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The debate over whether unrest will help Trump win, explained

Biden continues to lead polls. But some Democrats are nervous.

President Donald Trump tours an area affected by civil unrest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on September 1, 2020.
Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

As demonstrations against police violence have recently been accompanied by unrest and violence in cities like Kenosha and Portland, many in the political world have had the same thought: This could help Trump’s campaign.

Most prominently, the Atlantic’s George Packer declared “This Is How Biden Loses” in an article last week. But this isn’t limited to punditry: Axios’s Mike Allen reported that “Democrats close to Joe Biden increasingly fear the looting and violence in cities could help President Trump.” Meanwhile, the New York Times’s Sabrina Tavernise and Ellen Almer Durston and Politico’s Natasha Korecki interviewed Wisconsin voters and left with similar takeaways.

The Trump campaign clearly saw an opportunity to shake up the race — Republicans made the unrest a major theme of their convention last week, blaming Democrat-controlled states and cities and falsely accusing Biden of wanting to defund the police; Trump himself traveled to Kenosha on Tuesday to hammer home the point.

The Biden campaign just as clearly took these worries seriously. Biden did an interview with MSNBC last week on the topic, and delivered a speech in Pittsburgh Monday forcefully condemning the violence and putting the blame on Trump for dividing the country. His campaign is now spending $45 million to air an ad featuring Biden condemning rioting and looting in swing states; Biden made his own trip to Kenosha on Thursday.

But the idea that these recent events will necessarily benefit Trump has been disputed. Indeed, many argue that tumult in the country could instead hurt Trump because it’s unfolding under his watch as the incumbent president. (This is the Biden campaign’s bet, and they’re emphasizing that theme in their ad.) These skeptics also questioned whether enough voters would change their minds over this rather than the Covid-19 pandemic, the economy, or anything else in Trump’s record.

This debate largely unfolded amid a lack of good recent polling data, but a round of new polls released Wednesday and Thursday suggest that, on a national level, there’s no sign that the unrest has significantly helped Trump. Biden currently holds about a 7-point lead on average. The race may have tightened by about a point, though even there it’s unclear whether that would be due to the unrest, a bounce from the Republican convention, or simply voters starting to wake up to the reality that the election is just two months away.

That’s an encouraging sign for Democrats. Still, it’s worth keeping in mind that this race will be decided in the swing states — including two, Wisconsin and Minnesota, that have featured high-profile incidents of police violence, massive protests, and some rioting and looting (even though most Black Lives Matter protests have been peaceful).

The recent swing-state polling has also been mostly good for Biden — on average he has low- or mid-single-digit leads in key states. But so long as the polls show anything other than a Biden swing-state landslide, raw memories of 2016 ensure that Democratic nervousness will persist.

Older Democrats remember 1968

The fear among particularly older Democrats that the unrest will help Trump is based partly on gut instinct and partly on historical memory — a sense they have of how these things usually “play” politically.

The fears often hark back to the election season of 1967-’68, which was marked by riots across urban America, some of which were in response to police actions and some of which were in response to Martin Luther King Jr.’s April 1968 assassination. Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon responded to all this by campaigning on “law and order,” and he won. The incumbent, Lyndon Johnson, saw his popularity plummet and ended up deciding not to run again; the losing Democratic nominee was his vice president, Hubert Humphrey.

Nixon’s win kicked off a run in which Republicans won five out of six presidential elections, giving them control of the White House for 20 of the next 24 years. So naturally, Democrats dispirited by defeat spent a lot of time looking backward and thinking about where it all went wrong. Many of them concluded that the unrest in the late 1960s just got too out of hand — that a mostly nonviolent civil rights movement went too far in the direction of violence and destruction, that the Democrats were punished for it at the polls, and that racial progress across the country was set back due to both backlash from white Americans and electoral victories from the Republican Party.

For instance, Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC) told Vox’s Emily Stewart earlier this year that the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a leading 1960s civil rights group, “got hijacked.” He said: “We were getting off the back of the bus, we were sitting down at lunch counters, and all of a sudden, we woke up one morning, and there was a rallying cry all around us, ‘Burn baby burn.’” (Bill Clinton recently made similar comments regretting that the civil rights movement “went a little too far” in the direction of confrontational activist Stokely Carmichael.)

