Election 2024

Patrick Ruffini: Why Blacks and Hispanics Are Turning to Trump

The Republican pollster argues that the "working class is concentrated in states that are more electorally significant to the outcome of the election."


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Did you know that a mere 44,000 votes spread across Georgia, Arizona, and Wisconsin kept Joe Biden and Donald Trump from an Electoral College tie in 2020? That was even tighter than in 2016, when 80,000 votes in three states gave Trump a decisive Electoral College win. 

Patrick Ruffini is a Republican pollster at Echelon Insights and author of Party of the People: Inside the Multiracial Populist Coalition Remaking the GOP. Reason's Nick Gillespie talked with Ruffini about why the major parties continue to leak market share, why 2024 is going to be another super-close presidential race, and whether small-l libertarian voters will make the difference in November.

This interview has been condensed and edited for style and clarity.

Nick Gillespie: What's the elevator pitch for your book, Party of the People: Inside the Multiracial Populist Coalition Remaking the GOP?

Patrick Ruffini: I think that it's no secret to anyone that there have been quite a few changes in our politics over the last decade or so. Specifically, a lot of those involve changes in who's voting for the parties and, fundamentally, who the parties are for. What do they seem to stand for? I go back to my early days in politics, which were at the tail end of an era in which Democrats were primarily pitching themselves to voters and receiving the votes of people who were in the working class. They really seemed to hold the moral high ground when it came to issues of who's really going to care about someone like me, an average person in this country. And [Democrats] would routinely pillory Republicans as the party of the rich, as the party of the well-to-do, the disconnected elite. 

I think what we've seen is that has largely flipped. Specifically, it flipped after 2016, when Democrats really seemed to [begin to] have a lot of trouble holding on to the broad mass of working-class voters, which are today defined as voters without college degrees. Sixty-four percent of voters do not have college degrees. We obviously saw in 2016 how they lost some of those blue wall states—Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin—largely because Trump was able to appeal to this electorate in a way that no Republican had before and flipped states that no Republican had won since 1988.

Gillespie: Early on in the book, you write, "I had egg on my face in 2016." Can you talk a little bit about why you had egg on your face? Of course, it wasn't just you. It's virtually all pollsters, strategists, and activists.

Ruffini: The presumption, I think, heading into the 2016 election was that Trump was a sure loser in the election. If not in the Republican primary, then he's a sure loser in the general election. There is always a question of, "Will he succeed in this hostile takeover of the Republican Party?" Initially, I was skeptical, but not long after, it was very clear he was the odds-on favorite because he had really captured a large chunk of the electorate. Everyone else was squabbling for scraps at the table. Even if only at 35 percent, no one else was higher than 10 percent, practically speaking, at the time. But the idea was [that] maybe he can win the Republican nomination, but he's a sure loser in the general election based on just his off-color commentary, his unhinged rally speeches. Everything that was really conventional wisdom among political observers in 2016 [pointed to] a Trump victory—a victory of somebody who just flouted political norms as he did—being flat out unthinkable. 

I was part of that conventional wisdom. Hillary Clinton seemed to be doing herself no favors. I didn't completely discount that. A lesson that I learned after that is voters also don't really care about the integrity of political norms as a whole. There are some segments of voters that absolutely deeply care about them. But in terms of the center of the electorate, I don't think most voters are saying, "Oh, politics is this noble thing that Donald Trump is degrading." I think they see politics as something that's down and dirty, dishonest, corrupt in large measure. Lots of people see it that way.

Gillespie: It's an interesting kind of issue, because one of the reasons why Hillary Clinton was so vulnerable was because she was seen as almost uniquely corrupt and in bed with all sorts of bad interests.

Ruffini: The idea is that for people like me who work in politics, and particularly for a political class, that are just trying to see the people we work with as basically well-intentioned people who are trying to make a positive difference for the country—it turns out just very few people actually see it that way. And Hillary Clinton was absolutely somebody who was painted that way.

