LONDON — Given the political earthquakes and tremors that have erupted across the globe in recent years — from the United Kingdom’s vote for Brexit to United States President Donald Trump’s election victory — it takes a brave man to predict who will take the White House next November.
Stan Greenberg is that man.
Greenberg, a famed center-left pollster and political strategist, helped steer Bill Clinton to the White House, Tony Blair to a string of victories in Britain, and Ehud Barak to the Israeli premiership 20 years ago.
Not only does he believe the Democrats will defeat Trump next autumn, he also forecasts a landslide and an “even bigger blue wave” than the one which swept the party to victory in last autumn’s congressional elections.
Indeed, the very title of Greenberg’s newly published book — “GOP RIP” — daringly flaunts his belief that “the 2020 election will be transformative like few in our history. It will end with the death of the Republican party as we know it.”
Greenberg, who is Jewish, draws on a wealth of experience. He advised not just Clinton, Blair and Barak, but Nelson Mandela, former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and a string of senators including Joe Lieberman and John Kerry.
So what makes Greenberg so certain in his predictions?
“I’m sure because every trend pushes beyond what we saw [last November] and the trends are not just demographic, cultural trends. They are trends in consciousness, they are trends in the intensity of the resistance and the opposition to Trump. They are trends within the Republican party that are turning it into an anti-immigrant party in an immigrant country,” Greenberg tells The Times of Israel.
For Greenberg “the most important piece of the story” is immigration. When Trump was elected, he notes, 50 percent of voters believed that immigration benefited the country. That figure has now leapt to over 65%, with only 26% believing migrants are a burden.
“That number has moved every day of the Trump presidency,” Greenberg says. “As he’s become more and more anti-immigration, the country’s become more pro-immigration.”
Greenberg believes that last November’s congressional elections — when the Democrats seized a majority in the House of Representatives — proves the point. In an election that was characterized by high turnout for an off-year election when the presidency wasn’t on the ballot, Trump made immigration the centerpiece of the Republican campaign.
This did not pay off for Trump politically, believes Greenberg. “He both lost in a landslide, but also lost on the immigration issue,” he says.
The president’s “pathetic” approval rating — which CNN put at 39 percent this week — is actually higher than the rating he receives from voters on his handling of immigration.
“He’s being hurt by immigration. He thinks he’s benefiting because of his base [and] it’s how he got [elected]… but he ignored what happened in 2018,” Greenberg says.
It isn’t just what happened a year ago that should worry the Republicans, Greenberg says, but events that occurred 25 years ago in California. The Republican party’s support for a 1994 anti-immigration ballot initiative there presaged its dramatic decline in the state. Once competitive for the Republicans in both state and presidential elections, California is now solidly Democratic.
“The worse it got, the more [the California Republicans] dug in” with their anti-immigration stance. “But each election got worse and worse and they’ve now got nobody in state office [and] barely anybody in the legislature,” Greenberg says.
Another trend from 2018 — the Democratic Party’s improved performance among white working-class voters — also bodes well for the party next year, argues the veteran pollster.
It is a subject in which Greenberg is well versed. In 1985 he conducted pioneering research in Michigan’s Macomb County, a once staunchly Democrat, heavily Catholic, blue-collar suburb of Detroit which had voted heavily for Ronald Reagan in the previous year’s presidential election. Greenberg’s findings helped Clinton win back these “Reagan Democrats” in 1992 and assemble a coalition which unpicked the Republicans’ apparent lock on the White House.
Greenberg admits to being horrified by the manner in which Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign ignored working-class in Midwestern states such as Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania — an error which cost her the presidency.
“What I didn’t understand at the time was how much they [Clinton campaign had] just disengaged from trying to win those voters. They stopped organizing, they stopped going there, they didn’t have advertising in those states. It’s shocking what happened, it was a real disrespect for working-class voters and they heard it and understood it,” he recalls.
But Greenberg is buoyed by the manner in which white working-class women in particular appear to be turning their backs on Trump.
“If you look at what happened in the 2018 election,” he says, “the Democrats had a sweep across those states. From Iowa across Pennsylvania up to Maine, Democrats swept [the board]. The swing was very strong in those states and you would win those states readily [in 2020] if that trend continued.”
