Toward the end of his new book, “R.I.P. G.O.P.,” renowned Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg makes a thrilling prediction, delivered with the certainty of prophecy. “The year 2020 will produce a second blue wave on at least the scale of the first in 2018 and finally will crash and shatter the Republican Party that was consumed by the ill-begotten battle to stop the New America from governing,” he writes.
It sounds almost messianic: the Republican Party, that foul agglomeration of bigotry and avarice that has turned American politics into a dystopian farce, not just defeated but destroyed. The inexorable force of demography bringing us a new, enlightened political dispensation. Greenberg foresees “the death of the Republican Party as we’ve known it,” and a Democratic Party “liberated from the nation’s suffocating polarization to use government to advance the public good.” I’d like to believe it, and maybe you would, too. But should we?
This is not the first time that experts have predicted the inevitable triumph of progressive politics. Seventeen years ago, John Judis and Ruy Teixeira published “The Emerging Democratic Majority,” which argued that the country was on the cusp of a liberal political realignment driven by growing diversity, urbanization and gender equality. In sheer numerical terms they were right; between then and now the Republican Party won the presidential popular vote only once, in 2004. But Republicans still have more power than Democrats, and in 2017, Judis disavowed his book’s thesis, arguing that only populist economics could deliver Democratic victories.
As it happens, Greenberg, who became famous as Bill Clinton’s pollster in 1992 and consulted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, told me he used to “shudder” at the “Emerging Democratic Majority” analysis. “I’m used to campaigns in which you impact what’s going to happen,” he said. “The idea that it’s just going to happen because of trends is dangerous. And it was dangerous with Hillary.”
There’s a fascinating tension in “R.I.P. G.O.P.” Greenberg is scathing about the failures of the Hillary Clinton campaign, accusing it of “malpractice.” Yet he believes that at least some of the political assumptions that were mistaken in 2016 will be sound in 2020.
Greenberg suggests that Clinton erred by focusing too much on multiculturalism at the expense of class, and by trying to discredit Donald Trump as a vulgarian rather than a plutocrat. As Clinton wrote in “What Happened,” her post mortem of her shattering loss, Greenberg “thought my campaign was too upbeat on the economy, too liberal on immigration, and not vocal enough about trade.”
Yet going into 2020, Greenberg believes that what he calls the “rising American electorate” — including millennials, people of color and single women — will ensure Democratic victory, almost regardless of whom the party nominates. “We’re dealing with demographic and cultural trends, but we’re also dealing with people that are organizing and talking to one and another and becoming much more conscious of their values,” he said.
In his polling and focus groups, he’s seeing that the reaction to Trump is changing people. “The Trump presidency so invaded the public’s consciousness that it was hard to talk to previously disengaged and unregistered unmarried women, people of color and millennials without them going right to Trump,” he writes. A few months after the election, he realized he could no longer put Clinton and Trump voters in focus groups together because indignant Clinton voters, particularly women, so dominated the conversations. “This turned out to be an unintended test of the strength of their views and resolve to resist,” he wrote.
That resolve to resist has led many voters to define their own beliefs in opposition to Trump’s. On immigration, for example, “every Trump outrage increased the proportion of Americans who said, ‘We are an immigrant country,’” writes Greenberg. Indeed, according to recent Pew data, 62% of Americans say that immigrants strengthen the country, while 28%, a near record low, see them as a burden.
Yet rather than modulating their anti-immigrant politics in response, Republicans have little choice but to double down because so many of their voters are driven by nativism. In this way, Greenberg sees an omen for the Republican Party in California. It’s hard to remember now, but the state was once the heartland of conservatism, nurturing the political careers of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. From 1968 to 1988, it voted Republican in every presidential election, and regularly elected Republican governors.
But in 1994, California Republicans, fearful of changing demography, campaigned for Proposition 187, a ballot initiative meant to make life miserable for immigrants living in the country illegally. It won — though courts blocked its implementation — but it also turned expanding constituencies in California against Republicans. Today the party has been reduced to an irrelevant rump faction in state politics.
The specter of California haunts the modern right; many conservatives see it as a portent of what demographic change will do to Republican power nationally. But California can just as easily be seen as a sign of how a political party can drive itself to ruin by making a cruel, doomed stand against the coming generation. If Greenberg is right, national Republicans, fearful of going the way of those in California, may have ensured precisely that fate.
But is he right? Unlike in California, you can’t win power in the United States just by getting the most votes. Political analyst David Wasserman has argued that Trump could lose the popular vote by as much as 5 million and still prevail in the Electoral College. Greenberg, however, is convinced that the 2018 midterms prove that mass turnout can overcome the Democrats’ structural disadvantages. “Every piece of data I have, the trends have moved to be more Democratic since 2018,” he said.
His confidence will not be enough to lessen the insomnia that has plagued me since the cursed night when Trump was elected. But his book should be a corrective to the media’s overweening focus on the mulish devotion of Trump voters. Trump hatred is a much more potent force in this country than Trump love. There is one way, and one way only, that Trump may surpass Barack Obama. Though Obama was a community organizer, Trump could turn out to be much better at mobilizing progressives.
Michelle Goldberg is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.