As Democratic Party leaders plot and scheme on how Democrats might win back the House in 2018, and the presidency and the Senate in 2020, Democrats appear caught between two strategic impulses, which seem to be in tension.
One impulse is to try to win back white-working class whites, particularly in key Rust Belt states, who voted for Barack Obama and the defected to Donald Trump.
A second impulse is to win over upscale suburban professionals, particularly in the 23 congressional districts where Hillary Clinton defeated Trump but where voters also sent a Republican to the House.
In the first strategy, the narrative goes like this: Democrats lost in 2016 because they didn’t have an economic message for working-class whites, and the Clinton campaign made a huge mistake when it decided that “we can’t win the economic argument.” Clinton didn’t present herself as a champion of the working class. And Trump did, however disingenuously. Whereas the Obama campaign went after Romney as a silver-spoon elite from the beginning, the Clinton campaign made very little of the fact that Trump inherited his wealth.
Trump also won because Obama-Trump voters held negative attitudes toward black people, immigrants, and Muslims, which Trump activated with his racial demagoguery. If Democrats had a compelling economic argument, this narrative goes, perhaps the racial stuff would have mattered less. After all, Obama won many of these voters, so how racist could they really be?
In the second strategy, the narrative is that these working-class white voters are now hopelessly lost to Democrats because Democrats can’t cater to racists when half of their party is now minority voters. But “moderate” Romney-Clinton voters are totally gettable now that the Republican Party is on the Trump train to crazytown. Add in more young voters and more minority voters (part of the rising demographic), and Democrats will have a lasting majority.
On the surface, these two strategies suggest different postures for the Democrats. In the first strategy, Democrats should tone down their language on race and immigration and culture, but broadcast loudly a new progressive economic agenda. In the second strategy, Democrats are freer to lean into progressive racial and cultural policies, as long as they have somewhat moderate economic policies.
For reasons I’ll explain shortly, winning back the Obama-Trump white working-class voters is going to be difficult. That’s why tactically, the second strategy probably makes the most sense for 2018, and it seems to be where party strategists are heading. But it may not require as much economic “moderation” as some think.
Nor should it. Much of the party’s energy is now in the progressive wing, which is demanding more progressive economic policy. For now, Democrats can simply write the words “Impeach Trump” in the sky, and Democratic voters will turn out. But Trump might not always be president.
More significantly, a more progressive economic policy is crucial to rebuilding a middle class. And it’s really hard to maintain a democracy long term without a middle class.
Whither the Obama-Trump voters?
I’m going to draw here on some analysis I did as part of a project with the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group, which partnered with YouGov to survey 8,000 adults, all of whom had participated in similar surveys in mid-2016, 2012, and 2011 (which allowed for a unique longitudinal data set).
Let’s start by looking at what shifted between 2012 and 2016.
The below table comes from political scientist John Sides, who also wrote a report as part of the project. By Sides’s calculations, 9 percent of Obama voters supported Trump, while 5.4 percent of Romney voters supported Clinton. Most voters, however, were consistent partisans: 86 percent of Obama voters supported Clinton, and 89 percent of Romney voters supported Trump.
Still, these shifts were consequential, especially in key states.
So what do these Obama-Trump voters look like? Before we zoom in on the Obama-Trump voters, let’s first take a look at the entire electorate along two issue dimensions, an economic dimension and a social/identity dimension.
The overall picture is pretty much what we’d expect. Clinton voters clustered in the lower left corner: liberal on both economic and identity issues. Trump voters clustered in the upper middle: conservative on identity issues, and somewhat conservative on economic issues. Interestingly, though, Trump general election voters were more widely dispersed on economic issues, ranging more broadly from liberal to conservative. Republicans have the broader coalition, which is why they have the majority. But it’s also why they are so divided.
To simplify further, let’s break the electorate into four types, based on their position in the four quadrants.
- Liberal (44.6 percent): lower left, liberal on both economic and identity issues
- Populist (28.9 percent): upper left, liberal on economic issues, conservative on identity issues
- Conservative (22.7 percent): upper right, conservative on both economic and identity issues
- Libertarian (3.8 percent): lower right, conservative on economics, liberal on identity issues
With that basic picture sketched out, let’s now look at what changed within these different types of voters between 2012 and 2016.
The main thing we learn from this data is that the Obama-to-Trump voter was overwhelmingly what I’m calling a “populist” — liberal on economic issues, conservative on social/identity issues.
I also looked at voters over 12 issues topics, taking averages across different voting groups. Again, the takeaway is that Obama-Trump voters look a lot like other Democrats on their concerns about economic inequality. But they look like Republican voters on race and identity questions. They’re also somewhat skeptical of government solutions, though not nearly as skeptical as other Republicans.
Most “populists” were already voting Republican
We can also look at the shifts among “populists” between 2012 and 2016.