I write about the parallels between Trump and Bill Clinton. Because Bill Clinton too was kind of viewed as this unsavory, seedy type of figure during his campaigns and his presidency. He was Slick Willy. He could get away with anything. In the same way, Trump was somebody who maybe had disreputable things, both that he had said and that he had done in his past, and he always seemed to evade accountability. I think that there's something to the idea that you can succeed in this environment if people view you as sort of being authentically that rascally, scoundrel-like figure who is in some way honest with voters about what they're getting. It's when you've got people who are trying to portray themselves as Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts and then don't live up to that image, that they get in trouble.

Gillespie: Trump, the billionaire who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and was a TV star, was talking about the forgotten man. He spoke for the forgotten man. Whereas Biden—who is not working classtalked about [the working class] incessantly and coming from Scranton, Pennsylvania, etc. He's dumped a ton of money into the country, but that doesn't seem to be resonating with voters, does it?

Ruffini: I think it's ultimately who does the working class identify with? Somebody who is not fundamentally a creature of Washington, D.C., and not fundamentally a creature of this dirty, unsavory political game—I think that's what they saw in Trump. They saw a certain authenticity, and they saw somebody who spoke like them, somebody who was angry at the same people that they were angry at. I think that carried the day, ultimately.

Gillespie: It's worth pointing out that he squeaked into office with a historically low popular vote. Clinton in '92 got in with a smaller amount, and about the same amount or a little bit more in '96. 

I want to zero in on what working class means. Biden carried voters who made less than $50,000. He carried households making between $50,000 to $100,000. Trump took those making over $100,000. What you say in the book is that the key divide is education, and maybe also geography, instead of economic class. It's socioeconomic status or education level. How is that functioning differently than just the amount of money that a household is bringing it? 

Ruffini: It's true that at some level, the amount of money that you have in your bank account does actually dictate a lot about the way you view the world. There may still be some truth to that. 

But the point I'm making is that, in terms of what manifests politically and what we're seeing happen politically in the country, education is by far the better variable that predicts everything that's happened, and particularly what's happened among white voters. So I put in the book the caveat that non-white voters don't necessarily act the same way in terms of there not being a class divide. There's more of a different pattern of behavior.

Gillespie: What percentage of the electorate is white? Is it still a vast majority?

Ruffini: In 2024, it's mid-70 percent.

Gillespie: So votes by white Americans are going to comprise the vast majority of ballots cast.

Ruffini: I would say whatever 70 percent is, if it's the vast majority, but it's still a pretty strong majority. But increasingly that white vote does not really behave as a unit, does not really matter in terms of anything politically. You're really talking about white voters without a college degree and white voters with a college degree, that used to be back in the '90s very similar in how they voted. You could kind of talk about there being a "white vote" in the 1990s. Today, you can't talk about it that way. The 40 percent of voters are going to be white non-college and the 30 percent of voters who are going to be white with a college degree. Those used to vote very similarly, and are [now] 40 points apart on the margin in who they're voting for.

Gillespie: Then you talk about the distinction between cosmopolitans and traditionalists. What does that mean?

Ruffini: It maps pretty cleanly onto this idea of white college, white non-college. I'm really interested in where things are moving. Because even though, as you cited some statistics, Biden is still winning some of those lower income voters, but what's happening there is that you still have quite a few low income minority voters in that pool of people. So Biden wins. But that gap between sort of the low income and high income voters, it is nowhere near where it was in 1996, 2000—it's just a completely different ballgame there. 

When I say that, it means, who is a group of voters that is uniquely motivated by these sort of more abstract ideals of protecting democratic norms? Those are the same groups of voters, who live in cities, embrace ideas about diversity, are just generally more progressive or liberal in their outlook, but are uniquely motivated by these questions of social equality. 

Then you've got a large group of voters that are not motivated by those issues. They're either motivated on the other side by a more traditional cosmopolitan view. But when it comes to some of these minority voter communities that still vote Democratic, what you find is, they are very much the conservative wing of the Democratic Party in terms of their views on social issues. They don't really place any sort of prioritization on these animating issues behind the Democratic coalition today on this Dobbs [v. Jackson Women's Health Organization] and Democracy message. Their allegiance to the Democratic Party is more historic. It was rooted in this identity of the Democratic Party as the party of the working class, of the marginalized minority communities.