While much of the post-election analysis focused on the Democrats’ strong performance in the suburbs, where the party won most of its new seats in the House, the pollster points out that it was in rural areas and among white working-class voters where it registered its biggest swings compared to 2016.
Focus groups conducted by Greenberg this summer among white working-class voters who largely backed Trump in 2016 underline that while men appear to be sticking with the president, many women are peeling away. For many of these women, Greenberg wrote in a recent memo, the president is now “seen as egocentric and divisive and failing to deliver for working people.”
“People are desperate for life to be better,” Greenberg says. “They don’t think life will be better if Trump is re-elected. He didn’t make it better, they just think there’s more division.”
Greenberg is confident that the Democrats won’t make the same errors next year as they made in 2016.
“If you watch the Democratic presidential candidates, all of them make a point: ‘We’re going everywhere,’” he notes. Iowa, where the primary campaign will kick-off with the caucuses next February is “a very good place to start.”
While Greenberg played a key role in crafting Bill Clinton’s centrist “New Democrat” message in 1992 — as well as assisting the development of Blair’s “New Labour” — he is dismissive of the notion that the Democrats risk handing the election to Trump by veering too far to the left.
“I don’t believe much in ideology as a line that is clear to voters themselves,” he says, adding that Clinton ran on an economically populist campaign in 1992 with pledges to raise taxes on the wealthy and increase spending. His polling shows that, in terms of the eventual Democratic nominee for 2020, any of the “major candidates that have emerged in the top tier” could beat the president.
Greenberg believes that Trump’s effort to brand the Democrats as anti-Israel and anti-Semitic is having “zero” impact on Jewish voters. Surveys he has done for Jewish Democratic organizations, he notes, suggest that Israel is “just not a voting issue” for American Jews.
Jewish voters are voting overwhelmingly Democratic. There’s been no erosion of that
“Jewish voters are voting overwhelmingly Democratic. There’s been no erosion of that. The vote against the Republicans was stronger in the midterm elections [than in 2016],” Greenberg says.
Instead, he argues, Jewish voters are very concerned about “ultra-right nationalists” committing violent, anti-Semitic attacks on the Jewish community. Moreover, he asserts, a “large portion” of Jews believe “Trump is part of that [and] producing that.”
But while Greenberg believes that what he terms the “rising American electorate” — millennials, single women, urban voters, and minorities — will help to sink the Republican party next November, he also sounds a note of caution.
“I always hated the idea of this being inevitable,” Greenberg says. “I think it was very dangerous for Hillary Clinton because I do think she believed in it and I think her campaign believed that it was those trends, and it was those groups’ aversion to Trump, that would motivate them… and produce her election.”
Instead, he believes, “some things are happening that are making those trends political.” Voters are “more conscious of their values, they’re becoming more engaged, they’re becoming more politicized.”
Trump’s counter-revolution is producing counter-clarity for the changed America
Soon after the president’s election, Greenberg noticed, it became impossible to put Clinton and Trump voters in the same room for focus groups. Those who had backed Clinton dominated the conversation, he found, their assertiveness sometimes veering into incredulity and rudeness.
Trump and the Republicans are “acting in ways that are pushing people to become stronger in their politics,” driving them towards the Democrats, and “accelerating what was possible in the [demographic] trends,” Greenberg says. He cites a battery of polling evidence – not just more liberal attitudes on immigration but on economic inequality, government activism, the environment, gay marriage and race – to back up his belief that “Trump’s counter-revolution is producing counter-clarity for the changed America.”
Cloudy future in Brexit Britain
The certainty Greenberg displays when discussing the future of American politics melts away when he turns to Britain.
Greenberg had been the Labour party’s pollster in almost every election dating back to the mid-1990s. That relationship ended when the party elected Jeremy Corbyn as its leader four years ago.
“I was very much opposed to the Corbynites,” he says. He disdains Corbyn’s “romance with Marxist and populist regimes” such as that in Venezuela, where Greenberg “strongly supports,” and has worked with, the opposition. But he also recoiled from the manner in which the Trotskyite hard-left militants who had dominated the party in the early 1980s, but had been expelled under former leaders Neil Kinnock and Blair, returned to Labour under Corbyn.
“It was an outrage, so I wasn’t even entertaining working for the Labour party under that,” Greenberg says.
The rise of anti-Semitism in the party on Corbyn’s watch, Greenberg continues, simply “affirmed that I wouldn’t be working” with Labour.
