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Joe Biden is attracting more crossover endorsements from prominent members of the opposing party than any other presidential candidate from either side in decades. That doesn’t guarantee the former vice president victory in November, but history suggests it could signal a lasting break in the Republican coalition that provides new opportunities to Democrats for years to come.

The public support for Biden significantly exceeds the number of Republicans who officially endorsed Hillary Clinton against Donald Trump in 2016. In recent decades, experts say, only Bill Clinton in his winning campaign of 1992 and Ronald Reagan in his 1980 landslide attracted anything approaching this level of support from leading members of the opposite party’s coalition. But probably no presidential candidate has entirely matched Biden’s level of crossover endorsements since Richard Nixon’s 49-state landslide reelection in 1972 was boosted by the massive “Democrats for Nixon” operation headed by John Connally, the former Democratic governor of Texas and Lyndon B. Johnson protégé.

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What makes the defections from Trump especially noteworthy is that the vast majority of Republican renegades are not only indicating they don’t intend to vote for Trump but are also taking the long next step to avow that they will vote for Biden. That’s unusual.

“It’s extraordinary,” says John J. Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College and a former Republican congressional aide. “Even in 1964 you had some Republicans who didn’t support Barry Goldwater, but not all that many went ‘all the way for LBJ.’ Maybe with the exception of 1972 with Democrats for Nixon, I can’t remember this many prominent figures in a party crossing lines to support the other candidate.”

Generally, campaign professionals and political scientists alike agree that endorsements don’t move many voters, especially in presidential races, where so much other information is available about the candidates. But the few previous comparable examples of partisan crossover all signaled a shift in the political alignment that saw a voting bloc previously connected to one party shear off and drift toward the other.

Richard M. Nixon, the 37th President (1969-1974)
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Richard M. Nixon, the 37th President (1969-1974)

That could be happening again: Almost everyone on these long lists of Republican defectors is exactly the sort of White college-educated professional that Biden, polls show, is on track to win at numbers unmatched by any previous Democratic nominee. The common hope of these organizers is that their public embrace of the former vice president will help blunt the efforts by Trump to convince Republican-leaning voters tilting toward Biden that Democrats are “socialists” committed to undermining the nation’s fundamental values.

“I think the biggest value is that it shows it’s OK to vote for Joe Biden for Republicans,” says Wes Gullett, a former Arizona state director for the late Sen. John McCain, who has endorsed Biden. “There are a lot of Republicans sitting there thinking: Is all this stuff true about the Democrats? But now all these Republicans are publicly endorsing Joe Biden. That doesn’t usually happen.”

Who’s endorsing Biden

A steady stream of GOP endorsements this year for Biden – highlighted by the early emergence of The Lincoln Project and Republican Voters Against Trump, two groups trying to peel away GOP voters from the President – has surged into a torrent over the past two weeks. Just since the start of the Democratic National Convention last month, Biden has received public endorsements from a huge roster of Republicans, including about two dozen former House and Senate members, nearly 75 former national security officials in Republican administrations, a group of former Republican Justice Department officials, and hundreds of aides to the three Republican presidential nominees immediately before Trump: Mitt Romney in 2012, McCain in 2008 and George W. Bush in 2004 and 2000.

Over this same period, a former chief of staff and a former assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security have both recorded testimonials for the Republican Voters Against Trump group declaring the President unfit to serve.

Mark Salter, for many years McCain’s closest aide as his longtime chief of staff, spoke for the organizers of many of these efforts when he said it was not difficult recruiting former colleagues who, like him, still consider themselves staunch Republicans to sign a statement endorsing Biden.

“They can see Trump for what he is: in way over his head, divisive, angry, self-obsessed, a guy with no self- control and no business running the most powerful country on earth,” Salter told me. “He just doesn’t know what he’s doing. A lot of people on [the McCain] list are foreign policy types. If Trump gets another four years we won’t have any allies. That drove a lot of it. Overall for most people it’s that Trump’s … reason for living is seeing how much he can make division among us and his utter incompetence at containing a pandemic that has now cratered our economy.”

01:18 - Source: CNN
Former Trump official endorsing Joe Biden

The Biden campaign expects to use these endorsements in several ways. It provided prominent speaking slots at the Democratic convention to three GOP endorsers (led by former Ohio Gov. and former GOP presidential candidate John Kasich). Looking forward, it intends to deploy the most prominent breakaway Republicans for media interviews. (The Biden endorsements from former GOP Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona and the former McCain aides each received extensive coverage in Arizona, one of the top target states for both sides.)

It expects as well to use them in effect as expert witnesses to rebut charges from Trump during the upcoming presidential debates. And the Biden camp plans to highlight his GOP support in targeted digital advertising, mailings and other communication aimed at Republican-leaning voters who have signaled willingness to cross party lines before, one senior campaign adviser said.

“Especially because we are in this weird hybrid virtual campaign world, there’s ample opportunity to use them online, to use them digitally,” said the Biden campaign adviser, who asked for anonymity to discuss internal strategy. “The beauty of a digital campaign, a virtual campaign, is that you can really hyper-target.”

