In recent months, Ron DeSantis has emerged as a legitimate presidential contender. At the same time, there’s been a rise in pundits questioning whether he would be a strong candidate. In particular, there’s a group of pundits, led by Matt Yglesias and David Shor, who claim that DeSantis (and other Trump challengers) is a weaker candidate than observers think. The argument goes something like this:
- Before Trump, the GOP largely believed in cutting spending on Social Security and Medicare (known as entitlements).
- This dragged the party down electorally because entitlements are extremely popular with voters.
- Trump moderated the GOP position on entitlements by promising to never cut them.
- This moderation was a major electoral strength for Trump, and it, rather than his views on immigration and culture, was the primary thing that allowed him to bring millions of new voters into the GOP coalition.
- Ron DeSantis retains the old GOP position on entitlements, making him electorally vulnerable, potentially even more so than Trump.
But this thesis falls short. It’s correct that ten years ago, the GOP position on entitlements hurt the party. And it’s correct in observing that Trump has, on paper, moderated from that old GOP position. But it’s incorrect that this moderation was the “real” thing driving Trump’s rise in popularity. And it’s incorrect that a GOP candidate who has different positions would be vulnerable electorally because of it.
Trump didn’t convert voters with his entitlement positions
The first flaw in this argument is that it’s not clear Trump’s entitlement positions moved voters in 2016. The theory states that primarily, his positions attracted largely rural, culturally conservative, working-class voters. Those who wouldn’t back the old GOP because of its stance on entitlements.
First and foremost, the evidence suggests that these voters were trending towards the GOP long before Trump. Between 1996 and 2000, for example, much of rural America trended strongly towards George Bush. This included many areas where pundits saw Trump as uniquely strong, such as Appalachia and the upper Midwest. Between 2000 and 2004, the trend held. President Bush improved in many of the same places where Trump would shock the media with his electoral strength.
And it was not as if Bush was seen as a moderate on entitlements. In 2000, the Gore campaign attacked Bush, alleging that his entitlement reform plan would bankrupt Social Security and cut benefits to current retirees. Bush, for his part, did not rule out benefit cuts. In 2004, the situation was even more obvious, as Bush ramped up his campaign for outright privatization of Social Security. The New York Times reported that “at almost every campaign stop” the President reiterated his promise to reform the program and let younger workers divert Social Security taxes into private savings accounts. Democrats didn’t mince words – they called it a plan to destroy entitlements as Americans knew them.
However, the trend of working class and rural voters to the GOP continued apace, despite these “toxic” positions. By 2004, liberals already stereotyped GOP voters as overly-religious and uneducated — not ultra-wealthy robber barons. Famous cartoons from the time labeled blue states as “The United States of Canada”, and derisively labeled red states as “Jesusland”. Further, a longer time scale shows that working-class shifts to the GOP had been underway for a long time. For example, between 1976 and 2004, rural America got much, much redder, despite the GOP not moderating on entitlements. In fact, it was during this time that many Democrats began to ask questions like “What’s the Matter with Kansas?“. In other words, twelve years before Trump, liberals despaired that the GOP was winning the votes of working-class, culturally conservative White voters.
The Obama years
Further, Obama’s elections, do not show that the GOP’s traditional position on entitlements hampered it. Yes, Obama attacked McCain and Romney on entitlements — but Gore and Kerry did the exact same thing to Bush. Further, between 2008 and 2012 Obama lost ground in the same areas where Clinton completely collapsed four years later. What buoyed his strong showing in those areas was the fact that his 2008 performance was so much better than John Kerry. But in the big picture, the 2008 election (and Obama in general) looks like an outlier from long term trends.
And there’s no evidence that Obama’s 2008 performance was thanks to the GOP’s position on entitlements. McCain largely echoed Bush’s platform, and in some cases was accused of abandoning Bush’s fight to privatize Social Security.
How did Trump actually win?
A more plausible explanation is that Trump converted working-class Obama voters because he fully embraced cultural conservatism. His early rise in the polls supports this idea. In his first few campaign stops in the summer of 2015, he did not focus on entitlements. Instead, he made shocking, headline-grabbing statements about immigrants, Hillary Clinton, and various cultural issues. Throughout this time, Trump rose in primary and general election polls.
It is true that at this time, GOP voters who viewed Social Security as a “very important” issue were more likely to support Trump than those who did not. But a GOP voter’s view on immigration was an even better predictor of whether they expressed support for Trump early in his primary campaign.
Further, even it’s not clear that this relationship between progressive economic views and support for Trump was causal. Throughout the GOP primary, it’s true that voters with progressive views on entitlements were more likely to support Trump. And, as David Shor points out, it’s also true that Trump far exceeded Romney’s general election performance among voters with both liberal economic and conservative social views.
But in both cases, these views are likely a proxy for other demographic factors. Economic progressives who either vote in GOP primaries or otherwise hold conservative social views are much more likely to be working-class white voters who lack a four year college degree. It’s possible that these factors, race, wealth, and education, were the real driving force behind Trump’s unique coalition. The views of those voters are just a proxy for the real cause of Trump’s support — demographics.
Elections outside the U.S. lend further support to this idea. Trump’s gains with working-class voters mirrored a consistent world-wide trend of increasing support for right-wing parties among these groups. A few months before Trump, the Brexit movement captured a stunning victory on the backs of massive margins in rural and working class areas in Britain. It emphasized many themes present in Trump’s campaign: more enforcement of immigration laws, freeing Britain from the control of detached elites in Brussels, and reclaiming a sense of British identity. Similar patterns showed up across Europe. Marine Le Pen, Andrzej Duda, and Giorgia Meloni all led populist parties that have broken through or at least improved in more working-class, rural, often left-leaning areas.
