Evan Scrimshaw -- Australia
(Evan Scrimshaw returns to our blog for this excellent data-backed piece on international politics and the indicators we get for 2022 and the future of US politics. Follow him at @EScrimshaw)
What happens when a country's political right explicitly pivots to the centre in an attempt to staunch the bleeding in urban and suburban areas? It's not exactly the question that people are asking in the runup to the 2022 Midterms, because many think that the suburban reversion will come irregardless, but it's an interesting hypothetical that many have pondered. Fortunately, it's not actually a hypothetical.
Followers of Australian politics will remember 2015, when Malcolm Turnbull explicitly rolled Tony Abbott for the Prime Ministership because his right wing sensibilities were costing them suburban seats and swing voters. His caucus agreed, and in the runup to the 2016 election, Turnbull - an old fashioned business Tory, pro-gay marriage and unenthused about the culture wars - ran as a steady presence and a moderate leader against the left wing, union bought and paid for Bill Shorten. His whole strategy was designed to get people with decent wealth and socially liberal views to re-elect a right wing government. Did it work? … … … Kind of?
Did it work is a really hard question, because there's absolutely no good answer. Did they win the election? Sure - a one seat majority, 76 of 150 members, but they lost a ton of seats. Did they win the election because of the change? The consensus is that Tony Abbott loses the election, but that's untested. Did it solve the urban and suburban problems? Yes, but it created a whole set of other problems. So, did it work? No idea.
What we do know is that across the country, some of the best results for the right were in inner city and suburban areas in 2016. They won Chisholm off Labor! Trevor Evans got a swing to him in (the seat of) Brisbane! They held onto Boothby and limited the swing in Hindmarch to half the state average! They mostly did pretty well in Perth! Hell, they even almost won Melbourne Ports!
The Sydney suburbs were less good for them, but the socially conservative Chinese population makes that comparison less meaningful, but the Coalition had a good night in urban and suburban areas where social liberals with money felt at home with Turnbull. They managed to put in respectable - and, even in some cases - exceptional results in areas where few expected it that night. So, in a sense, the move worked, right?
The Coalition also got hammered in rural and regional Queensland, losing Longman and Herbert to Labor despite massive margins going into the night, as well as losing their three Tasmanian seats - Bass, Braddon, and Lyons. Those five seats share what could be called a cultural sensibility - all areas where populism and cultural conservatism are winners, and where Malcolm's inner city sensibilities never played well. It shouldn't come as a shock that four of those five seats were won by the Coalition again in 2019 once Malcolm was gone, and the only one where they didn't was Lyons, where the Liberals had to disendorse their candidate.
Did it work? I mean, they didn't lose, so I guess it worked, but it took having a well known, long time socially liberal critic of the old regime as leader on an explicitly pro-gay marriage ticket to stop the suburban slippage, and even then - even then - the second he was out of the leadership, the slippage began anew, with places like Chisholm and Macnamara (the renamed Melbourne Ports) seeing reversals of that positive trendline. What they also saw was huge swings back to the Coalition in rural and regional areas, as they ran a campaign better suited for those areas. Everything's a tradeoff.
Could the GOP get a proper reversal in their fortunes in 2022 with suburbanites? Maybe, I guess, but the Australian example would say no. Broadly, Turnbull managed to limit the swing with suburbanites to a smaller swing than he copped nationally - a useful accomplishment, but not the same as actively getting more support in a broad sense. It also, again, took an explicitly pro-gay marriage leader who had been removed as party leader in 2009 for supporting a price on carbon and effective action on climate change to do it. Where is the GOP white knight who fits that criteria?
It took a level of commitment that there is no way the GOP can possibly commit to for the Australian right to claw back any form of ground in the suburbs, and it cost them the Australian equivalent of Mahoning County Ohio to do it. The notion that you can take Trump-style margins and vote totals in rural and regional America but then toss on suburban reversion is madness bordering on delusion, but it's a fantasy held by so many because of an ignorance of anything outside of the borders of their own country. Put another way, does anyone think the GOP will choose to prioritize the WOW counties over southwest Wisconsin by shutting up about election fraud, Antifa, and Cancel Culture and trying to work with Joe Biden on middle class tax relief? Anyone?