Salter, who wrote many of McCain’s most memorable speeches and co-authored several books with him, says the McCain alumni backing Biden intend to do more than just put their names on a single statement.

“We will do whatever the Biden campaign would like us to do,” he says flatly.

The lists of GOP figures endorsing Biden are filled not only with midtier GOP officials but also a long roster of marquee names. They include many former high-ranking officials from Bush’s administration (including Secretary of State Colin Powell; Michael Hayden, who directed both the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency; UN ambassador and later Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte; Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman and Deputy Attorney General Donald Ayer); the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations (including William Webster, who directed the FBI for Reagan and the CIA for Bush, and Charles Fried, Reagan’s solicitor general); three former GOP senators (Flake, John Warner of Virginia and Gordon Humphrey of New Hampshire), as well as two other former GOP senators who later served as defense secretaries in Democratic administrations (William Cohen and Chuck Hagel) and an array of prominent former Republican House members, such as Chris Shays and Connie Morella, who held the sort of white-collar suburban districts Democrats now dominate.

Christine Todd Whitman
c/o Christine Todd Whitman
Christine Todd Whitman

Also on these various lists: three former chiefs of staff to McCain and the top strategists for both of the Republican presidential campaigns that immediately preceded Trump’s: Steve Schmidt and John Weaver for McCain in 2008 and Stuart Stevens for Romney in 2012 are all among the leaders of The Lincoln Project.

“What’s starting to happen is some Republicans are starting to say out loud what all Republicans are saying in private [about Trump],” Stevens told me. “And anything that gives permission to Republicans to support a Democrat is useful.”

By contrast, the most prominent Democrat the Trump campaign could recruit to speak for him at the recent Republican convention was a single state representative from Georgia. Also featured was the Democratic Mayor of Eveleth in northern Minnesota, a town of fewer than 4,000 people.

Strikingly, the organizers of the anti-Trump Republican efforts attracted names of that stature without diluting the messages they signed on to. The recent letter from former Republican national security officials flatly declared, “Through his actions and his rhetoric, Trump has demonstrated that he lacks the character and competence to lead this nation and has engaged in corrupt behavior that renders him unfit to serve as President.”

An open letter from former aides to George W. Bush insisted: “If we explain away misogyny and racism as political tactics we are complicit in normalizing completely inappropriate behavior. This is not who we are as a nation. Americans want a successful country, but how is that possible if what we see modeled from the White House is disrespect and outright hate?”

Noted 20th-century defections

Very few presidential candidates from either party have faced this level of intra-party defection. In 1980, a number of prominent “neoconservative” Democratic national security hawks abandoned Jimmy Carter for Ronald Reagan; that list was headlined by academic Jeane Kirkpatrick, who later became Reagan’s combative UN ambassador, and longtime arms control expert Paul Nitze.

As historian Rick Perlstein recounts in his vivid new book “Reaganland,” the former California governor also won endorsements from a number of surprising voices, including prominent New York liberal Edward Costikyan, civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy and several labor unions.

The formal “Democrats for Reagan” effort was modest: Headed by former Watergate special prosecutor Leon Jaworski (who faced questions about whether he was a Democrat at all), its activities were so limited that it attracted no coverage in either the New York or Los Angeles Times after its announcement in late September 1980. But Reagan also won support from a network of evangelical Christian ministers across the South, who, though less overtly political, had been pillars of the Democrats’ “solid South” for a full century after the Civil War.

President Reagan broadcast on the American propagandist radio Voice of America, behind the Iron Curtain.
Bettmann/Bettmann/Bettmann Archive
President Reagan broadcast on the American propagandist radio Voice of America, behind the Iron Curtain.

Clinton in 1992 won back several of the previously Democratic national security hawks who had broken for Reagan (including Nitze) and opened new ground by amassing endorsements from hundreds of corporate CEOs and other business leaders, including many in the emerging high-technology industry, such as the then-CEOs of Apple and Hewlett-Packard.

The most successful of these modern efforts was Nixon’s in 1972. Headed by Connally, the Democrats for Nixon effort spent millions of dollars on advertising and drew endorsements from the Democratic mayors of cities such as Boston, Nashville and Miami; a former governor of Florida; the oldest son of Franklin D. Roosevelt; and an assortment of business leaders, sports stars and celebrities (including Frank Sinatra and Charlton Heston) who had previously been associated mostly with Democrats. In Nixon’s biggest coup, the AFL-CIO, ordinarily a backbone of Democratic organizing efforts, remained neutral in his race against McGovern.

One key difference between then and now is that Nixon’s endorsements included several currently serving Democrats, while Biden’s list is composed of former officials and aides. Only a few Republican elected officials (including Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah and Vermont Gov. Phil Scott) have said they are not voting for Trump, and even they have not endorsed Biden.

