Never have I seen a winning party — let alone one that just notched a historic presidential victory — afflicted with so much self-doubt. But then, we have to remember that Democrats are held to a different standard than Republicans. Sure, Democrats have troubles in rural areas, face a Senate and electoral college disadvantage (given the disproportionate weight afforded to thinly populated, mostly White red states) and wildly missed the mark on down-ballot races. But that is nothing compared with Republicans’ travails. (By the way, both parties are flying blind due to unreliable polling.) Here are a few serious issues for Republicans.
First, there are only so many people in rural America, and the number is going down. Pew Research found in 2018: “According to a Pew Research Center analysis of census data, since 2000, U.S. urban and suburban populations have grown at least as much as they did over the prior decade. But the total rural population has grown less than it did in the 1990s. ... As a result, a somewhat smaller share of Americans now live in rural counties (14% vs. 16% in 2000).” As with other shrinking demographic groups on which Republicans are dependent, dominating the rural vote alone won’t be enough to sustain Republicans. For example, people who frequently attend religious services slid from 33% in 2016 to 24%, according to the VoteCast survey; White voters went from 71% to 67% between 2016 and 2020. Dominating groups with a declining share of the population in ways that make you objectionable to everyone else is a losing strategy.
Second, Republicans are out of touch with the country as a whole on policy issues and values. The public is with Democrats, for example, on abortion (by a 51-to-42% margin voters said it should be legal, according to exit polling), climate change (67% say it is a serious problem) and gun safety. A majority also shares Democrats’ sympathy toward the Black Lives Matter movement (57 to 37%) and agrees that race is the most important or an important issue (69 to 28%). There is a reason Republicans are more invested in telling voters that the election was stolen than in producing a health-care plan. So long as Democrats maintain a center-left position (e.g., reform but do not defund the police), they are likely to represent a majority of the country.
Third, Republicans have President Trump. If they dump him, they risk inviting his wrath. If they stick with him, they become loonier and less palatable to those outside their cult, slicing off necessary components of their coalition (as we saw with women and suburbanites). Democrats fear that Republicans will come up with a new — and saner — Trump. But if Trump maintains his online presence and creates his own conclave within right-wing media, Republicans will be further divided between the MAGA crowd (Own the libs! Hoax!) and traditional Republicans (Less government! More tax cuts!).
Fourth, Democrats value good governance. If they even partially succeed in cleaning up the mess Trump will leave behind, restoring the economy to good health and perhaps tackling even a few of the nation’s problems (infrastructure, prescription drug prices, economic development for rural America), they might remind voters that they are the party of stability and competence. Republicans’ antagonism toward government, by contrast, has little sell and makes it all the more difficult to persuade voters to trust them after the years of Trump chaos. Trump could never explain what he would do in a second term, and I am not sure Republican leaders in Congress have anything approaching a coherent agenda either.
Both sides have challenges, but the focus on Democrats’ deficiencies ignores a salient fact: Republicans have few popular ideas, a limited geographic appeal and a narcissist still leading them around by the nose.
Jennifer Rubin writes reported opinion for The Washington Post.