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Keeping It Real
Voters will respond to actual dangers ... less so to ones they can't define.
I’m Michael A. Cohen, and this is Truth and Consequences: A no-holds-barred look at the absurdities, hypocrisies, and surreality. If you were sent this email or are a free subscriber and would like to become a paid subscriber, you can sign up here.
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The People Get It (Ish)
Earlier this week, I wrote a piece arguing that voters largely appreciate the threat to democracy represented by Republican election deniers … and quite helpfully, voters in Warren County, Iowa, had my back.
Voters in a small pro-Trump county in Iowa have voted out an election auditor who repeatedly shared conspiracy theories, including about QAnon and the 2020 election. Then they replaced him with a Democrat.
Warren County voted 57.3 percent for Donald Trump in 2020, slightly higher than the overall state outcome. The county’s all-Republican board of supervisors appointed David Whipple as county auditor in June. Iowa’s county auditors oversee elections.
… In the two weeks following Whipple’s appointment, county Democrats petitioned to force a special election. They gathered 3,400 signatures, about 1,000 more than they needed. Democratic deputy auditor Kimberly Sheets announced she would run against Whipple—so he placed her on leave.
Sheets handily defeated Whipple on Tuesday, winning 66.5 percent of the vote. Whipple walked away with just 33.4 percent.
This has become a recurrent theme in races for election administration positions. In 2022, GOP secretaries of state candidates who embraced Donald Trump’s Big Lie — and ran in swing states — were soundly defeated. Election deniers, in general, fared poorly outside of red-state America — and even there, didn’t necessarily do that well. Since 2022, this trend has continued. What makes the results in Iowa particularly heartening is that Warren County is a strongly pro-Trump district. Yet, by a nearly two-to-one margin, voters sent their election-denying auditor packing.
There are a couple of interesting takeaways from this result. The first is that when an election denier is on the ballot, the electorate generally says “no thanks” and even crosses party lines to vote against them. Contrary to the arguments made by press critics, who claim the media is dropping the ball on telling viewers about the threats to American democracy, it seems that voters are hardly oblivious.
Second, and paradoxically, Republican voters are still willing to back the chief election denier, Trump. I have little doubt that Trump will win handily in Iowa and Warren County if he’s the GOP nominee in 2024. That suggests that support for the former president is not necessarily weakened by his continued election lies — and that other issues, like partisanship and tribalism, are keeping these voters in his corner. So, no matter how much press coverage Trump’s authoritarian impulses receive, it may not cost him the votes of Republicans.
This odd phenomenon gets to something that Jesse Singal wrote this week, who also critiqued Will Bunch’s cri de couer on horse race journalism.
A lot of pundits, myself included, have trouble understanding that the things we value don’t matter to most voters. We can debunk all we want, and point out dog whistles all we want, but vast swaths of Americans don’t vote based on who is most accurate or least dog-whistley or most likely to uphold democratic norms. As Bunch himself understands, it’s much more gut than that. How to cover and analyze the profound power (and danger) of voters’ gut connection to a deeply erratic, authoritarian-minded demagogue is surely a challenge for journalists, and a complex and evolving one, but I promise you the answer isn’t simply to quintuple down on various iterations of Orange Man Bad.
In other words, the same voters who look at an election-denying secretary of state or auditor candidate, whose job it is to oversee elections, and reject their bid for public office … can look at Trump and compartmentalize his election lies because there are other things about him that they like. Their gut says, “I don’t want this guy who says Trump won to administer elections,” … but their gut also says, “I’m okay with Trump going back to the White House.” Does that make sense? Not really, but welcome to the fun-filled world of trying to understand what voters do and think. Voter decision-making is neither overly logical nor linear.
But I suspect there’s something else going on here, too. Even for voters primed to reject Trump, the notion that he is a fascist or authoritarian is a line of argument that may not resonate. You can put all the authoritarian experts on television and tell them that Donald Trump will take away their freedom. Still, it doesn’t mean that voters will necessarily appreciate the threat and vote accordingly.
Democratic candidates spent years warning about the danger to abortion rights if Republicans won the White House or took control of the Senate. Yet Democratic voters simply failed to take the issue seriously. Aside from Hillary Clinton in 2016, perhaps the best example is former Colorado Senator Mark Udall, who spent so much time talking about abortion during his 2014 reelection campaign that he was dubbed “Mark Uterus.” However, the focus on women’s issues didn’t save Udall in his reelection campaign against Republican Cory Gardner, who voted to confirm all three of Donald Trump’s nominees to the Supreme Court … which led to the scrapping of Roe v. Wade.
Yet today, in blue and purple states, abortion is perhaps the biggest motivator for Democratic voters (and an anti-abortion Republican could probably never get elected statewide in Colorado). This isn’t a criticism but rather a recognition that voters will not necessarily respond to esoteric or far-off threats — and for most Americans, the threat of fascism or authoritarianism is not one they may easily grok. Indeed, I’m not even sure most Americans could coherently describe what the danger from a fascist or authoritarian leader actually looks like. The threat to reproductive rights after the overturning of Roe is something else altogether — and feels a heckuva lot more concerning than it did in 2014.
The obvious rejoinder to this argument is: What about January 6? Didn’t we see an attempted coup that day? We did, but that coup effort failed. Joe Biden was inaugurated as president two weeks later. Thousands of people have been charged, prosecuted, or jailed for their actions on that day (including Donald Trump). In 2022, we had a normal midterm election in which practically every Republican loser acknowledged and accepted their defeat. That doesn’t mean the threat of Trump winning in 2024 isn’t concerning, but if you’re an American who only glancingly follows political news, it’s quite possible, even likely, that it doesn’t seem very real — or that other issues may loom larger.
I realize it might sound like I’m making a narrow, even contradictory argument, but it sort of comes down to human psychology. Voters are simply more primed to respond to dangers that are imminent or that they can easily understand. It’s why the Bush administration used the image of mushroom clouds over American cities to build support for the invasion of Iraq. What could be more real or terrifying than a nuclear bomb?
An election-denying administrator of elections will strike many Americans as a legitimate danger that requires putting partisan politics aside … fascism in America, perhaps a bit less.
What’s Going On
Mitch McConnell needs someone in his life to tell him that he needs to quit his job as a US Senator.
Go watch “Telemarketers” on HBO. It’s fantastic.
I love this piece on volunteer moms poring over centuries-old documents and finding many examples of strict gun control laws.
If you’re looking for a story today about Donald Trump being nuts … this one should do the trick.