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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Despite Democratic Romp, Study Shows Dems Can’t Write Off White Working Class

In his Washington Post column, “Democrats Cut the Cheer,” David Von Drehle takes the punch bowl away from the Democratic gloatfest following last week’s elections, noting the findings of “a deeply researched paper published Nov. 1 by the liberal Center for American Progress”:

…Political scientists Rob Griffin, Ruy Texeira and John Halpin set out after the 2016 election to determine who voted — by race, age and education — and in what proportions. Their months-long project drew strands from a wide range of data sources and wove them into a picture quite different from the one painted by the imperfect art of Election Day exit polling…“Voter Trends in 2016: A Final Examination” suggests that the coalition of college-educated progressives and people of color on which Democrats have staked their identity may be weaker than most party strategists believed. And as they continue their crawl through the political wilderness, they may find that efforts to strengthen the coalition prove counterproductive, as they did against Trump.

Von Drehle’s brush is a bit broad, in that not all Democrats “have staked their identity” on said coalition, but he is right that identity politics advocates provide “a significant source of the energy in the Democratic Party.” Many Democratic leaders have urged a more inclusive electoral pitch. But for those who have urged ignoring the white working-class, Von Drehle’s column makes some instructive points, including;

I was struck by two sets of data from this rich trove of findings that may add up to a cautionary tale. First, the white electorate is larger and less educated than exit polls would have us believe. The pollsters calculated that 71 percent of voters in 2016 were white and that more than half of them had four or more years of college. But the CAP team came to a very different conclusion: The turnout was nearly 74 percent white (a significant difference in a razor-thin election), and only about two out of five of these voters had a college degree.

Overall, 45 percent of voters in 2016 — by far the largest segment — were whites who either did not attend or did not complete college. This was not entirely a Trump-driven phenomenon. The authors found that exit polls greatly underestimated the voting power of non-college-educated whites in 2012, too.

Second, whatever strength Democrats have gained from identity politics appears to have reached a natural ceiling. Candidate Trump built his campaign on his willingness to offend people. He bashed immigrants, linked Mexicans to violent crime, dog-whistled to white supremacists. Yet when the votes were counted, Trump outperformed 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney among African American voters and matched Romney among Latinos.

Von Drehle adds that “A lot of pixels have been devoted to the theory that Clinton would have won the election had she matched Barack Obama in African American turnout. The CAP study confirms that this is true. But the study also shows that she would have won had she matched Obama among whites without a degree.”

“Once the party of the working class,” Von Drehle continues, “Democrats have lost their connection to the largest bloc of voters in America. Democrats had an edge in 1992 of more than five points over Republicans in the registration of white voters with only a high school diploma. By 2016, Republicans had flipped that advantage and widened it to more than 25 points.”

Identity politics advocates will no doubt point to Northam’s Virginia victory as proof that Democrats can win governorships in purple states, even when the Republican candidate wins white non-college voters by a margin of about 40 points. But Democrats can’t count on replicating last week’s political moment, nor Republicans making the same blundering miscalculations of the Gillespie campaign.

Further, as Von Drehle concludes, “No party should feel sanguine heading into an election so glaringly weak with the plurality of the electorate. Democrats will celebrate in 2018 and beyond only if they begin reconnecting with the white working class. How? By assuring them that their concerns matter — not more than, but as much as, anyone else’s.”

3 comments on “Despite Democratic Romp, Study Shows Dems Can’t Write Off White Working Class

  1. Anthony Greco on

    I would also argue that, apart from being obtuse from a practical political standpoint, the idea that Democrats can/should mostly ignore the white working class is morally objectionable. Most of us, after all, aren’t exclusively interested in winning elections. A great political party that claims to support the interests of the less privileged in our society cannot in good conscience write off a huge chunk of the population, one that has been suffering serious hardship in recent decades.

  2. Jack Olson on

    If the Democrats want to win back the white working class the way David Von Drehle recommends, “By assuring them that their concerns matter–not more than, but as much as, anyone else’s”, the first thing they will have to do is make sure it’s true.


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