The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Americans have no more illusions about the stakes of this election

President Trump speaks during Thursday's coronavirus briefing at the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

One advantage for Democrats of having a virtual convention this year is that they don’t risk a repeat of 2016, when “Bernie or Bust” Sanders supporters did everything in their power to express their disgruntlement that their candidate was not the party’s nominee. It got so bad that, at one point, they booed Bernie Sanders himself when he told them they had to stop Donald Trump.

That will not happen this time around. In fact, now that Democrats have a complete ticket, they’re looking more ready than ever to fill out their ballots. And they’re not alone. On Thursday, the Pew Research Center released new data about the election, including this extraordinary graph:

Thank you, President Trump, for showing Americans the stakes of presidential elections.

If you care enough about politics to be reading this article, you probably thought, “Of course it really matters who wins. Just look around!” But voters, particularly those who don’t pay attention to politics every day, are given all kinds of messages suggesting that the two parties aren’t really all that different. Being an “independent” shows that you think for yourself, “Washington” can’t get anything done, partisan bickering is what holds us back, the solution to complex policy problems can be found in “common sense” — all those commonly expressed ideas communicate that what divides the parties isn’t all that meaningful.

But after 3½ years of Trump, not only are partisan differences more vivid than ever, it’s also impossible to deny that the particular individual occupying the Oval Office can change all of our lives.

Follow Paul Waldman's opinionsFollow

One of the consequences is an extraordinary level of Democratic unity. It’s not that people on the left don’t have plenty of worries and complaints about Joe Biden (and Kamala D. Harris, too). Some are concerned about who Biden would appoint to run economic policy, or whether he’s serious about criminal justice reform. There are legitimate criticisms about the lineup for the Democratic convention, including the fact that there are only a few Latino speakers (and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) reportedly will speak for only one minute). There are people who would have preferred someone else to be Biden’s running mate.

But what you don’t hear is almost anyone saying “ … and that’s why I’ll never vote for this ticket.” When Noam Chomsky and Angela Davis are telling people how important it is to vote for the Democratic nominee, you know you’re in an unusual year.

In 2016, Green Party nominee Jill Stein got 1.4 million votes and a good deal of media attention. Chances are you don’t even know the name of the Green Party’s nominee this year (it’s Howie Hawkins), and it would be a shock if he got that much support.

The Biden campaign has clearly decided that instead of deciding between a persuasion strategy (to win over people in the middle) and a mobilization strategy (to get people already inclined to vote Democratic to the polls), they’ll attempt both. Trump, on the other hand, has focused solely on mobilization, to the point where he seems to be executing an anti-persuasion strategy meant to push away as many voters as possible.

In an election in which turnout will be extraordinarily high, that could be a spectacular miscalculation.

If you watch Trump’s tweets and ads and everything else his campaign is doing, you’d think that the biggest danger to his reelection hopes is the possibility that his most passionate supporters — the ones who watch Fox News, hate immigrants and think the “radical left” is destroying America — might grow bored or disaffected and not turn out.

The truth, however, is that Trump should be far more worried about the Republicans who have not been cheering him unreservedly for the past 3½ years. In 2016, they may have been less than enthusiastic about Trump, but they stuck with him in the end; according to exit polls, he got about the same level of support from Republican voters as Mitt Romney or John McCain had.

Party loyalty is a powerful force, and combined with widespread Republican loathing of Hillary Clinton, it led millions of Republicans who had reservations about Trump to vote for him anyway.

Four years later, their loyalty is less certain. Everything that might have given them pause back then has turned out to be even worse than anyone imagined. And yet instead of trying to keep them in the Republican fold, Trump is spending his time calling in to Fox News for interviews, spreading a new iteration of the racist “birther” theory (this time about Harris), and telling “suburban housewives” that he’ll protect them from the threat of the 1968 Fair Housing Act.

And, of course, Trump is taking voter suppression to new heights, trying to undermine the U.S. Postal Service so it won’t be able to handle an increase in voting by mail. That at least shows he understands how motivated Democrats are to vote against him; rather than try to win any of them over, he’s trying to keep their ballots from being counted.

It’s striking to look back today and see that 20 years ago, only half of Americans thought it really mattered whether George W. Bush or Al Gore became president. Thankfully, few of us are so deluded now. Over the next 80 days, Trump will no doubt make it even more clear what the consequences of his reelection would be — and not in a good way. He can’t help himself, and that may be his undoing.

Watch Opinions videos:

Historian Carol Anderson traces the evolution of voter suppression tactics — from poll taxes to poll closures — and argues they are all rooted in White rage. (Video: The Washington Post)

Read more:

Colbert I. King: The change we really need will happen at the ballot box

The Post’s View: Trump’s campaign to discredit the election is deeply dishonest and dangerous

Paul Waldman: Trump’s attack on the Postal Service is now a national emergency

Henry Olsen: Trump’s suggestion to delay the election is the most anti-democratic thing any president ever said

The Post’s View: President Trump wants to undermine the election. Here’s one way to stop him.