Capitol Alert

White racial resentment is a winning Republican strategy, this political scientist says

If the latest back-and-forth between President Donald Trump and the so-called “Squad” — Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley, Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib, Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — tells us anything, it’s that this is just the beginning of a long, nasty 2020 election cycle.

That’s the warning from Carlos Algara, a political scientist from UC Davis.

Algara and fellow UC Davis political scientist Isaac Hale are co-authors of an upcoming report that showcases how Republican candidates like Trump have relied on white racial resentment and outright racism to win elections and mitigate electoral losses in the 2018 midterm elections.

They previously authored a similar report on white racial resentment and the 2016 election. In both studies, Algara and Hale found that racial resentment drove white voters, even those identifying as liberal or Democrat, to vote for Republican candidates.

The effect is most pronounced among lower-educated whites, they found.

Algara said there’s no reason to expect that to change in 2020.

2020 is going to be an absolutely brutal campaign. It’s going to be a racially charged campaign,” he said.

That’s because racial and racist appeals, such as Trump telling U.S. citizens Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, Pressley and Tlaib to “go back” to their home countries, appeals to the conservative base, or at the very least it doesn’t detract.

A Reuters poll released after Trump made those remarks showed his support among Republicans rose 5 percentage points, for an approval of 72 percent.

Even during the 2018 midterms, where Republicans lost the U.S. House in a wave election, racial appeals helped to stem the losses, Algara said.

While Republicans lost districts carried by Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, they were able to hold onto the Senate by winning in conservative-leaning states like Florida, Missouri, North Dakota and Texas.

Algara called it a tradeoff, a calculated risk on Republicans’ part.

“Quite frankly, I think it’s a doubling down strategy. ... This (strategy of racial conservatism) is going to help them in the Senate. We saw that in 2018. The Senate battleground is becoming smaller,” Algara said. “I think Republicans are going hunting where the ducks are.”

The 2018 midterms showed that targeting white racial resentment is not just a winning strategy for presidential politics.

“Activating racial resentment drums up support not only for Trump, but also for Republican candidates down the ticket,” Algara said.

Don’t expect Republicans to avoid racially charged, or racist, statements if a white candidate like former Vice President Joe Biden gets the Democratic presidential nomination, Algara said.

In voters’ minds, Democrats have become the party of racial liberalism, while the GOP is the home of racial conservatism, he said.

That said, Algara said that the comments could be even worse if a person of color, such as California Sen. Kamala Harris gets the nomination.

“It’s a lot easier to make these racially charged statements with Kamala Harris as your nominee,” he said. “I can easily see this message being more effective.”

Algara said there’s a strong incentive for Republicans to either make their own racially charged statements — such as Louisiana Rep. Ralph Abraham tweeting “I’ll pay for their tickets out of this country if they just tell me where they’d rather be” — or to avoid strongly condemning them, as most Republican Congress members did after Trump’s tweet.

“It makes rational sense to do that,” Algara said. I think norms are being broken. You have the President of the United States, a candidate for reelection in 2020, sending explicitly racist appeals. And you have the entire party apparatus behind him refusing to condemn it.”

As America becomes less white, how long can such a strategy remain viable?

“That’s the million dollar question,” Algara said.

He said this is a subject that needs more study, but that he doesn’t expect this strategy to go away any time soon.

“There’s a strategic, rational incentive for Republicans, Trump and down the ticket, to do these things,” Algara said. “Voters should be prepared for more of the same coming from Republicans.”

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Andrew Sheeler covers California’s unique political climate for McClatchy. He has covered crime and politics from Interior Alaska to North Dakota’s oil patch to the rugged coast of southern Oregon. He attended the University of Alaska Fairbanks.