3 Reasons Why the Protests Probably Won’t Help Trump Win

Mike Goodman

It’s fashionable to compare 2020 and 1968: They’re both election years; society’s fabric feels stretched to the breaking point; and the current wave of protests, at least superficially, resembles the one that swept the country 52 years ago. And just as Richard Nixon won in 1968 on the back of a law-and-order message, everyone from New York Times columnist Ross Douthat to noted Never Trumper Tom Nichols to President Trump’s anonymous advisers predict a protest backlash that will benefit Trump in his campaign against Joe Biden. Trump himself apparently agrees: Tonight he proclaimed himself “your president of law and order” and waved a Bible in a transparently staged appearance at St. John's church near the White House after police tear-gassed peaceful protesters.

Key to this assumption is the recent work of Princeton political scientist Omar Wasow, which analyzes voting patterns in counties where protests happened in 1968. Measuring why people vote the way they do, let alone the political impact of protests, is a famously hard subject to tackle. Many people’s decision-making processes are opaque even to themselves. But Wasow shows fairly conclusively that “proximity to nonviolent protest grew the coalition aligned with black interests and proximity to violent protest caused a meaningful number of whites to shift towards ‘law and order.’ ” In fact, Wasow’s research—which does not go beyond the civil rights era—demonstrates that those changes were likely enough to shift the 1968 election from Hubert Humphrey, a lead author of the Civil Rights Act, to Nixon. Will the current protests have the same impact? There are three big reasons to doubt that they will.

1. Trump is the incumbent, whereas Nixon was the challenger.

There’s a large body of research that suggests that voters blame incumbents when things go wrong. That is, even if a subsection of swing voters are made uncomfortable by the violence that has occurred around some protests in the past week, there is reason to believe that they will place that blame on the president. That’s true despite the historic tendency of the Republican Party to claim the “law and order” mantle for itself.

In 2016, Trump was able to campaign on the idea that he could restore order to the chaos his predecessor had supposedly caused, and there’s some evidence that this precise dynamic played out in response to protests in Ferguson and Baltimore following police killings. That’s a vastly different dynamic from the current moment, where the president would in effect be telling voters that he is the only candidate who can bring order to the chaos that occurred during his own term.

2. The 2020 election more closely parallels 1992—and that year had a different outcome.

This is not the first time that protests have erupted in response to racial injustice the spring before a presidential election between a Republican incumbent and a Democratic challenger. It’s, of course, not the first time that those protests were triggered by video of police committing violence on a black body. On April 29, 1992, a jury declined to convict four Los Angeles Police Department officers for assault and excessive use of force when arresting Rodney King. At the corresponding time, President George H. W. Bush had a lower approval than President Trump, at just below 40 percent.

The L.A. riots lasted for five days and led to over 60 deaths. But those riots didn't just fail to bring a recovery in the polls for Bush, who would go on to lose handily to Bill Clinton that November (although in a difficult election to analyze, given the presence of Ross Perot as a robust third-party choice). When researching the riots, Ryan D. Enos, Aaron R. Kaufman, and Melissa L. Sands discovered that:

“Contrary to some expectations from the academic literature and the popular press, we find that the riot caused a marked liberal shift in policy support at the polls. Investigating the sources of this shift, we find that it was likely the result of increased mobilization of both African American and white voters. Remarkably, this mobilization endures over a decade later.”

Unlike in 1968, those riots did not broadly spread across the country, and one of Wasow’s more powerful findings was that geographic proximity to a violent protest was a major factor in changing voters’ minds. But nevertheless, 1992 is a useful—and confounding—data point. At a bare minimum, any argument for why the current protests will echo 1968 and hurt Democrats while helping Republicans needs to address why an imperfect comparison to 1968 is more relevant than an imperfect comparison to 1992.

3. The modern electorate is much more polarized.

Finally, there’s the fact that the voters are different from 1968, and even 1992. We know that people have largely made up their minds on Trump. His approval ratings have been remarkably constant, stuck in the low 40s no matter what he does or doesn’t do. It is one of the great ironies of the Trump presidency that, despite a historically volatile term with impeachment, a pandemic with an attendant economic collapse, and now massive civil unrest this year alone, his approval rating is the most stable of any president in the modern polling era. It’s also one of the lowest ever at this point in a presidency that we have data for—since World War II, only Harry Truman and Jimmy Carter were lower. Would any event shift voters’ minds on Trump at this point?

More broadly, the current political era is much more polarized than the ’60s. As the parties have sorted themselves ideologically and the differences between them have become more stark, the slice of the electorate that vacillates between the two has shrunk. Also, the composition of the parties’ coalitions continues to change. Throughout Barack Obama’s years in office, white non-college-educated voters fled the Democratic Party for the GOP. Meanwhile, recent elections have seen college-educated voters swing the opposite direction. None of this is to say that a 1968-type reaction isn’t possible, only that the comparison between now and then is imperfect.

Looking for historical parallels is natural, and using rigorous data work to inform them helps. But it’s also important to understand the limitations of these studies. Oftentimes, it’s in understanding how the present differs from the past that the most insight can be found.

A Louis Vuitton storefront in Manhattan, June 1, 2020.

Many designers have struggled to articulate a coherent response to this weekend’s protests. But a few recognize that politics is more than marketing. 

Originally Appeared on GQ