This basic narrative has long been believed by many Democrats who lived through those years, and a recent study by Princeton University political science professor Omar Wasow backs up the claim that violent unrest hurt Democrats electorally. Wasow compared different election results in areas where rainfall prevented violent protests after King’s assassination to areas where such protests ensued, and found that “violent protests likely caused a 1.5–7.9 percent shift among whites toward Republicans and tipped the [1968] election.”

Others broaden out the claim to say that more generally rising crime rates can help Republicans, as well. New York City is filled with Democrats, but Rudy Giuliani’s “tough on crime” agenda propelled him to two terms as mayor from 1994 to 2001. The belief here is that swing voters in the United States fundamentally don’t trust Democrats to handle crime or restore order, and that when their fears of danger or disorder are activated, Republicans benefit. Many Democrats adopted “tough on crime” policies to try and counter this.

Now, this year, polls indeed show that most Americans, while sympathetic to Black Lives Matter, do not like looting, rioting, or violent protests. Gallup found that only 8 percent of US adults thought “looting and property damage during protests on racial justice” was justified. Meanwhile, 33 percent said they were sympathetic with those protesters but that their actions were not justified, and 57 percent were not sympathetic to them at all, meaning a combined 90 percent thought looting and property damage were unjustified.

Finally, the worriers also point to the electoral map. Trump is president today because he beat Hillary Clinton by a less than 1 percent margin in three states that had long voted for Democrats: Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Additionally, in nearby Minnesota, Trump came surprisingly close to winning, falling short by a margin of 1.5 percent. Trump’s strength in these states was primarily attributed to his success winning over white voters who lacked college degrees.

Images of burned-out buildings in Minneapolis and Kenosha have made some Democrats fear that Trump could have success with that crucial voter base again — and that it could win him the presidency. David Wasserman lays out the stakes pretty clearly at NBC News, arguing that if Trump does manage to recover his standing with working-class white voters, “Minnesota and Wisconsin could turn into the next Iowa and Ohio” (formerly swing states that moved strongly toward Trump).

But a lot of things are different now

In addition to dwelling on the similarities with 1968, it’s important to also look at the differences.

For one, the late 1960s riots were far bloodier than anything the US has seen this year. For instance, 26 people died during the 1967 Newark riots, 43 died during the 1967 Detroit riots, and another 43 died during riots across several cities in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.’s April 1968 assassination, with thousands more injured. (This year’s death toll is a little over a dozen nationally in a mix of situations.)

Additionally, the election of 1968 took place 52 years ago, and both the composition of the American electorate and white Americans’ views on racial issues have greatly changed since then. There’s no reason to just assume what happens today will necessarily mirror what happened then. Rick Perlstein, the author of the book Nixonland chronicling Nixon’s election and reelection, recently told a New York Times editor to “stop reading Nixonland and start assigning reporters to explain what’s happening now, because we don’t yet have any idea.”

A key difference this time around is that, as Vox’s Matt Yglesias has written, “Donald Trump is the president.” It’s generally believed that the incumbent politician or party gets the credit or blame for events that unfold on their watch, and all this unrest is unfolding on Trump’s watch. Richard Nixon ran on a promise to restore “law and order” in 1968, but when it was time for his reelection in 1972, he claimed that he had fulfilled that promise. Trump has tried to put the blame on Democratic mayors and governors, but “Democratic mayors and governors” is not a presidential candidate. In 2016, Trump ran on the claim that he “alone can fix it” — and, four years later, he evidently has not fixed it.

Interestingly, in the new ad that Biden is spending $45 million to air in swing states, he lingers for some time on images of burned-out buildings and street confrontations. It’s generally been Republicans who have been most eager to spotlight such footage, but this suggests that Biden believes voters will buy his argument that he is against such things, and that Trump’s divisive presence in office is helping cause them. Indeed, a new poll from YouGov found that 56 percent of Americans believed that the violence happening at protests would get worse if Trump is reelected, and that only 23 percent believed it would get worse if Biden wins.