Gillespie: So as the faces of the Democratic Party become more of a multiracial coalition or a rainbow coalition, they are actually losing touch with the very people they claim to be representing more directly?

Ruffini: In the revealed preferences of voters, what you actually don't find is either Hispanic or Latino voters being motivated by identity politics. In 2016, you had Trump throw every insult in the book at Mexicans, saying they're rapists, bringing crime, drugs over the border. He didn't really seem to lose a whole lot of Latino support. I mean, you would think he would. Similarly, you had Trump after the [Black Lives Matter] protests in 2020 sort of behaving badly in that context, saying that police should shoot looters and all those things. He gained support among black voters in 2020. The revealed preferences of these voters are not that they are uniquely motivated by this kind of racial identity rhetoric that is coming from the left.

Gillespie: How much of the swing from Democrats to Republicans is Trump appealing to people? How much of it is Democrats not addressing people whose votes they're taking for granted?

Ruffini: Absolutely, you can't write Donald Trump out of the story completely. You have a catalyst for the shifts we've seen. It appears that he's obviously very, very highly likely to be the Republican nominee. When you look at polling for 2024, we're seeing a further shift of African-American and Latino voters in his direction. In fact, that's most of the gains that he's been getting in the polls. To the extent that those partly materialize in 2024, what I think we're going to see is this realignment that he helped bring into being. The question is what happens if and when Donald Trump fades from the scene, and whether or not we believe we will see some sort of return to the old coalition line, to a more Romney 2012-style coalition. 

The entire history of our politics suggests that that's not going to happen. I think you'll see some mean reversion. I think if Nikki Haley were the nomineevery unlikely to happenyou'd certainly see her do better in the suburbs. You'd probably see her frankly do better overall in the election. Not quite as polarizing a figure, but I don't think you would ever see a return back. And there's a good reason for that. That's because this kind of thing is happening throughout Western democracies, where the working class sort of is aligning itself more and more with the parties of the right. The more highly educated voters are aligning themselves more and more with parties on the left. Those countries don't necessarily have a Donald Trump. But this does seem to be something that is naturally occurringwas to some extent occurring before Donald Trump. So I don't think it's exclusively on him, but he was a catalyst for accelerating.

Gillespie: Is any of this generational in nature? Overwhelmingly younger people voted for Democrats, at least in presidential elections.

Ruffini: This is a big issue. This is a big debate right now. Are you actually going to see people as they grow older becoming more conservative? That's what we've seen in generations past. But there's a lot of discussion that millennials aren't quite following that same trajectory. Partly the big generational divide that I really talk about is that we now have an electorate that is entirely passed through the education sorting machine, in terms of when they were coming up and they were young, they had the opportunity to go to college or not go to college, and that was a legitimate choice, as opposed to maybe for those in the silent generation where most people just didn't go to college. 

As a result, you've just got much more education polarization because more people have made the decision. If you have made that decision, "Yeah, I'm going to leave my hometown and kind of not pursue knowledge and, maybe move to a big city after college and really be part of this knowledge economy," that's just fundamentally a different kind of person than the person who stays closer to the people in places they knew growing up. I think that's part of the generational story. 

I also think the generational story can't be separated from the question of race, because you just have a younger generation that is much, much more diverse. The silent generation and boomers are just much more white. You actually do see that they are more liberal and traditionally have been much more liberal as a result in the younger generation. But it's really a function of race, I think that that's true. I write about the ways that's changing. 

I don't really tackle this question of generations directly because I do think it's downstream of race. I think that to the extent that younger Hispanics are not tied to the voting patterns of their parents, younger African Americans are not tied to the same voting patterns of their parentswhat you're actually going to see is more of them voting Republican. You see it as a whole, diverse, younger generation that is going to be more politically balanced.

Gillespie: You point out the fact that the country is more mixed than ever. There is a huge amount of what would count by various measures as desegregation going on—younger generations, millennials, and Gen-Z are more multi-ethnic. How do you consider yourself, if let's say, you're a third-generation Puerto Rican who married an Asian woman, then you divorce them and marry a black person? What are your kids? I think we're seeing an attempt to kind of keep two or three categories intact when the social reality is just vastly outstripping that.

