What makes the defections from Trump especially noteworthy is that the vast majority of Republican renegades are not only indicating they don’t intend to vote for Trump but are also taking the long next step to avow that they will vote for Biden. That’s unusual.
“It’s extraordinary,” says John J. Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College and a former Republican congressional aide. “Even in 1964 you had some Republicans who didn’t support Barry Goldwater, but not all that many went ‘all the way for LBJ.’ Maybe with the exception of 1972 with Democrats for Nixon, I can’t remember this many prominent figures in a party crossing lines to support the other candidate.”
Generally, campaign professionals and political scientists alike agree that endorsements don’t move many voters, especially in presidential races, where so much other information is available about the candidates. But the few previous comparable examples of partisan crossover all signaled a shift in the political alignment that saw a voting bloc previously connected to one party shear off and drift toward the other.
“I think the biggest value is that it shows it’s OK to vote for Joe Biden for Republicans,” says Wes Gullett, a former Arizona state director for the late Sen. John McCain, who has endorsed Biden. “There are a lot of Republicans sitting there thinking: Is all this stuff true about the Democrats? But now all these Republicans are publicly endorsing Joe Biden. That doesn’t usually happen.”
Who’s endorsing Biden
Mark Salter, for many years McCain’s closest aide as his longtime chief of staff, spoke for the organizers of many of these efforts when he said it was not difficult recruiting former colleagues who, like him, still consider themselves staunch Republicans to sign a statement endorsing Biden.
“They can see Trump for what he is: in way over his head, divisive, angry, self-obsessed, a guy with no self- control and no business running the most powerful country on earth,” Salter told me. “He just doesn’t know what he’s doing. A lot of people on [the McCain] list are foreign policy types. If Trump gets another four years we won’t have any allies. That drove a lot of it. Overall for most people it’s that Trump’s … reason for living is seeing how much he can make division among us and his utter incompetence at containing a pandemic that has now cratered our economy.”
It expects as well to use them in effect as expert witnesses to rebut charges from Trump during the upcoming presidential debates. And the Biden camp plans to highlight his GOP support in targeted digital advertising, mailings and other communication aimed at Republican-leaning voters who have signaled willingness to cross party lines before, one senior campaign adviser said.
“Especially because we are in this weird hybrid virtual campaign world, there’s ample opportunity to use them online, to use them digitally,” said the Biden campaign adviser, who asked for anonymity to discuss internal strategy. “The beauty of a digital campaign, a virtual campaign, is that you can really hyper-target.”
Salter, who wrote many of McCain’s most memorable speeches and co-authored several books with him, says the McCain alumni backing Biden intend to do more than just put their names on a single statement.
“We will do whatever the Biden campaign would like us to do,” he says flatly.
Also on these various lists: three former chiefs of staff to McCain and the top strategists for both of the Republican presidential campaigns that immediately preceded Trump’s: Steve Schmidt and John Weaver for McCain in 2008 and Stuart Stevens for Romney in 2012 are all among the leaders of The Lincoln Project.
“What’s starting to happen is some Republicans are starting to say out loud what all Republicans are saying in private [about Trump],” Stevens told me. “And anything that gives permission to Republicans to support a Democrat is useful.”
Noted 20th-century defections
Very few presidential candidates from either party have faced this level of intra-party defection. In 1980, a number of prominent “neoconservative” Democratic national security hawks abandoned Jimmy Carter for Ronald Reagan; that list was headlined by academic Jeane Kirkpatrick, who later became Reagan’s combative UN ambassador, and longtime arms control expert Paul Nitze.
As historian Rick Perlstein recounts in his vivid new book “Reaganland,” the former California governor also won endorsements from a number of surprising voices, including prominent New York liberal Edward Costikyan, civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy and several labor unions.
The formal “Democrats for Reagan” effort was modest: Headed by former Watergate special prosecutor Leon Jaworski (who faced questions about whether he was a Democrat at all), its activities were so limited that it attracted no coverage in either the New York or Los Angeles Times after its announcement in late September 1980. But Reagan also won support from a network of evangelical Christian ministers across the South, who, though less overtly political, had been pillars of the Democrats’ “solid South” for a full century after the Civil War.
The most successful of these modern efforts was Nixon’s in 1972. Headed by Connally, the Democrats for Nixon effort spent millions of dollars on advertising and drew endorsements from the Democratic mayors of cities such as Boston, Nashville and Miami; a former governor of Florida; the oldest son of Franklin D. Roosevelt; and an assortment of business leaders, sports stars and celebrities (including Frank Sinatra and Charlton Heston) who had previously been associated mostly with Democrats. In Nixon’s biggest coup, the AFL-CIO, ordinarily a backbone of Democratic organizing efforts, remained neutral in his race against McGovern.
