vision 2020

The Tyranny of the Unwoke White Swing Voter

All votes are equal. Some are just more equal than others. Photo: Justin Merriman/Getty Images

The American public is more “pro-immigration” now than at any time on record. The Republican president’s nativist policies inspire antipathy in the median voter and heightened civic participation in the Democratic base. Last fall, Team Blue made big gains in House districts where voters lean more progressive on cultural issues than they do on economic ones. Meanwhile, the party’s core voters have never been less white, or more racially progressive, than they are in the present era.

Viewed in isolation, these facts might suggest that the Democratic Party has much to gain, and little to lose, by centering its 2020 campaign on race and immigration. In other Western democracies, center-left parties may need to tiptoe around issues of national identity that divide culturally conservative, working-class whites from highly educated, urban liberals. But America’s comparatively large college-educated and nonwhite populations — combined with its longer history of mass immigration — means that the Democratic Party can rally a majority coalition behind social liberalism.

Hillary Clinton’s team ostensibly accepted this basic argument in 2016. While the Democratic nominee endorsed a wide variety of progressive economic proposals and gave speeches on “bread-and-butter” issues, her paid messaging and campaign slogan put greater emphasis on celebrating a multicultural conception of American identity. And these themes did, in fact, prove compatible with winning nearly 3 million more votes than the Republican candidate. When combined with Clinton’s other liabilities and misfortunes, however, they were ostensibly incompatible with assembling an Electoral College majority.

After Donald Trump’s election, the conventional wisdom among Democratic operatives drastically changed. Celebrating diversity was out, and focusing on bread-and-butter issues was in. Congressional Democrats talked up their “Better Deal” agenda of progressive economic reforms. The party’s 2018 candidates talked about health-care relentlessly. The ensuing blue wave fortified the new consensus: Asked last week about Joe Biden’s recent racial controversies, Nancy Pelosi replied, “That’s not what this election is about. This election is about how we connect with the American people, addressing their kitchen-table needs.”

The rationale behind this pivot has been clear for a while now. For years, exit polls systematically underrepresented non-college-educated white voters, due to the greater propensity of more educated Americans to participate in such surveys. Since 2016, political operatives have grown more universally aware of this fact. In truth, white voters without college degrees likely accounted for between for somewhere between 48 and 54 percent of the 2016 electorate. And that massive demographic is overrepresented in battleground states. One implication of this: Even though only a small fraction of white working-class voters are true independents, that small fraction is nonetheless large enough to swing elections.

And the typical white non-college-educated independent is economically liberal, but racially reactionary.

While these basic dynamics have been clear for a while, the New York Times’ Thomas Edsall got his hands on some data that clarifies the Democrats’ dilemma.

Drawing on polling commissioned by the AFL-CIO, Edsall shows that the white non-college-educated vote is far from monolithic. About 40 percent of the demographic is either reliably Democratic, or leans toward Democrats. And that contingent includes no small number of racial and cultural liberals: 80 percent of white working-class Democrats approve of Black Lives Matter, 82 percent oppose the construction of fence along the U.S.-Mexico border, and 69 percent believe that racial discrimination makes it “difficult for African-Americans to work their way out of the lower class.”

But the 51 percent of less-educated white voters who are either reliably Republican or lean that way — and the 10 percent who are true independents — see these matters quite differently:

Photo: Polling Consortium Election Survey
Photo: Polling Consortium Election Survey

The typical independent, white non-college voter resents undocumented immigrants, and (nonwhite) identity politics. Fortunately for Democrats, they also resent the rich. As Edsall writes:

On health care and economic matters, there is far more overlap between the views of Democrats as a whole and independent white working class voters.


Support for a tax on wealth in excess of $100 million tops 90 percent among Democrats, while white working class independents support such a proposal 59-25.

… By two to one, white independents agreed with two liberal populist statements: that “social and economic problems in this country are largely due to a handful of wealthy and powerful people rigging the rules to their advantage” and that “social and economic problems in this country are largely due to a handful of wealthy and powerful people dividing us against each other so they can take more for themselves.”

Even marginal shifts in this voting bloc’s mood can change the course of history. In 2016, non-college-educated whites as a whole backed Trump over Clinton by a 60 to 34 percent margin. In 2018, thanks largely to a leftward shift among independents, Democratic House candidates improved slightly on Clinton’s showing, losing the white non-college vote to their Republican rivals by 58 to 38 percent.

If Clinton had lost non-college whites by “only” that much in 2016, she would have 2.9 million more votes, and Donald Trump would not be president.

There is little evidence that Democrats would benefit from trying to meet white working-class independents halfway on immigration and racial justice. Beyond the risk that such triangulation would demoralize key portions of the Democratic base, Trump’s GOP will always enjoy greater credibility on such issues among this category of voters. If the typical white independent is thinking about immigration when she goes into the ballot box in 2020, she’s going to vote red; if she’s thinking about health-care costs, she’s going to vote blue. Thus, anything that increases the salience of immigration — including the Democratic Party loudly proclaiming its commitment to “get tough” on the border — is likely to redound to the GOP’s benefit.

The smart play, therefore, isn’t to sacrifice the party’s commitment to social liberalism and cosmopolitan values, but to avoid emphasizing those things. After all, even if such caution isn’t necessary for defeating Trump, given his exceptional unpopularity, it will be nearly impossible for Democrats to assemble Senate majorities without improving their margins among white non-college voters, given how overrepresented they are in that chamber.

This is the party’s current calculus, anyway.

Framing 2020 as a fight over kitchen-table issues won’t be easy. The days of “We built it” are over; Republicans have learned to campaign on white grievance, not upper-class entitlement. Meanwhile, the horrors of Donald Trump’s border policies may alienate some voters. But by obliging Democratic leaders to demonstrate moral leadership on immigration, the administration’s atrocities undermine Team Blue’s bread-and-butter strategy. The median voter may find child detention alienating. But the median white non-college-educated independent is more invested in securing the border than upholding human rights. Further, given that electorates have been growing more polarized around questions of immigration and national identity and less polarized around those of economics and class throughout almost all of Western Europe, there’s reason to think that Democrats are moving against the tide: In a world of aging white electorates, diversifying populations, and declining labor movements, the arc of political conflict bends toward culture war.

If America’s political system operated on the principle of majority rule, Democrats might not need to swim against this current (although the left would remain obliged to do so). But our system operates on the principle that whiter, more rural areas deserve disproportionate influence over the federal government. Thus, Democrats think their best bet is to try to make class politics great again, and increase turnout among nonwhite and younger voters (and pray that these two objectives don’t prove to be mutually exclusive). And that’s probably a sound course of action.

But they’ll have their work cut out for them. A recent Gallup survey found that the American public views immigration more favorably in 2019 than at any time on record. But that same poll found that the minority of Americans who disapprove of immigration have never put a greater priority on that issue than they do now.

The Tyranny of the Unwoke White Swing Voter