Ruffini: As of today, the number of voters who are genuinely more than one race—it's actually a pretty small number. But when you look at the children born in the United States, one in five children being born today are of some kind of mixed racial background, and that doesn't even count Hispanics, because we don't have a really good way of actually accounting for Hispanics because of the way the census collects data. 

I do think that this assumption we've had about non-white groups being a loyal Democratic bloc, especially within the African-American community, was predicated on the idea that this was a marginalized, discriminated-against group that needed to organize under the banner of one political party to advance their interests. What happens when that identity is no longer salient? That identity of, "I don't view myself as a victim." I don't view myself as somebody who is going to be discriminated against as a result of my skin color, and that's just fundamentally not who I am. I am many different things. I am potentially of many different races. But I also live in a suburb with people of all different sorts of racial and ethnic backgrounds. I think that's fundamentally, in one way or the other, just going to change voting patterns over time.

Gillespie: The idea that Trump actually was getting more minority votes than somebody like a Mitt Romney or a John McCain…What was the swing in black support for Trump? It's still low, even historically going back to somebody like [Dwight D.] Eisenhower. But what's the swing? What are the issues that black voters—if we can talk about a median black vote—care about?

Ruffini: There's different data sources on this. If you look at precinct data, there's something like a 5 to 6 point swing on the margin from a very low base. But that means in some cases, you had precincts where there were literally zero voters and they go to, all right, maybe Trump gets five voters or ten voters in 2016 or 2020. 

Gillespie: But he did particularly well among black men, right?

Ruffini: Yeah. In general, you've seen a little bit of recovery and some other data sources have it as much as 10 or 12 points among black voters, from 2016 to 2020, when you had a swing of about 18 points among Hispanic voters. So you're right. That was something that kind of blew my mind too early on. But when you kind of start to see that this is actually part of the same trend of white working class voters. The vast majority of Hispanic and African-American people in this country are working class in terms of not having a college degree. It's a part of the working class shift more broadly, even as college educated shifted to Democrats, the non-college educated are shifting Republican. I do think that that has been the shift. 

I think that particularly Trump—a lot of it goes back to his personal demeanor, which I think if you talk to people along the coast, people like us would say that's a liability. But it turns out that's not a liability to a lot of people in the country. In fact, it's something that attracts a lot of people to him, including some unexpected voters. So when it comes to, again, these younger minority men, who I think are a key group, kind of heading into this election cycle, who themselves speak pretty bluntly and forthrightly, this idea of somebody who does not necessarily adhere to the genteel mannerisms of political discourse is, on balance, more appealing than somebody who does.

Gillespie: If Trump's appeal to blacks is growing and that's partly powered by an appeal to non-college-educated black men who like blunt speaking, what is it with Hispanics? 

Ruffini: I think number one, it's the economy. This is an upwardly mobile, striving community. It's a community where that old historic pattern of if you have more money, if you've made it in the country, you actually are voting more Republican. It just turns out there's a pretty good upward trajectory and upward trend in Hispanic incomes over the last few generations. You actually do see a lot more loyalty to the Democratic Party in the sort of lower income first generation communities that you see moved to second and third generation communities.

Gillespie: As you point out in your book, your name ends in a vowel. It is Italian. I am Italian on my mother's side, who grew up in Waterbury, Connecticut, not far from where you grew up. Michael Barone, 25 years ago wrote The New Americans: How the Melting Pot Can Work Again, and likened the Mexican-American experience to the Italian-American experience. Part of his argument was that two or three generations in, they are indistinguishable from native-born people. 

Yet we fail to grasp that because Latino or Hispanic immigrants keep coming to the country. We keep thinking everybody is here for six months or a couple of years. And we don't recognize that since Reagan's second administration, if not longer, Latinos, particularly Mexicans, have been here, and now they're in their second or third generation. So they're really as American as Italians, right? 