One key difference between then and now is that Nixon’s endorsements included several currently serving Democrats, while Biden’s list is composed of former officials and aides. Only a few Republican elected officials (including Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah and Vermont Gov. Phil Scott) have said they are not voting for Trump, and even they have not endorsed Biden.
Flake, in a recent interview on a podcast hosted by Al Hunt and Democratic strategist James Carville, acknowledged that absence reflected Trump’s dominance of the current Republican infrastructure: “There’s just no room right now in the party apparatus for any dissenting voices or anybody to say, ‘Hey, you know, we [are] kind of in a demographic cul-de-sac here that we’re just not going to get out of.’ “
The effect of these endorsements
There’s no consensus on how many voters any of these efforts swayed directly, though the University of Michigan’s American National Election Studies showed that large numbers of self-identified Democrats voted for Nixon in 1972 (41%) and Reagan in 1980 (26%).
But all of these cross-party endorsements embodied important changes in the political alignment.
Nixon’s success among Democratic elected officials across the South and in blue-collar Northern cities, as well as his neutralizing of organized labor, symbolized the GOP’s first significant inroads among mostly Catholic White ethnic voters like Italians and Irish in the North and White evangelical Protestants in the South. Reagan’s support from national security hard-liners and evangelical ministers sent powerful signals to the hawkish foreign policy and culturally conservative views of those voting groups. That helped Reagan to consolidate and expand all of Nixon’s demographic breakthroughs, creating the huge bloc of formerly Democratic White voters without college degrees known ever since as “Reagan Democrats.”
In turn, Clinton’s business inroads in 1992 — particularly in the emerging computer and communications industries — previewed the Democratic dominance of Silicon Valley over the coming generation and, more importantly, the movement toward the party among college-educated Whites, many of them suburban professionals. Before Clinton, those voters had been so reliably Republican that even Goldwater carried them in his landslide defeat to LBJ in 1964, according to the American National Election Studies surveys.
The Lincoln Project and Republican Voters Against Trump are both laser-focused on those college-educated previously Republican voters. In this highly polarized era, Trump is unlikely to lose many voters who identify as Republican partisans, no matter their education level. For that reason, conservative strategist Craig Shirley, who has written a book about the 1980 campaign, “Rendezvous with Destiny,” says he does not believe Biden’s crossover endorsements will move nearly as many voters as Reagan’s did.
“The two parties are far more polarized today than they were in 1980,” Shirley says. “Reagan’s ability to get Democratic endorsements was important to assuage those Democrats on the fence between Reagan and Carter … whereas today that dynamic really doesn’t exist anymore.”
But the Republicans working against Trump say focusing solely on hard-core GOP partisans misses their potential impact. They note that the President faces the risk of substantial defection among well-educated suburban voters who consider themselves independents but previously leaned solidly toward the GOP. The Republican Voters group on Monday announced an advertising campaign of $8-$10 million in Florida alone aimed precisely at that group.
Michael Madrid, another GOP consultant who helped found the Lincoln Project, says Trump’s regular gestures toward “White grievance politics” have opened a “cultural gap” with white-collar, ordinarily right-leaning voters. That gap, he said, “is what we’re driving a truck through and just reminding [those voters] every day: This is what happens when you elect an incompetent.”
Even if Trump suffers more defections from those voters than previous Republican nominees, he could still win if he generates enough turnout in the key swing states of his core groups of non-college, evangelical and rural Whites. But Pitney, like other analysts, notes that all the groups Trump relies upon are shrinking as a share of the electorate, while the suburban professionals — not to mention the people of color and younger generations — who Trump is alienating are growing. The defections from the well-educated former Republican officials “are definitely a warning signal,” Pitney says. “Trump could win this time; it’s possible. But you don’t build a growing coalition on a shrinking demographic.”
Even if Biden wins, holding the center-right defectors from Trump would not be easy for a Democratic coalition whose left wing, rooted in the rising younger generations, is growing much more assertive. But many Democratic strategists believe the GOP’s turn toward Trump-style racial nationalism has presented them with an opportunity to shift the allegiance of white-collar Whites as lastingly as Reagan did for those with blue collars.
For these Republican-leaning professionals, “it shouldn’t be a false choice that I’ve got to take a right-winger who offends me on all these social values because I want to keep my taxes down and the economy going well,” says Pete Giangreco, a Democratic consultant who served as the chief strategist for Amy Klobuchar’s presidential campaign. “If Democrats do this right, that choice is no longer there. Now it’s a party I can live with versus a party that offends my values AND makes my life harder.”
If that shift among well-educated White professionals solidifies, the lengthening roster of former Republican officials endorsing Biden may be remembered as the opening tremor for a tectonic shift in the electoral landscape.