While many of these politicians emphasized their commitment to strong social safety nets, focusing on these policies misses the point. Across the world, right-wing populists like Trump made headlines for their rhetoric on culture, immigration, and institutions. Their rise in the polls corresponded with controversial soundbites, not support for social spending. Media coverage of them also focuses on these controversies. Their economic policies tend to be an afterthought in the minds of the media and voters. To believe that these policies are the “real” driver of their popularity is to assume that a very small tail is wagging a very large dog.
Trump-aligned Republicans did worse than traditional fiscal conservatives
Even if Trump really did gain support in 2016 because of his economic policies, there’s no evidence that for someone like Ron DeSantis, his position on entitlements presents a real political weakness. The 2022 midterms showed voters do not view traditional fiscal conservatives as “extreme” or unpalatable. While some observers have tried to claim that Trump is really a moderate, voters don’t see it that way. It was not deficit or spending hawks who turned in the most disappointing results. Instead, it was the candidates who tied themselves to Trump.
Across the board in high profile races, Republicans associated to Trump underperformed badly, even in working-class areas. J.D. Vance ran behind establishment conservative governor Mike DeWine by 19%, an almost unheard of gap in modern elections. Herschel Walker ran behind Brian Kemp by nearly 12%, a shocking gap in one of America’s most polarized states. Doug Mastriano hitched his wagon almost entirely to Donald Trump, then watched that wagon crash into a ditch – he lost by 18% in a swing state. Political newcomer Blake Masters won the GOP nomination for Senate in Arizona thanks in no small part to Trump’s endorsement. He ran 16% behind fiscal conservative Kimberly Yee, an establishment Republican who cut her teeth working for Arnold Schwarzenegger.
A recent Stanford study backed this up. It found that the average election-denying candidate did 5% worse overall than the average GOP candidate who did not deny the results of the 2020 election.
More damning is that candidates did no better even when they adopted Trump’s “masterful” economic policies wholeheartedly. Yes, candidates like Masters and Walker did not loudly come out in favor of entitlements. Their positions looked more like the traditional GOP than Trump. Yet their co-partisans who took the alternate approach fared no better. In July, Vance said that cuts or changes to entitlements were a “bad idea.” Dr. Oz, running in Pennsylvania, who, like Trump, had no political paper trail to speak of, loudly denounced any attempts to cut entitlements. He suffered an embarrassing 5% loss.
In fact, it’s almost impossible to find any Republican, anywhere in the country who:
- Was not closely associated with Trump
- Dad strong conservative views on economics
- Severely underperformed.
In fact, the first two criteria neatly describe some of the best performing Republicans of 2022.
Democrats can’t easily win over voters by talking entitlements
One possible reason for this is that the type of voters Trump supposedly wooed with his economic views are mostly solid Republicans now. In recent elections, many rural areas where Trump improved have remained solidly Republican, even for candidates who favor outright ending entitlements. The fact that Trump’s performance in rural America has been replicated by by a wide array of Republicans up and down the ballot undercuts idea that Trump’s views confer some kind of unique appeal.
This is backed up by studies looking at these voters’ preferences. As Lynn Vavreck and John Sides explained, these swing voters, even if they did exist at one time, simply don’t prioritize entitlement issues anymore. For example, in Vavreck’s research, Republicans with more progressive views on entitlements were the one’s fueling Trump’s 2016 primary campaign. But those same voters, according to research done by Slides, now strongly prioritize “culture war” issues, like abortion, when deciding between hypothetical candidates.
And that, at the core, is why pundits like Yglesias and Shor miss the mark. Even if Trump’s 2016 position on entitlements did win over lots of new voters, those voters don’t seem to care about entitlements anymore. And they certainly don’t seem to care enough to let it determine their vote. So, a Republican nominee with different views from Trump can be fairly confident these voters will stick with the party. The universe of swing voters in 2023 is fundamentally different than it was in 2016. Entitlements are just not the hot-button issue on the minds of most American voters.
A Biden-DeSantis race won’t be about entitlements
Nor can Biden overcome this by simply emphasizing entitlements. Even if Biden spent every campaign stop talking about Ron DeSantis’s position on Medicare, Ron DeSantis isn’t locked in a basement. He’ll be at his own campaign stops, trying to refocus the campaign on issues where Biden might be weak. And that doesn’t even account for the thousands of TV and radio stations, newspapers, magazines, and podcasts talking about the election. What will they latch on to the campaign’s central issues? Biden alone cannot determine the answer.
As much as politicians try to set the agenda, they are often captives to diffuse, hard to control forces that make the electorate prioritize certain issues. The right candidate can make a difference, but often, a party’s nominee is playing with a hand they’ve been dealt, not dealing the cards themselves.
In fact, emphasizing entitlements in this situation could actually hurt Biden, even if DeSantis’s views are unpopular. In a normal campaign, Biden would focus on high-salience issues where DeSantis polls poorly. The process is one-step: hit DeSantis on those issues. When he talks about entitlements, he has to first make them salient when they are not already, then he has to win the debate on them. It’s a risky two-step process. And one that comes with a high opportunity cost. Every time he does it, he gives up an easier line of attack.
There might have been a time when American voters really did judge a candidate’s extremism on their economic views. But that does not appear to be the case anymore. Voters today appear to care about a candidate’s procedural radicalism rather than their economic views. Do they promote conspiracies? Come off as too “online”? Deny election results? Even if Trump did attract large numbers of swing voters in 2016 because he moderated on economics, those are not the swing voters of 2024. DeSantis’s position on entitlements is not a real weakness that Democrats can exploit in order to paint him as an extremist.