Ruffini: That's right. I think there's a big divide by generation in terms of partisanship. But you mentioned that the group is not a monolith. There's no shared unique experience among Latinos in America. You've got Mexican Americans, got Puerto Ricans, got Cuban Americans. All the different [groups] came from incredibly different contexts. When you look at the issue of why does Trump actually make gains after he elevates the issue of immigration? It's because Hispanics who are already in the voting public, do they see the people coming across the border today as people like them or do they see them as fundamentally different from them? I think they see them as more different than they do similar. If you're voting and if you show up in these election statistics that I talk about, you've probably been here for a while. You're a citizen of the United States. You are a legal immigrant to the United States, if you have immigrated at all to the United States. It's just a fundamentally different experience. 

In particular in the polling, in the work I've done on the southern border, it's very clear that the people down there do not see the people crossing as being one of them, especially in the current wave. What you see also increasingly is, the people here in those communities tend to be more Mexican-American. And what you see is people from Venezuela, but you're also seeing non-Latino people crossing. You're seeing people from Haiti, the Caribbean and further afield, who are part of this migrant crisis. It's just fundamentally different. A typical Latino voter is as far apart from the people crossing today than a typical white. And that's the reality.

Gillespie: Has immigration been defined by the chaos at the border or the inability to control the border?

Ruffini: There is no question that this situation on the southern border has overshadowed and dominated the whole question of immigration, such that when you even bring up the question of immigration in this survey, people see it as an issue that is a liability for the Biden administration. People want to go back to something like the Trump administration policies. But you did see increasingly, post-2016, there was a backlash among Democrats to what was seen as Trump's xenophobia, intolerance of immigrants, and so they, as a result, putting on their jerseys to some extent, decided to be a party that was openly advocating for immigration, whereas you wouldn't have seen that in the Democratic Party of yesteryear, which was where labor was a big factor. Labor, in and of itself through the 1990s, was very skeptical of open immigration.

I think that the old populist Democratic Party went away. As a result, Biden had to commit to a much more open set of border policies that has invited political disaster for him.

Gillespie: At the same time, Bill Clinton in '96 spent a huge chunk of his renomination speech saying he was going to get rid of illegal immigrants. He was going to remove them from the country.

Ruffini: That is a really good point. I think there's a world of difference between Bill Clinton and what Joe Biden is going to do. You don't really see Biden touting the fact that he is now tough on the border, like he is the one who was tough and wants to get something done on the border, in such a way that it would register with voters. 

The other day on Twitter, I imagined, what would a Bill Clinton-style ad look like about the current border crisis? I know he'd be talking about the Biden border plan to crack down on illegals. If you were rerunning the Bill Clinton 1996 playbook, which, by the way, I think that would work, I think that would still work today. But you won't see him do it because the climate within his own party has just dramatically changed when it comes to anything that's adjacent to diversity or anything like that. It's just unimaginable that he would do something like that.

Gillespie: Let's talk about Asian Americans. How do they factor into the multiracial coalition that might remake the GOP? How bad is it to characterize all Asian Americans as peas in a pod? But then what is the highest-salience set of issues for them?

Ruffini: This is a very bifurcated community because about half of the Asian electorate is college-educated and votes in many ways similar to the white, college-educated electorate. You have a large number of Asians in California, which is a very blue state. They started out from a very democratic baseline. But if you look at the Asian American professionals in one of the major metro areas, they're pretty indistinguishable, actually, from a white educated professional. 

In terms of the places where you have an identifiably Asian voting bloc—places like Little Saigon in Orange County or in San Jose, California, or places in Queens, which have received a lot of attention over the last couple election cycles—those are oftentimes first generation immigrant communities where a lot of people speak the original language. These voters are very different from this professional class that you've seen a shift in? You actually start to see more of a class divide in the Asian community. 

But you look at places like in New York City—and particularly this realignment kind of gained steam in 2022—[former Rep.] Lee Zeldin [R–N.Y.] won a lot of those voters. You had three Asian American Republicans getting elected as Assembly people in Brooklyn, when no one was really expecting that. It is a very different community. You really see it particularly among Koreans, among Vietnamese, to some extent Chinese Americans. Less so among Indian Americans, I don't think you see it as much there. But there's a huge divide by education.

