Ron DeSantis and the ‘Scaffle’ Vote

If Ronald Reagan were to come back to life, he would likely be confused by the leftist tone that the early 2024 Republican presidential campaign sometimes took.

After Ron DeSantis announced he was holding a fundraiser last night at the Four Seasons hotel, an official close to Donald Trump mocked the event as “super elite” and “out of reach”. Trump also criticized DeSantis for supporting previous Republican bills in Congress to shrink the government, in part cutting Medicare and Social Security.

DeSantis, in turn, spoke out in favor of government action to reduce health plan prices. He criticized the Biden administration for blocking cheaper prescription drugs from Canada — a country that used to be a symbol of big government inefficiency among Republicans. This month, DeSantis, the governor of Florida, signed a bill that tries to lower drug costs by cracking down on companies known as pharmaceutical benefit administrators.

What is happening?

Trump’s defeat of the Republican establishment in 2016 and his continued popularity among party voters exposed a weakness in the laissez-faire economic approach known as Reaganism. That is to say, it is not especially popular with most voters, including many Republicans.

With DeSantis announcing his candidacy last night, I want to use today’s newsletter to highlight arguably the most important fact about US politics: Americans tend to be more progressive on economic issues than they are on social issues. If you remember this, you can better understand the 2024 campaign.

This explains why DeSantis and Trump are competing with each other to sound populist, even if that means favoring government regulations and benefits. That explains why Trump’s criticisms of free trade resonated with voters — and why President Biden has promoted his own “buy America” ​​economic policies, breaking with centrist Democrats. It also explains why today’s Republicans campaign on social issues like immigration, crime, gender, and religion; most Americans are more conservative on these issues than the Democratic Party.

True, there is a subset of voters, many of them wealthy, who like to describe themselves as “socially liberal and fiscally conservative.” If you are reading this newsletter, you probably know some people in this category. However, it is the least common combination in American politics. Instead, the typical swing voter is “socially conservative and fiscally liberal”.

The 2024 presidential election is likely to be, at least in part, a battle for this voter.

This chart – originally created by political scientist Lee Drutman using a large survey conducted after the 2016 election – remains the best visualization of the situation:

It places respondents, each represented by a dot, on two scales. One scale is based on economic issues like trade, taxes, and safety net programs, while the other is based on social issues like abortion, immigration, race, and pride in the United States. Economic progressives appear on the left side of the graph and economic conservatives on the right. Social conservatives appear in the top half and social progressives in the bottom half. The dots are colored based on the 2016 vote, whether for Trump, Hillary Clinton or a candidate from another party.

Not surprisingly, people who are liberal on both types of issues (the lower left quadrant) overwhelmingly voted Democrat, and consistent conservatives (the upper right quadrant) were solid Trump voters. The socially liberal and fiscally conservative quadrant is practically empty. And the opposite quadrant is the battleground of American politics.

These socially conservative and fiscally liberal voters — you might call them Scaffles, for their acronym — voted for progressive economic policies when they appeared as ballot drives, even in red states. Arkansas, Florida, Missouri and Nebraska, for example, passed minimum wage increases. Idaho, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Utah have expanded Medicaid through Obamacare. Republicans without a college degree are often the ones who break with their party in these ballot drives.

At the same time, the Scaffles are the reason why a Times poll last year showed that a majority of voters, including many Latinos, prefer the Republican Party’s position on illegal immigration to that of the Democratic Party. Or consider a recent KFF/Washington Post poll on transgender issues, in which a majority of Americans said they oppose puberty-blocking treatments for children.

Yes, public opinion is nuanced. A majority of Americans also support laws that prohibit discrimination against transgender people, the KFF poll showed. Sometimes parties can also go overboard. When Democrats speak positively about socialism, they alienate undecided voters. On abortion, Republicans have moved so far to the right — passing near-total bans — that the issue has become a drag on the party.

But don’t confuse the nuances and exceptions with the big picture. DeSantis and Trump both understand that the old Republican approach to economic policy is a vulnerability, which is why they often sound populist. And when they emphasize cultural conservatism, they are not just catering to their base. They also often attract undecided voters.

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