There is no area of argument in politics hoarier than the one that revolves around targeting “base” or “swing” voters — or to put it another way, the choice between mobilizing voters who already agree with you or persuading voters who don’t but might.
There’s obviously some ideological freight carried by the argument, since by definition base voters are going to be more comfortable with positions and messages most distinct from that of the opposition, while swing voters tend to listen to both sides. And so, among Democrats, base versus swing has long been a bone of contention between centrists and progressives.
This argument used to be one in which centrists usually had the upper hand because there were so very many swing voters, and also because winning a swing voter had the dual effect of gaining Democrats a vote while taking one away from Republicans. But with the rapid shrinkage of swing voting amid growing partisan polarization, and the heavy investment of Republicans in obstructing full voting opportunities for young people and minorities, the shoe is more often on the other foot now, with base mobilization becoming more essential and swing-voter persuasion being more difficult. It should still be possible for campaigns to do both. But on occasion representatives of the base view appeals to swing voters as something of a betrayal.
That’s how New York Times columnist Charles Blow appears to feel about appeals to white working-class voters:
[T]here is part of the Biden enthusiasm, and to a lesser extent the energy around candidates like Bernie Sanders, that focuses too heavily on the fickle white, working-class swing voters and is not enough focused on the party’s faithful.
Indeed, in political circles, Biden’s chief attribute in this election feels like his apparent appeal to these white voters.
Then Blow goes off:
These people are not experiencing conversion, they are being coddled. Democrats want to hold constant their support from women and minorities even as they chase the votes of people hostile to the interests of women and minorities. What does it say that the Democrats lust after disaffection rather than rewarding devotion? Democrats tell their base that this must be done, that the prodigal children must be brought home, as if that is their only path to victory. It is not. That is a lie. And, it’s a lazy lie.
Blow goes on to quote from a 2017 sociological study concluding that only 18.6 percent of 2016 voters were from the white working class. But that study develops its own, narrow definition of “working class” based on specific occupations, which may be defensible as a matter of sociology but does not describe the much larger universe (most commonly defined as non-college-educated) of voters actual politicians are actually targeting. As Ruy Teixeira reports from a 2018 study of this larger universe, it represented 44 percent of the 2016 electorate.
But even if I think his numbers are way off, I can understand Blow’s frustration with those exclusively preoccupied with swing voters who don’t share the party’s basic values. As a southern Democrat, I was always bothered that the members of the party’s most important electoral bloc, African-Americans, were expected perpetually to vote for white candidates, including those who self-identified as conservatives, with no expectation of white-voter reciprocity. As white southern voters increasingly moved into the GOP ranks, this particular swing-voter strategy became morally if not politically obtuse.
Is that what’s going on with the national Democratic Party now? And is that why Joe Biden is a viable candidate? Is Paul Waldman right in this pungent tweet:
There’s enough truth in that to make me chuckle, but on the other hand, the only reason Joe Biden is the 2020 front-runner is that he’s also the single-most-popular candidate among minority voters. A March 28 Quinnipiac poll of Democrats with detailed cross-tabs showed Biden supported by 44 percent of African-Americans (and just 29 percent of white voters), with Bernie Sanders a distant second at 17 percent.
More generally, it’s a rare and foolish Democrat who argues for targeting all white working-class voters; there’s a large segment lost for the foreseeable future thanks to reactionary racial, cultural, and even economic views, and a smaller but still significant segment that’s open to the same Democratic messages as most base voters. We are mostly, after all, talking about white working-class voters who supported Barack Obama in 2008 or 2012 — a candidate deeply beloved among base Democrats (and perhaps the main reason so many base Democrats currently like Joe Biden).
What will fail to bring these voters back, of course, is a Democratic Party that ignores them, or that treats them as inherently reactionary, or that goes out of its way to tell them they don’t matter politically. Charles Blow comes pretty close to arguing for precisely those tokens of disrespect:
At some point, the leadership and the front-runner are going to have to explain to women and minorities why their inordinate focus on white, working-class voters is justified, and that explanation will have to extend beyond, “It’s the only way.”
That explanation no longer has currency. “Anything to defeat Trump” is also not a soothing elixir. At some point, the loyal constituencies will demand to know: “What’s in it for us, specifically?” And I don’t blame them.
No one that I’m aware of is in favor of an “inordinate” focus on white working-class voters, but in the end a vote is a vote, and an a priori rejection of broad demographic categories is a good way to make sure you don’t get enough of them.
Without question, the base will determine the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, and no matter how much talk about electability takes place, it’s extremely unlikely anyone can win without explaining to “loyal constituencies” what’s in it for them, specifically. But treating the defeat of Donald Trump as a second-order consideration that’s less important than rewarding the steadiest of base voters is an approach that runs a high risk of forfeiting these very voters’ interests.