Gillespie: What about groups like Chinese and Japanese, who might be a very small population? Do you see the same kind of pattern where if they've been here for three generations or more they have become indistinguishable from white voters or native-born Americans?

Ruffini: It depends on the context of what are they moving to. To some extent, the Hispanic working-class voter is essentially this generation's version of the white working-class voter of yesteryear. They're moving into places like Northeast Philly, which was a traditionally more conservative place. We had a pretty conservative white electorate. But they're living a solidly middle-class existence. This is not like, "Oh, we're living in the barrio." We are living a solidly middle-class existence. There's a pathway where you can see how they're becoming more Republican. 

Look at the Asian American voter. It's a little bit more complicated because you mentioned The New Americans by Michael Barone, where he drew these parallels. The parallel he draws with Asians, is if Hispanics were the new Italians, Asians are the new Jews, in terms of they seem to be a very highly educated group, with very high levels of educational attainment, very high levels of rising up the income ladder, almost in a very steep pattern where they're leapfrogging every other group. There is a sense that that has led to a more Democratic outlook among a newer generation or people entering the professional class. You see that more and more among Asian voters. 

But to some extent, the Democratic Party has spurned the Asian American vote. The progressive movement has spurned the Asian-American voter in the push for diversity, ironically, in higher education, where it's really Asian-Americans who are the losers. If you de-emphasized merit in higher education—I'd love to see your Republicans actually do more to seize upon that issue in Asian communities.

Gillespie: We all know that the 2016 election was unbelievably close. It was as tight as it could get. But in 2020, Joe Biden won overwhelmingly in the popular vote as a percentage and in the Electoral College. But how close was that election? Was it a blowout, or was it actually pretty close to 2016 when you factor in things?

Ruffini: I'm smiling because actually the perception that it wasn't a close election, it's just completely wrong. It's actually, technically speaking, closer than 2016 when you look at the number of votes needed to have flipped in the Electoral College. People forget how close Trump came to winning the election—just a shift of 0.7 percent in the popular vote spread uniformly across the country would have won. That means he would have been the president, squeaking by with 6 million fewer popular votes than Biden. Why is that? Partly it's due to this working-class coalition. 

The working class is concentrated in states that are more just electorally significant to the outcome of the election. Part of the reason that this realignment really is the best avenue and bet for Republicans to win elections moving forward is because they're overrepresented in the electoral college. Now, we'll see if that happens again in 2024. But, it was a very, very close election, and particularly compared to the polls going into the election, which Biden I think was up by eight points in the last polling average. He only wins by four and barely squeaks by in a way that allows Trump to make an argument to his voters that it was stolen from him. 

Gillespie: Do you believe that or are you saying that Trump made that argument?

Ruffini: No, I don't believe it was stolen from him. But I do think that had we seen Biden actually win the election by as much as he should have won the election, as much as polls were saying, and was expected to win the election, then I think Trump would have just had a much harder time convincing people. 

Gillespie: Assuming the 2024 election is Trump vs. Biden and assuming each of them is brain damaged in their own unique, special ways, is it totally up for grabs?

Ruffini: I think that it would be. It's a fair assumption about any election, no matter what the polls say at this point. You start from the prior that it's a jump ball. But, it's a very different election right now. Right now, Trump is polling ahead and that's been very consistent, no matter what the economic numbers seem to do. I don't think you could ignore that. It's not a fundamentally different election from the standpoint of pre-election polling than it was in 2020. That said, I think we will likely still see a very, very close election. But, right now, Trump seems to be doing a lot better than he was at this point in 2020. 

Gillespie: The economy compared to 2020 is doing relatively well. Inflation was a big issue then. Despite Biden being terrible on the economy, things for most people are doing pretty well. Is that because voters don't really care about the actual reality?

Ruffini: I wouldn't say the results are reality and the ground doesn't matter. If the economic situation kind of quiets down, he'd rather have that than the alternative. But a perception has set in particularly as it relates to Biden's fitness and his age that is very hard to recover from, unless something dramatic happens, either in the form of a Trump conviction or in the form of Trump has his own health crisis, that does seem to be something that is weighing down Biden pretty heavily, independently of the state of the economy. But also just a pretty deep-seated perception that the grass was greener on the other side of the street. 

