If Ronald Reagan were to come back to life, he would probably be confused by the leftist tone that the early 2024 Republican presidential campaign has sometimes taken.
After Ron DeSantis announced he was holding a fund-raiser last night at the Four Seasons hotel, an official close to Donald Trump mocked the event as “uber elite” and “out of touch.” Trump has also criticized DeSantis for supporting past Republican bills in Congress to shrink government partly by cutting Medicare and Social Security.
DeSantis, for his part, has come out in favor of government action to reduce health care prices. He criticized the Biden administration for blocking cheaper prescription drugs from Canada — a country that used to be a symbol of big-government inefficiency among Republicans. This month, DeSantis, Florida’s governor, signed a bill that tries to lower drug costs there by cracking down on companies known as pharmacy benefit managers.
What’s going on?
Trump’s trouncing of the Republican establishment in 2016, and his continued popularity among the party’s voters, has exposed a weakness of the laissez-faire economic approach known as Reaganism. Namely, it isn’t especially popular with most voters, including many Republicans.
With DeSantis announcing his candidacy last night, I want to use today’s newsletter to highlight arguably the most important fact about U.S. politics: Americans tend to be more progressive on economic issues than they are on social issues. If you can remember that, you will be able to make better sense of the 2024 campaign.
It explains why DeSantis and Trump are competing with each other to sound populist, even if it means favoring government regulations and benefits. It explains why Trump’s criticism of free trade resonated with voters — and why President Biden has promoted his own “buy America” economic policies, breaking with centrist Democrats. It also explains why today’s Republicans campaign on social issues like immigration, crime, gender and religion; most Americans are more conservative on these subjects than the Democratic Party is.
It is true that there is a subset of voters, many of them affluent, who like to describe themselves as “socially liberal and fiscally conservative.” If you’re reading this newsletter, you probably know some people in that category. Yet it happens to be the least common combination in American politics. The typical swing voter is instead “socially conservative and fiscally liberal.”
The 2024 presidential election is likely to be, at least in part, a battle for that voter.
Medicaid and border security
This chart — originally created by the political scientist Lee Drutman, using a large poll taken after the 2016 election — remains the best visualization of the situation:
It places respondents, each of whom is represented by a dot, on two scales. One scale is based on economic issues like trade, taxes and safety-net programs, while the other is based on social issues like abortion, immigration, race and pride in the United States. Economic progressives appear on the left side of the chart, and economic conservatives on the right. Social conservatives appear in the top half, and social progressives in the bottom. The dots are colored based on their 2016 vote, be it for Trump, Hillary Clinton or a third-party candidate.
Not surprisingly, people who are liberal on both kinds of issues (the bottom left quadrant) overwhelmingly voted Democratic, and consistent conservatives (the top right quadrant) were solid Trump voters. The socially liberal and fiscally conservative quadrant is mostly empty. And the opposite quadrant is the battleground of American politics.
These socially conservative and fiscally liberal voters — you can call them Scaffles, for their acronym — have voted for progressive economic policies when they appear as ballot initiatives, even in red states. Arkansas, Florida, Missouri and Nebraska, for instance, have passed minimum-wage increases. Idaho, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Utah have expanded Medicaid through Obamacare. Republicans without a college degree are often the ones who break with their party on these ballot initiatives.
At the same time, Scaffles are the reason that a Times poll last year showed that most voters, including many Latinos, prefer the Republican Party’s stance on illegal immigration to the Democratic Party’s. Or consider a recent KFF/Washington Post poll on transgender issues, in which most Americans said they opposed puberty-blocking treatments for children.
Yes, public opinion has nuances. Most Americans also support laws prohibiting discrimination against trans people, the KFF poll showed. Sometimes, the parties can also overreach. When Democrats talk positively about socialism, they alienate swing voters. On abortion, Republicans have gone so far right — passing almost total bans, that the issue has become a drag on the party.
But don’t confuse the nuances and exceptions with the big picture. DeSantis and Trump understand that the old Republican approach to economic policy is a vulnerability, which is why they often sound like populists. And when they emphasize cultural conservatism, they aren’t merely catering to their base. They are often appealing to swing voters, too.
More on DeSantis
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