«If you want to see the changing face of America, look to the millennials. About 40 percent of millennials are racial minorities, and now 17 percent of their new marriages are interracial. They just take for granted America’s multiculturalism. And they are the reason Republicans will lose the battle over rural and urban America». After spending years conducting some of the most sought-for surveys, focus groups and strategic studies, Stanley Greenberg knows where to look to detect the signs indicating where his country will go next. As dozens of analysts and columnists were already preparing their obituary for American democracy on the eve of what looked most likely to be Donald Trump’s reelection, Greenberg pointed in a different direction.
Based on the outcomes of his own focus groups as well as publicly available demographic and opinion data, in his latest book (RIP GOP, Thomas Dunne Books, 2019) he argued that a younger, diverse, and naturally open-minded America had begun to react to Trump’s assault on plural democracy, was steadily gaining ground and looking for opportunities to make its voice clearly heard. George Floyd’s murder and the wave of anger it fueled towards systemic racism and police violence, is precisely what has given this “New America” that chance. The political balance has already started to shift, and millennials now have a unique chance to determine the outcome of the upcoming presidential election, the world-renowned pollster tells ResetDoc in this interview. If Joe Biden wants to make his way to the White House, the message is, he’d better listen to their demands, as well as the suffering of the working class.
Street riots, police reform bills, monuments overthrown, a “besieged” White House. It looks like, Mr Greenberg, America is now facing some of its decades-long ghosts. Could this be a turning point for the country like others before, such as the killing of Martin Luther King Jr. or the war in Vietnam?
Yes, I think there is such potential; what George Floyd’s murder unleashed is not just a revolt against racial injustice, but against all kinds of inequality. It has made simply impossible not to recognize how much racism has shaped everything, from housing to employment and health. But there’s a broader level of inequality. One should also look at the queues before food banks to grasp the scale of inequality that’s been exacerbated by the Trump administration, and now by the pandemic across all areas. Inequalities which have been fostered also by corporate control of politics. So, it is in fact a transformative moment for the US, but one that comes at the end of a process, which I think most people underestimate. If you looked at the betting odds, even just two weeks ago, it seemed most people thought that president Trump would be reelected. They were still so shocked by his election, and what happened next, they could simply not believe that he would not find a way to win the next one. That was not my view. The country was immediately in revolt against him, and at every point in four years where they’ve had an opportunity, people have expressed their opposition to him. On every issue – race, trade, migration, economics – and across the whole country: from Virginia to New Jersey, from Kentucky to Louisiana; without forgetting the midterm elections, which Democrats won by nine points. The country is in revolt against him. What’s happening with the reaction to the murder in Minneapolis is probably the most extraordinary proof of such trend, and if you look at who’s on the street, you’ll see an incredibly diverse America, hundreds of thousand of people protesting. And about 65% of the country sides with them according to survey data.
Other reports claim however, that “a world away from Washington”, Trump’s electoral base is as strong as ever.
People don’t understand how insecure Donald Trump is. He has built a base within the Republican party on the Tea Party, evangelicals, pro-life observant Catholics. That has grown him a base in the party of about two thirds now from those categories; but he has thus driven out the moderates. We saw the result in Republican towns in Virginia or Michigan: suddenly there was a high turnout in Democratic primaries. Why? Because Trump has pushed Republicans out of their party, and they, to my surprise, began voting very early in Democratic primaries. And many of them are actually thinking of voting for Joe Biden.
How about the “deep America”? Why would it also revolt and abandon Mr. Trump?
The Women’s March, as I claim in my book, was the start of it, and the current anti-racist protests are its continuation. But the real reason behind the revolt is that the elites aren’t able to see working class voters, who are just invisible to them. Before the pandemic, people kept talking about how strong the economy was and how that would lead to Trump’s re-election. You could simply not tell that to any working people: over 60% of the country are people without a four-year college degree, and their wealth went down. They hate what Trump says on the economy, because that’s not what’s happening in rural areas. White working-class voters have pulled back from him. The midterm elections are the clearest example of it. Democrats gained 4 points in the suburbs, and as much as 13 points in the rural areas, with white working-class voters. The elites are looking only at suburban voters, so they miss how much they have failed working people, who are reacting against the governing for corporations and big elites rather than for them. That is the same kind of force which pushed the rebellion against the Democrats, since 2010 with the Tea Party and up to the pro-Trump “revolt” of 2016, so they should better have this point clear.