Even if Biden is able to somehow recover on the economy, and maybe make it a little bit more of a draw, does he still win the debate with Trump over who best is able to manage the economy? They still win that retrospective look back, I was better off. The perception that set in, that things were at least under control on the global stage when Trump was president, I seem to be making more money.

Gillespie: Towards the end of your book Party of the People, you say, "I come to tell the younger me that the libertarian dream of smaller government is debt." You also talk a fair amount when you're looking at the future of politics about a quadrant chart that Lee Trotman put together, which shows that what used to be called the libertarian quadrantthe shorthand is fiscally conservative, socially liberalthere are no voters there. How do you justify that?

Ruffini: That's something your colleague Stephanie Slade tackled very aptly in a feature piece at Reason recently. Growing up, I very much drank the Kool-Aid, supply-side economics and a lot of, not just maybe a more libertarian economics, but the whole Reagan view of, let's say, limited government. The reality is that not a lot of voters are motivated by those sorts of questions in the real world. You see both parties increasingly motivated on cultural questions and activated on cultural questions. That's particularly true of Republican voters, and particularly around the issue of immigration. We saw that very clearly with Trump in 2016. I also don't think that a whole lot of voters are motivated by a left-wing ideological critique of the Reagan era or support for social democracy. 

I think that the questions that actually motivate voters on a real level are fundamentally different from the ones that motivate activists, and the ones that motivate people like me growing up—we're very invested in these economic ideologies. Trump really kind of pulled that back and said this isn't really at a fundamental gut level what's moving people, even though they do have. I write this in the book that it's not like Republicans should just become a party that supports social programs, and that's how you win working-class voters. They do have this gut-level identification with capitalist or free enterprise, or business and hard work as a way of working your way up. But they're just not quite as invested in reading Milton Friedman as maybe that younger version of me was thinking.

Gillespie: If the Republican Party no longer seems to be courting libertarians in a way that they were at the end of the aughts to the beginning of the 2000 teens, it doesn't mean that libertarian voters have disappeared. Emily Ekins and David Boaz at the Cato Institute, using various measures that are alternative to some of the ones that you and Lee Trotman use, hypothesize that 10 percent to 20 percent of voters pretty reliably vote socially liberal and fiscally conservative. 

Where do those voters go, assuming they're not completely just making that up? In an election like the one that we're going to have now, in an election like in 2022 or 2016, where are those libertarian voters and who do you think they would be going for in something like this?

Ruffini: You're right that even if a group is smaller in the electorate, it turns out they matter quite a lot. And I think Joe Biden doesn't win in 2020 without all the third party voters from 2016 who primarily backed him. But when you talk about how we define that socially, more moderate, or liberal and fiscally conservative voter, I think we are used to viewing that libertarian vote as adjacent to the Republican vote. As something that belongs to Republicans. What we'll be actually seeing more and more is more of a crossover between libertarians and Democrats recently. Because those cultural issues seem to be the tie-breaker. They seem to matter more. 

Number one, Trump isn't fiscally conservative. He's not really standing up for that side of the argument. But you also just see social issues and cultural issues kind of matter more. I'm not talking about the hardcore Libertarian Party voter, I am talking about that sort of voter in the northeast corridor, that likes to say they're socially more moderate and fiscally conservative. What you've seen more recently, in a more recent election cycle is that those voters go more Democratic. Whereas that moderate voter again, that's the Obama-Trump voter. That's the voter in Michigan. That's the old autoworker. That's pro-life. They see a role for the government in the economy. Those voters have been moving in completely the opposite directions.

Gillespie: What are the signs to look for going into the election, and then after that will there be a long-lived realignment of the parties?

Ruffini: We don't necessarily know after 2024 if this new coalition survives. Certainly, there's a case for the shifts that we've seen, particularly as it relates to non-white voters continuing, you're seeing that in the polls right now. There's also a case to be made that this is more of a long-term process. In the book, I write about looking ahead. Let's actually conduct a thought experiment that if this actually happens, what does 2036 look like? What would the election of 2036 look like? 

