One of the big takeaways from the past couple of elections is that the nation’s political elite has no understanding of the nation it claims to serve. This is most clearly seen in official Washington’s failure to grasp why, in two consecutive elections, roughly half the nation voted for Donald Trump.
Many in the political world seem to view Trump voters as a unique species separate from other Americans. A Los Angeles Times column captured this view with the headline “What Can You Do About the Trumpites next door?” The column suggests that Trump voters are roughly equivalent to Nazi collaborators during World War II.
However, despite the characterization of Trump voters as a monolithic and dangerous breed, a survey of 1,000 Trump voters found that “Trump’s coalition is ideologically and demographically diverse.” Washington Post columnist Henry Olsen reviewed the survey data and appropriately concluded that “there is no singular ‘Trump voter.’” But the comments following the column make it clear that many readers disagree.
The problem is that many people look at the act of voting for the former president as embracing everything about him without reservation. That’s as absurd as assuming that those who voted for President Joe Biden embrace him without reservation.
A better understanding of what’s going on can be learned from the Super Bowl. In this year’s matchup between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Kansas City Chiefs, a small portion of football fans intensely rooted for one side or the other. I am certain that one group of these fans will be on a high this week while the other will be pretty depressed.
Most fans who watched the game, however, didn’t feel any emotional stake in the outcome. Their week will go on without any lingering emotional hangover regardless of who wins. Sure, they rooted for the Bucs or the Chiefs on Sunday but didn’t really care. Why? Because most of them began the year rooting for one of the 30 other teams in the NFL.
On Super Sunday, these fans had a choice to make between two imperfect options. Often the decision making would seem confounding or trivial to hard core fans. The Chiefs were the AFL team of my youth for a bunch of reasons that are no longer relevant. But, since I didn’t really care, that flicker of long-ago loyalty was enough for me to cheer them on. My wife was rooting for the Bucs because we now live in the area, but her commitment was as shallow as mine. The bigger question in our household was whether or not we’d watch the whole game.
The easy and obvious comparison is that, on Election Day, most voters cannot vote for their preferred candidate because he or she is not on the ballot. In 2020, President Biden won more than 80 million votes. However, only a small portion of those voters had been rooting for Biden at the beginning of the year. Most wanted either Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren or Pete Buttigieg or someone else.
The same thing happened in 2016. Most people who voted for President Trump began the year supporting some other Republican candidate. But when their favorite candidate was not on the ballot, they were forced to choose between two imperfect options.
Faced with the reality before them, the commitment of some to vote for a particular candidate was not much deeper than my decision to root for the Chiefs this year. Others, while disappointed their preferred candidate didn’t make it to the finals, had an easy time deciding who was the lesser of two evils.
Unfortunately, political activists recognize this reality for people on their team, but not the other. Democratic activists can easily understand while someone might vote for Joe Biden despite having reservations about him. But they then act as if all Trump voters have no reservations about their candidate. The reverse is also true.
The problem with this approach is that it shuts down constructive dialogue. We need to move beyond the unhealthy belief that voting for someone means you are a reflection of that candidate. Instead, just like picking a team to root for in the Super Bowl, voting for a candidate reflects a temporary decision based upon the available options. We should focus more attention trying to understand what voters want to accomplish rather than how they decided to vote for a particular candidate.
Scott Rasmussen is an American political analyst and digital media entrepreneur. He is the author of “The Sun is Still Rising: Politics Has Failed But America Will Not.”