Nonetheless, Greenberg says the break with Labour has been “very difficult” for somebody who considered himself “virtually a member” of the party given both his long association with it and commitment to its traditional center-left values.
Last month Greenberg took a further step away from the party, when it was announced that he would be advising the centrist Liberal Democrats. The party, which is deeply opposed to Brexit, has surged in the polls in recent months and came second in the European elections in June, winning 20% of the vote.
Greenberg admits that he was “angry” at the Liberal Democrats’ five-year coalition with the Conservatives after the 2010 general election, and the economic austerity and cuts to public services which ensued, and hadn’t previously contemplated working with the party.
Brexit, however, led Greenberg to look at the Liberal Democrats anew. He believes the issue is “obviously fundamental” and he fears Britain becoming “a very conservative country detached from the EU.” He accuses Corbyn of “vacillating” on Brexit — trying to appeal to both Labour’s pro-EU voters in urban areas and to those who voted to leave Europe in the party’s north of England heartlands.
At the same time, the Liberal Democrats have emerged as the only party unequivocally opposed to Brexit and pushing hard for a second referendum.
A general election is now most likely only weeks away. Under the new hardline Brexiteer, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the governing Conservative party has seen its wafer-thin parliamentary majority evaporate. The opposition parties are expected to topple Johnson as soon as they’re confident they have stopped a “no deal” Brexit, under which Britain would pull out of the EU without a divorce agreement on the planned October 31 exit date.
Greenberg views the electoral landscape as “a mess” and deems the outcome of an autumn poll “hugely uncertain.”
On the right, the Brexit party, under its populist leader, Nigel Farage, threatens to inflict huge damage on the Tories. If Johnson comes to a deal with the EU or, as he’s now legally required to, asks the EU to push the Brexit deadline back to January 31, 2020, Farage could eat into the Tory vote, Greenberg believes.
On the other hand, he notes, given Corbyn’s alleged wavering, the Liberal Democrats could siphon large numbers of votes away from Labour among pro-EU voters.
Greenberg agrees that the election could provide the Liberal Democrats, who harbor hopes of becoming the largest party in parliament, with an unprecedented opportunity. That opportunity, he suggests, rests on an electoral playing field “where we have four or five parties that are factors.” This, he adds, is “entirely new.” Indeed, when Britain last held a general election in 2017, Labour and the Tories won a combined 82% of the vote.
Balagan in Israel
If Greenberg is uncertain how British politics will play out in the coming months, he’s also unwilling to predict what may happen in Israel on Tuesday.
He has a long association with the Israeli left and worked with Barak in 1999 and Isaac Herzog in 2015.
So how does he rate Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s chances on Tuesday? Greenberg says he is only a “very distant observer” of the campaign and hasn’t spoken to Barak since his former client jumped back into frontline politics this summer with the launch of the Democratic Camp.
But, even with his historical experience, Greenberg admits to “always [being] amazed at how far Bibi is willing to go to try to hold onto power.”
He believes, however, that Netanyahu’s days in office may be numbered.
“It looks to me like he doesn’t end up as the leader coming out of it, if I believe the sustained polling now in terms of where the blocs are. It looks like there’s going to be a different kind of mix that produces the prime minister,” he says.
Greenberg says he’s also “impressed” that what he terms Netanyahu’s “anti-Arab campaign” — which he accuses the prime minister of deploying in 2015 and in April’s poll — “doesn’t seem” to be paying dividends.
“Since he’s moved to his next desperate strategy it feels like it’s not working, and it feels like parties are willing to talk about civic equality, and courting the votes of all citizens in ways we haven’t seen before, and so maybe there’ll be some changes in the political culture after this election,” Greenberg cautiously suggests.
Greenberg says he’s “rooting for” Barak’s Democratic Camp and speaks sadly of the Labor party’s current travails. “A lot of the decisions that Labor has made,” he says, “I understand it but it’s not a very expansive view of what a Labor party should represent in Israel given its history.”
Netanyahu certainly remembers the campaign that he worked on for Barak 20 years ago, Greenberg jokes. The prime minister, Greenberg recalls, pulled him aside when he recently visited Israel as part of a congressional delegation — Greenberg’s wife is Democratic congresswoman Rosa DeLauro — and said: “You are the last person who defeated me.”