First, observe that a little more half these populists voted for Romney in 2012. Of the 29 percent of the electorate that I classified as populist, almost 16 percent were already Republican voters in the 2012 presidential election. Trump kept 93 percent of these populists voting Republican.
Of the remaining 13 percent of the electorate I count as populists, about 8 percent had voted for Obama in 2012, while another 5 percent had voted for someone else.
Among those populists who voted for Obama, Clinton did terribly. She held on to only six in 10 of these Obama populist voters (59 percent). Trump picked up 27 percent of them, and the remaining 14 percent didn’t vote for either major party candidate.
It is also worth noting that Trump did surprisingly well with populist voters who had supported neither Obama nor Romney in 2012. More than four in 10 (43 percent) shifted to Trump, while fewer than one in six (15 percent) shifted to Clinton. The remaining 42 percent again withheld their support for a major party candidate. While this group is not a huge percentage of the electorate, in a close election, every little bit matters.
Can Democrats win back the “populists”?
The obvious question is whether Democrats could win back at least some of these populists. They don’t have to win them all back. Just a few could still make a difference.
Presumably, if economics became more salient than race in 2018 and beyond, Democrats might indeed win back a few of these voters.
Salience is important. As Sides notes in his report, “The increased salience of these attitudes was particularly helpful for Trump because there were a substantial number of white Obama voters who as of late 2011 had less favorable attitudes toward black people, Muslims, and immigrants.” Thee fact that issues of race and immigration dominated the election certainly contributed to Trump’s victory.
Making economics more salient is one part of the equation. But to win back the working-class white voters, Democrats also have to find a way to make race and immigration less salient. And this is where it gets tricky.
This is hard for two reasons.
One is that Donald Trump is president, and he has every incentive to keep these issues salient. They’re the issues that helped him win, and they’re the issues that will remind core Republican voters about the stakes of the election. As president, it’s very easy for Trump to keep these issues front and center, since he controls the agenda. And he’s shown every interest in doing so.
Two is that at this point, about half of Democratic voters are nonwhite. For Democrats to ignore the very real concerns of minority voters given the Trump administration’s far-right agenda on civil rights and immigration would be political suicide. It would effectively cast aside half of their voters in hopes of appealing to some small slice of voters who left the party, and deprive the party of the energy it needs to increase turnout.
But this was not just a 2016 story. Arguably it’s been building for decades. As Sides also writes, “prior to the 2016 campaign, there was an increasing alignment between race and partisanship. Among white people, there was an increasing division based on formal education. The party coalitions had shifted even before Trump’s candidacy.”
These “populist” voters have been fleeing Democrats for a while. Long-term trends are hard to reverse.
In short, Democrats seem unlikely win back many Obama-Trump voters. These voters are probably gone from the party for the foreseeable future.
Can Democrats convert Romney-Clinton voters?
Democrats’ other play is to reach out to Romney-Clinton voters, and maybe Romney voters who didn’t vote for either major party candidate, or possibly even some reluctant Trump voters. In short, go after the remaining moderate Republican voters who feel adrift from their party.
What do Romney-Clinton voters look like? On social and identity issues, they tend to be in between consistent Democrats and consistent Republicans. Interestingly, they tend to share Democrats’ concerns about economic inequality, but look a little more like consistent Republicans in their views on whether government is the solution.
This is very good news for Democrats, because it means Democrats can stay progressive on social and identity issues and still appeal to Romney-Clinton voters. It also means that they can talk about economic inequality, and may even benefit from naming some names. But it means they have to be careful about how they talk about government as the solution.
To be sure, if the economy is sluggish, if the Trump administration continues to be a scandal factory, and if Democrats recruit high-quality candidates, they have a good chance of taking back the House, regardless of how they resolve these strategies.
Or it may be as simple as this: If Trump continues to demonstrate just how preposterously unfit he is for the job of president, a message of “to impeach Trump, vote Democrat” may be enough.
But to build a political agenda entirely on negative partisanship is not a recipe for long-term success. Just ask the Republican Party of 2017. Democrats need to stand for something.
Embracing a progressive economic agenda might not be enough to win back the Obama-Trump voters. But Romney-Clinton voters are also concerned about economic inequality, and should be responsive to a progressive economic agenda, as long as it isn’t too heavy on government.
They should be concerned. The middle class is disappearing in America, and it’s really hard to have a democracy without a middle class. The Republican Party right now seems incapable of doing anything about it. That means it’s on the Democrats. And if the Obama-Trump voter benefits and still votes Republican, so be it.
Whether Democrats embrace this strategy is uncertain. Democrats are becoming the party of the upper class, which may make it harder for the party to embrace a transformative progressive economic agenda. And the electoral logic is such that Democrats could probably get away with catering to upscale cosmopolitan professionals for a while longer, without paying much of a price for it. But long term, this is not a great strategy for Democrats. As America becomes more and more unequal, being the party of wealthy professionals will be less and less tenable.