Then the next, natural question cannot be but: is Joe Biden the right man to tackle to that frustration? Even before the pandemic stopped the process, his nomination didn’t quite seem to emerge out of popular enthusiasm.
These have been very particular primaries, but the reason is closely related to what I just argued. The Democratic primary voters were absolutely determined to defeat Donald Trump. The country was in revolt against him, so they were looking primarily for a vehicle, they leader who they thought could win against Trump. Bernie Sanders had about 25 to 30% support amongst Democrats, but the rest of them thought he was not electable, as Trump would beat him. So, voters stood by, watched the debates and followed the polls, then often in the very last days before the vote made a judgment about who they thought could beat Trump. And as Biden began to recover from a terrible start, winning voters from other candidates such as Warren, on super Tuesday they concluded that he was the strongest candidate. It was a very smart, very focused Democratic electorate, determined to defeat Trump with the most tactical decision. And I would not agree that was not enthusiastic: the primary marked the highest turnout ever.
What should Biden do now to ensure they made the right choice, take advantage of Trump’s current difficulties and beat him in November?
As the pandemic erased the normal primary process, the Democrats have not yet begun their process of uniting around a candidate. And in terms of electoral outreach, Biden still lacks the support of young voters and millennials. In our polling, three weeks ago he still did not have them, he was in fact even losing ground among them just as he made gains among older voters who were turning against Trump on the handling of the pandemic. But the real “nuclear force” which can determine the election now are young people. Because that’s who’s on the street, of course, but also because millennials are now 35% of registered voters in this election. They are overwhelmingly anti-Trump, but they haven’t yet aligned with Biden. He knows that, and has already started to adjust his strategy. If you listen to his discourse now, you’ll notice he has now become more sensitive to racial injustice issues, and more focused on inequality in general. In his economic speeches, he is now focused on corruption: not things he talked about in the primaries. The protests have crystallized people’s and especially youngsters’ resolve to unite and go vote – as Trump has become more and more clearly the centerpiece of the problem – and I think that is going to translate into millennials supporting Biden and Democrats who are the ones bringing change.
If he gets elected, Biden will need to respond to the expectations of many and diverse supporters who are moving towards him, from leftist movements to moderate Republicans running away from Trump. He will need to try and heal the wounds of a country more divided than ever, as you were amongst the first to indicate in The Two Americas (Thomas Dunne Books, 2004). How will he manage?
If Donald Trump suffers a shattering defeat, our politics may well be caught between a downsized Republican party, where pro-life, Tea Party, evangelical blocs and perhaps Trump himself battle to maintain control on the one hand; and Democrats with full political control, with the Congress and the White House, of a country with depressing levels of unemployment and an ongoing pandemic. So that is indeed the key question. What do Democrats want to achieve when they govern? Will they be able to see the suffering of working people? I think they will be forced to battle for them, and they will move in a very progressive direction, as Biden’s shifting discourse may be indicating. Just as it is happening in Europe, we’re moving to a huge role of government to help the country out of a terrible crisis. In this sense, I think this will be a very formative election.
Lastly, how about the international role of the US? Will a President Biden re-engage with its historic allies and international institutions, or will the pandemic-enhanced crisis continue to foster America’s global retreat?
I do think he will run on re-engaging with the world, precisely to deal with the pandemic. He’ll throw off the trade war, and will have to re-engage with the World Health Organization and the global community. Politically, the country’s not looking for closed borders. As polls I am currently conducting show, it is not even anymore for a border wall, or for closing down immigration. I think Biden will very strongly in his campaign and presidency lean into multilateralism, engagement with the world, NATO, Europe, and having a global response to the pandemic. It will even build this as a central reason to vote for him. So I think there will be a very big change in the way America relates to Europe and the rest of the world.
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