The GOP's facing a scenario where they can't manage to pull off Trump level margins in the rural and regional areas without Trump on the ballot - which we've seen every single time he's not on the ballot - but instead of getting the Turnbull upside in the suburbs, they just get the slow bleed leftward they're facing currently. How do you win Pennsylvania if you win your areas by less votes and a smaller % of the vote while continuing to bleed in the Philly collar, especially when the relative power of the collar goes up in a midterm?
We've literally seen one centre right party in any English speaking democracy pull the car around in the suburbs this entire decade. It took someone who was pro-action on climate, pro-gay marriage, and anti-culture war nonsense to pull it off. We saw what happened when he came in, and then when he left, and it is very clear that he was the reason they did so well amongst educated, well off social liberals. Without him, those gains were gone. What in the world makes people think the GOP can pull it off when they're explicitly trying not to?
How many times do we need to see Kevin McCarthy say that "everyone" bears some responsibility for the storming of the Capitol, or see Tucker Carlson defend QAnon, or see the House GOP vote on masse to throw out election results, before we realize that the GOP are not a political party interested in moderation, and therefore making any form of substantive outreach to the suburbs? Why is it that we all just rightly assume that the bleeding is going to continue on and on in rural North Carolina but assume that the GOP can hold on in the Triangle? What evidence do we have that the GOP have any intention of even trying?
What's happening in the US isn't a localized trend, and the short-sighted nonsense that so many peddle is either mendacious or intellectually bankrupt. Either way, it doesn't have the benefit of any facts backing it up. We have the evidence from Australia that the right can halt the slide in the suburbs, but that evidence is a huge problem for the "rightward march of the rurals forever more," so the idea that the GOP will manage to pull off both suburban reversion and even stagnant rural results can be put to bed. There's a fundamental tension in politics now, and that tension is that voters who think that gay marriage is good, there are problems with racism, and are generally socially liberal do not vote for the same party as people who want to never think about gay people, who think All Lives Matter isn't racist, and just want things to go back to the good old days. This is true everywhere, because none of the things happening in the world are just happening in America.
I used to work for a Canadian Member of Parliament from a city in Eastern Canada, riding of Saint John-Rothesay. Rothesay is a nearby suburb, full of elitist rich people and a swanky private school where I twiced played rugby (and once dislocated my kneecap, memorably). Won by the Liberals in 2015, it was part of a sweep of the province for the party. Province wide, the Liberals lost 14% of the vote in 2019, and 15.3% and 18.4% in the neighbouring, regional seats to Saint John-Rothesay. My old boss' vote? Only down just over 11%. None of this is hard to understand, except when we suddenly get to the US, where apparently it's the Twilight Zone, except it isn't.
Everyone seems to think the US is somehow through the looking glass, a unique creation of humanity that cannot be understood or analysed without fully immersing yourself in its minutia. It is unique, in its own ways, just as you have to understand the local complexities of any place's politics. But the refusal of anyone who seeks to better understand American politics to spend even a minute of time looking at what happens when the right pivots - either from populism to moderation, or back to populism - is madness, and it just makes everyone worse off.
The first thing I ever wrote for this website was that suburban reversion was highly unlikely to happen in the US because it hasn't happened anywhere else. For every Milton or Putney I can draw out a dozen or 5 dozen other swings, of less extremity but equal intellectual interest. For all the love that many will show elections that actually mean absolutely nothing for the 2022 midterms, there is no attempt to understand 2022 through the lens of very relevant electoral events happening right now, and it would be baffling if it wasn't so pathetic. Can the suburbs revert without an explicit, hard sell? Can the suburbs revert right without rural reversion left? The Australian data suggests that the GOP are in a lot worse shape than the current conventional wisdom does, built as it is on the idea that the GOP can rely on what they currently have but build back with the help of their lost suburban voters. The Australian right tried that, and lost a dozen seats, including regional seats they weren't even playing defence in.
This really isn't difficult to understand. Or, at least, it shouldn't be.