A political theory that helps explain why not much changed this week

Sen.-elect John Fetterman of Pennsylvania was one of a number of Democrats who exceeded expectations this week. Photo (cc) 2019 by Gov. Tom Wolf.

In light of the Democrats’ unexpectedly strong showing, I want to call your attention to a recent Ezra Klein podcast. Political scientists John Sides and Lynn Vavreck, who surveyed some 500,000 voters for their new book about the 2020 election, “The Bitter End,” with Chris Tausanovitch, makes what I think are three crucial arguments for understanding our political culture at the moment.

  • Swing voters have all but disappeared as traditional issues such as the legacy of the New Deal have shifted to issues of identity — reproductive freedom, LGBTQ rights, racial equity and the like. Voters might change their minds from time to time on, say, taxes, but they’re not going to change their minds on matters of personal autonomy. Nor, in the end, were they especially swayed by inflation. That’s why this week’s predicted red wave is looking more like a red trickle — if that. Sides and Vavreck refer to this as “calcification.”
  • Because the electorate is so closely divided, tiny swings in the election results can result in major changes. For instance, it appears likely that only a few seats will change hands in the House, yet that’s going to result in a Donald Trump-supporting speaker, Kevin McCarthy, and the empowerment of far-right fringe figures like Marjorie Taylor Greene. (But not, perhaps, Lauren Boebert.)
  • Because the party out of power is never any more than a slight shift away from regaining the majority, there is no incentive for either major party to engage in any significant rethinking. Sides and Vavreck point out that the Republicans engaged in quite a bit of self-reflection after Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney for a second term in 2012. But after Trump lost in 2020, self-reflection was replaced with a doubling-down on Trumpism and an insistence that the election had been stolen.

More than any polls, the Sides and Vavreck thesis explains why President Biden’s popularity could be as low as it is (53.5% disapprove/41.4% approve, according to FiveThirtyEight) without it having much effect on House and Senate races. It also explains why the Dobbs decision overturning abortion rights was less potent than Democrats had hoped — voters were already lined up on both sides the blue-red divide. Finally, it explains why the pollsters can be wrong and not wrong at the same time — they’re dealing with differences that are just too small to measure.