” he said.

For Williamson, the takeaway from the 2020 numbers is that both parties remain strong. “I think this election is notable in how effective the parties are, how stable they are, and how durable they are. Elections will continue to be decided along these partisan lines, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.”

The election also showed that the GOP has a real chance to retain what Cox called “infrequent voters,” such as the Trump voters who have low levels of civic engagement.  And Democrats would be smart to woo those voters, too, he said.

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Finally, Trump did better than many pollsters expected among Latinos and Black Americans. While the data on the GOP’s appeal to these voters is unclear, “At the very least, it is clear that there is potential for the Republican Party here,” Ponnuru said.

The support for Trump among Latinos was especially clear in South Florida, where Biden got a smaller percentage of the vote than Hillary Clinton did when she ran against Trump in 2016. The Wall Street Journal reported that Trump’s support among Latinos climbed from 28% to 32% in four years, which was key to the president winning Florida’s electoral votes.

Given that predictions of the GOP’s demise are often linked to America’s changing demographics, that is another reason for Republicans to cheer.

“The idea that there’s this sort of doom baked into demographics is, I think, mistaken,” Ponnuru said. “There was always reason to doubt that, but it looks particularly dubious now.”

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