Flake, in a recent interview on a podcast hosted by Al Hunt and Democratic strategist James Carville, acknowledged that absence reflected Trump’s dominance of the current Republican infrastructure: “There’s just no room right now in the party apparatus for any dissenting voices or anybody to say, ‘Hey, you know, we [are] kind of in a demographic cul-de-sac here that we’re just not going to get out of.’ “

The effect of these endorsements

There’s no consensus on how many voters any of these efforts swayed directly, though the University of Michigan’s American National Election Studies showed that large numbers of self-identified Democrats voted for Nixon in 1972 (41%) and Reagan in 1980 (26%).

But all of these cross-party endorsements embodied important changes in the political alignment.

Nixon’s success among Democratic elected officials across the South and in blue-collar Northern cities, as well as his neutralizing of organized labor, symbolized the GOP’s first significant inroads among mostly Catholic White ethnic voters like Italians and Irish in the North and White evangelical Protestants in the South. Reagan’s support from national security hard-liners and evangelical ministers sent powerful signals to the hawkish foreign policy and culturally conservative views of those voting groups. That helped Reagan to consolidate and expand all of Nixon’s demographic breakthroughs, creating the huge bloc of formerly Democratic White voters without college degrees known ever since as “Reagan Democrats.”

In turn, Clinton’s business inroads in 1992 – particularly in the emerging computer and communications industries – previewed the Democratic dominance of Silicon Valley over the coming generation and, more importantly, the movement toward the party among college-educated Whites, many of them suburban professionals. Before Clinton, those voters had been so reliably Republican that even Goldwater carried them in his landslide defeat to LBJ in 1964, according to the American National Election Studies surveys.

This year’s cross-party defections signal the opportunity for Biden to advance the Democratic position with those voters to a new height. A flurry of national pre-convention polls, including the latest CNN survey, generally showed him attracting nearly 60% of Whites with college degrees, a number no previous Democratic nominee has matched.

Rahm Emanuel, the former chief of staff to Barack Obama and former Chicago mayor, identified the opportunity many Democrats see when he wrote recently: “More than any other recent presidential race, this campaign looks like a repeat of 1980. That’s when Republicans wooed the ‘Reagan Democrats’ out of FDR’s New Deal coalition and into the GOP fold. This year, Democrats have an opportunity to chisel off a [college-educated] demographic that will come to be known as ‘Biden Republicans.’ “

The Lincoln Project and Republican Voters Against Trump are both laser-focused on those college-educated previously Republican voters. In this highly polarized era, Trump is unlikely to lose many voters who identify as Republican partisans, no matter their education level. For that reason, conservative strategist Craig Shirley, who has written a book about the 1980 campaign, “Rendezvous with Destiny,” says he does not believe Biden’s crossover endorsements will move nearly as many voters as Reagan’s did.

“The two parties are far more polarized today than they were in 1980,” Shirley says. “Reagan’s ability to get Democratic endorsements was important to assuage those Democrats on the fence between Reagan and Carter … whereas today that dynamic really doesn’t exist anymore.”

But the Republicans working against Trump say focusing solely on hard-core GOP partisans misses their potential impact. They note that the President faces the risk of substantial defection among well-educated suburban voters who consider themselves independents but previously leaned solidly toward the GOP. The Republican Voters group on Monday announced an advertising campaign of $8-$10 million in Florida alone aimed precisely at that group.

Michael Madrid, another GOP consultant who helped found the Lincoln Project, says Trump’s regular gestures toward “White grievance politics” have opened a “cultural gap” with white-collar, ordinarily right-leaning voters. That gap, he said, “is what we’re driving a truck through and just reminding [those voters] every day: This is what happens when you elect an incompetent.”

President Bill Clinton prepares to address the nation December 16, 1998, from the White House in Washington
Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images
President Bill Clinton prepares to address the nation December 16, 1998, from the White House in Washington

Even if Trump suffers more defections from those voters than previous Republican nominees, he could still win if he generates enough turnout in the key swing states of his core groups of non-college, evangelical and rural Whites. But Pitney, like other analysts, notes that all the groups Trump relies upon are shrinking as a share of the electorate, while the suburban professionals – not to mention the people of color and younger generations – who Trump is alienating are growing. The defections from the well-educated former Republican officials “are definitely a warning signal,” Pitney says. “Trump could win this time; it’s possible. But you don’t build a growing coalition on a shrinking demographic.”

Even if Biden wins, holding the center-right defectors from Trump would not be easy for a Democratic coalition whose left wing, rooted in the rising younger generations, is growing much more assertive. But many Democratic strategists believe the GOP’s turn toward Trump-style racial nationalism has presented them with an opportunity to shift the allegiance of white-collar Whites as lastingly as Reagan did for those with blue collars.

For these Republican-leaning professionals, “it shouldn’t be a false choice that I’ve got to take a right-winger who offends me on all these social values because I want to keep my taxes down and the economy going well,” says Pete Giangreco, a Democratic consultant who served as the chief strategist for Amy Klobuchar’s presidential campaign. “If Democrats do this right, that choice is no longer there. Now it’s a party I can live with versus a party that offends my values AND makes my life harder.”

If that shift among well-educated White professionals solidifies, the lengthening roster of former Republican officials endorsing Biden may be remembered as the opening tremor for a tectonic shift in the electoral landscape.