Also, the first round of unrest started in Minneapolis and other cities back in late May after the police killing of George Floyd. We’ve had months of polling data since then, which has continued to show Biden ahead nationally and in swing states (though some argue that this was because the earlier round of destruction was relatively brief and peaceful tactics were far more prominent). In fact, it was Trump’s popularity that ended up dropping after the government forcefully cleared protesters from Lafayette Square so Trump could take a photo op — suggesting the American public can react badly to violence from the authorities, as well. The alleged killer of two people in Kenosha, meanwhile, is a Trump supporter.

Now, support for Black Lives Matter has dropped since its June peak, to the level it was at before Floyd’s death (mainly because of lower support from white Republicans and white independents), and there are consistent results that most Americans dislike violent protests. But Biden, too, has made clear he condemns violent protests, and with his new ad buy he’s making sure swing state voters know it too. And, per FiveThirtyEight’s Perry Bacon Jr., the data suggests “that Biden’s electoral prospects and the popularity of Black Lives Matter are not closely linked — at least not so far.”

Trump’s new focus on riots also reminds some of his (and conservative media’s) sudden obsession with a coming caravan of Central American migrants in the weeks before the Democratic wave in the 2018 midterms — which may suggest it’s a sign of desperation amid bad poll numbers rather than an ingenious plan.

And there are also the obvious considerations that there are many other things going on in the country right now, including the continuing Covid-19 pandemic and economic troubles, and that Trump has a four-year record at this point. So how likely is it that some ugly scenes and burnt buildings in cities where the vast majority of voters don’t live will decide the outcome?

This is a fraught conversation

Of course, you can go back and forth on this. The worriers would argue that, yes, the vast majority of voters won’t be affected by this, but the fear is that a small number of primarily white working-class voters in key states would be, and that that could be decisive if the race tightens. The skeptics fire back that, well, it’s not a close race right now.

But for some, the conversation is not primarily, or at least not entirely, about electoral efficacy — it’s become, instead, a proxy for the question of whose side you’re on.

Some on the left believe that those who express concern about the electoral impact of riots are being insufficiently supportive of the protest movement, or at the very least revealing misplaced priorities at an important moment for racial justice.

For instance, a few months ago, after a Democratic data analyst tweeted about Omar Wasow’s research, he faced criticism on Twitter for “anti-blackness” and being “tone deaf” and was shortly after fired from his job. One activist argued on a Democratic email list that his tweet “could be interpreted as intended to denigrate the work of the Movement for Black Lives and pin any election losses on Black lives.”

More recently, in response to the latest round of punditry on this topic, the New Republic’s Osita Nwanevu argued that there’s “no particularly good reason to be paranoid about” the electoral effects of “riots specifically unless you’re also invested in attacking the left.”’

Those expressing concern about this topic do generally tend to be more centrist and skeptical of the left. They also tend to believe that, on the merits, looting and rioting are bad and shouldn’t be downplayed or simply accepted as part of a larger racial justice movement. They argue that leftists and media apologists for this behavior are in a bubble, and they point to the polls showing that an overwhelming majority of Americans share their own view.

But though they are correct that looting and rioting are very unpopular, they currently do not seem to be correct that looting and rioting are driving a significant number of people to decide to vote for Donald Trump. Polls taken in the aftermath of the GOP convention (when, historically, Trump should be getting a bounce) show Biden continuing to lead comfortably nationally and to have low- or mid-single-digit leads in key swing states. There are still two months in which that could change — and polls did understate Trump’s support in a few key states in 2016 — but overall, the current polling evidence does not substantiate these fears.

It’s notable, though, that the Biden team — tasked with winning an election, not just winning arguments online — is clearly taking this very seriously. They’ve devoted significant time and money to trying to rebut Trump on this issue this week. It’s not clear whether this is out of an abundance of caution or whether they are genuinely concerned. But they’re not taking anything for granted.

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