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Trump helped Republicans, but couldn’t save himself

President Donald Trump walks off the stage after speaking during an “Operation Warp Speed Vaccine Summit” on the White House complex, Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020, in Washington.
Evan Vucci, Associated Press

Important traditions are observed in December by millions of Americans. For the truly strange (aka us political hacks) it is a tradition for experts and pundits to analyze elections now that more of the data is in and the dust has settled. Books are already being written about what happened in November 2020. So, we feel duty-bound to offer our perspectives.

Serious publications are attempting to explain why President-elect Joseph Biden performed so well but Democrats were otherwise disappointed in national and state races. Some suggest a shift in demographics benefiting Republicans. Congressman Ben McAdams is warning Democrats against a leftward shift, suggesting this as a cause for his defeat. What trends seem real and what does this hold for Utah?

Pignanelli: “It is counterintuitive, but one way to think about the mixed results of the 2020 election is Trump may have lost, but Trumpism won.” — Matt Sandgren, Hatch Foundation

Explaining the mysteries of how Santa Claus performs his famous duties is an easier task than rationalizing voters’ intentions this year. Fortunately, political elves are helping.

The perfect poll of voters’ preferences is actual election results. The 2020 historical turnout demonstrated the referendum on President Donald Trump was not indicative of support for leftist policies. Biden won many districts lost by down-ballot Democrats.

Deseret News editorial intern Brian Ericson was among the first in the country to discern most of the 10 Democratic U.S. House seats flipped were by a Republican “woman and/or person of color.” This unexpected and significant development will impact campaign tactics for generations. Furthermore, these aspiring conservative politicians are hankering to publicly confront the “The Squad” (the famous club of liberal congressional females headed by the media-savvy Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez). The 2021 session of Congress promises entertainment.

The election also emphasized the seemingly irrevocable trend of working-class families shifting long-term loyalty from Democrat to Republican because of the attention fostered upon them, and their specific concerns, by Trump.

These observations suggest future obstacles for Utah Democrats and potential internal struggles within the Utah GOP. Hopefully, Santa delivers crystal balls to help.

Webb: First, the 2020 election confirms that America is a center-right nation and most voters don’t want a shift to the left. Second, the presidential election was all about Trump and his incredible power to get people to vote — both for him and against him. It was a rejection of Trump personally, but not so much his policies or the generally conservative direction he was taking the country.

Third, Trump couldn’t save himself, but he saved a lot of Republican seats. The enormous Republican and conservative turnout he provoked knocked a lot of Democrats (among them McAdams) out of office. While many moderate and mainstream Republicans couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Trump because of his personality and character flaws, they did vote for other Republicans lower on the ballot.

While Trump was good for Republicans in the 2020 election, he could hurt the party’s candidates in 2022 and 2024 if he demands total loyalty and turns against Republicans who aren’t among his zealous supporters.

If Trump so chooses, he will loom large in Republican politics at least through 2024 and he may well split the party and give Democrats an advantage. Trump is a once-in-a-century political disruptor, the most polarizing politician in our lifetimes.

Are there lessons and warnings for Utah Republicans and Democrats? Will they be heeded?

Pignanelli: Local Democrats’ ability to protect legislative incumbents — while coming close in several other races — indicates demographic and policy shifts among voters. This is especially evident along the east bench of Salt Lake County. Smart Republicans will increase embracing issues once the province of Democrats, including clean air, health care, growth concerns, etc.

The GOP stranglehold on federal and statewide offices continues until Democrats implement major distance from the national party. Key populist elements of Trumpism (restoring manufacturing, fair trade, constraining China, etc.) are accessible to both parties and could be valuable tools in future campaigns.

Webb: A key lesson for Utah Republicans is that for 2022 and possibly 2024, Trump will still be a factor and they must walk the tight rope of mainstream governance while not offending the Trump base, which remains a significant voting bloc.

Political turmoil is high. Is there an opportunity for a third party?

Pignanelli: Most politicos laugh at such questions. This dismissiveness is employed because an alternative party replacing a faltering faction only occurs in times of intense partisanship, changing demographics and economic volatility … hmmm.

Webb: In the post-Trump era, a centrist third party like the United Utah Party will be irrelevant because Trump will be gone. However, it’s possible the Trump base could split off and try to form a party. It won’t win elections, but could be a spoiler. Activists will have more influence within one of the national parties.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Email: lwebb@exoro.com. Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser who served as a Democrat in the Utah state Legislature. Email: frankp@xmission.com.