Overwhelmingly, because we have a pretty good idea of what the demographics are going to be in that year. We know the country is just getting more non-white. What would the breakdown need to look like? It would need to look something like this: Republicans draw pretty even among Hispanics, they're winning about maybe 40 percent of Asian voters, and they're winning almost a quarter of the African-American vote. What's interesting is there's polls out there that show that's happening in 2024. It could be that I'm way too conservative. But I think you really have to view this over a long-term trajectory and not election to election, which is very noisy. I think that subject to all sorts of factors that are specific to the cycle. 

Right now we have this tendency to view Ronald Reagan as this golden era of Republican normalcy, as somebody who is moderate on immigration and for free trade and for internationalism and global leadership. Certainly, that's true, but I think it understates the extent to which Reagan himself was a disruptive figure in the Republican Party in the '70s and '80s, where he was fundamentally—in the same way Trump is disrupting the existing Republican order—disrupting challenger Gerald Ford from the right. As a result, the party moves, the party shifts, and it becomes a really unambiguously conservative party after Reagan. 

In some way, I think the party will become an unambiguously more populist party. Now, whether or not we have somebody who is quite as much of an avatar of that as Donald Trump in the future, I'm not sure. I think he is somewhat sui generis. I think you will, by default, have somebody more "normal" in the future, particularly someone who can get elected president. But, I think that just the baseline has shifted. It shifted with Reagan and I think it's now shifted with Trump. 

Gillespie: Where do you think the Democratic Party is shifting to? Are they undergoing a similar process, if they are now appealing to educated cosmopolitan voters? 

Ruffini: It's a coalition that is shifted in terms of the voters it's appealed to significantly. It's really openly making the case on cultural issues, openly making the case for a more open society, really talking up these sort of more abstract concepts of democracy as opposed to the kind of campaign we saw as recently as 2012 when Obama was railing against Mitt Romney as the scion of private equity. You didn't care about people like you. You just don't seem to see that kind of rhetoric anymore, even though that remains part of the party's policy commitment. I don't necessarily think they're going to go conservative on economic issues.

Gillespie: Medicare and Social Security appear to be completely inviolate at this point. It is beyond the third rail of American politics now. To even invoke it, other than to say you are going to keep it forever and maybe make it shinier, is complete political death. Is there any way that that's going to change? 

Ruffini: What's going to change, if nothing else, are the actuarial realities of these programs that are going to impose upon everybody's tidy the political notions and ideas. What you would say now is that it is absolute political death for anybody to touch that entitlement reform. Particularly when you frame the question as cuts to entitlement programs. I think you're absolutely passing that rubicon of we're no longer able to pay out benefits at the state level. It's going to fundamentally be another major disruption, akin to but somewhat I think much greater than what we saw in the last three years with 20 percent inflation. I think that that is going to be in and of itself going to upend a lot of our politics. 

But, Trump intuited, not incorrectly, that this was not a political winner for Republicans and he was actually willing to—and I think probably others had intuited that beforehand—make the argument, which have made it overall very much more difficult for any political party that is calling out for some kind of solution.

Gillespie: Are there new ways to talk about entitlement spending that casts it in a more populist sensibility, because it's clear that Social Security and Medicare both take money from relatively young people and relatively poor people and give it to relatively old and relatively rich people. Former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan failed because he didn't make the commercial throwing grandma off a cliff. He should have owned that and said,
we need to do this, and she wants that for us anyway."

Ruffini: It's fundamentally different for a lot of people. You'll have Hispanic voters really voicing the sentiment around, "We don't want welfare cheats." And frankly, that's a real, palpable sentiment. They completely exclude Social Security and Medicare from that calculation.

 Whereas for a lot of people, when people take offense to the idea that these are quote-unquote entitlements—aka welfare programs—when the technical definition of an entitlement is you're entitled to it because you theoretically paid into it. Fundamentally, this is actually the political consensus in the working class, is anti-welfare and pro-Social Security. They're making the distinction based on the fact that they believe they paid into these programs, and they're just getting out what they have already paid in. Which is not reality, but that's a very strongly held belief.

This interview has been condensed and edited for style and clarity.

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