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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Brownstein: Democratic ‘Coalition of Transformation’ Must Navigate Complex Demographic and Geographic Differences in Political Attitudes

At CNN Politics, Ronald Brownstein addresses “one of the central questions about our steadily widening political and social divide: Is the fundamental fissure in American life now demographic or geographic?”

The answer, a growing body of evidence suggests, is both. And that may point to a future of even greater distance — and antagonism — between a Democratic coalition centered in racially diverse, largely secular, and post-industrial metropolitan centers and a Republican coalition grounded in small-town and rural communities that remain mostly white, Christian and rooted in traditional manufacturing, agriculture and resource extraction.

…Since the early 1990s, the two parties’ coalitions of support have steadily separated, both demographically and geographically. That process reached a new peak in the bruising 2016 presidential race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Geographically, Clinton dominated the nation’s biggest places, winning 87 of the nation’s 100 largest counties, while Trump carried over 2,600 of the nation’s other 3,000 counties, most of them smaller. (He won more counties than any candidate in either party since Ronald Reagan in 1984.)

Demographically, the divides were just as formidable, with Clinton posting big margins among younger and minority voters, Trump romping among blue-collar and older whites, and college-educated whites dividing almost exactly in half between them. The parties’ positions in the House of Representatives largely follow these tracks, with Democrats relying mostly on diverse and white-collar urbanized districts, while most of the Republican caucus represents predominantly white and heavily blue-collar seats beyond the metro centers.

Brownstein sorts out the residential patterns of the key demographic constituencies, and notes that ” In an exhaustive recent study, the non-partisan Pew Research Center, for instance, found that non-whites comprised over half the population in the largest urban centers, about one-third in suburban communities, and only about one-fifth in small town and rural places. Whites without a college degree represented about three-in-10 urban residents, exactly four-in-ten in suburbs and nearly six-in-10 in rural places.” Further, “Each of the electorate’s three broadest groupings — whites without a college degree, whites with a four-year college degree or more and non-whites — bend steadily toward more conservative views as they move from the most- to the least-populated communities.”

On the one hand, non-college whites almost always expressed more conservative views than did either non-whites or whites with a college degree living in the same kind of geographic area…When asked, for instance, whether immigrants had a positive impact on their community, in urban areas 62% of college-educated whites and 51% of non-whites, compared to only 36% of non-college whites said yes. In suburban areas, 56% of college-educated whites and 50% of non-whites, compared to just 32% of blue-collar whites, saw a positive impact. In rural areas, about 40% of both college whites and non-whites saw a positive impact, compared to only about one-fourth of non-college whites.

Likewise, in urban, suburban and rural communities alike the share of college-educated whites and non-whites was greater (often much greater) than the proportion of blue-collar whites who agreed that whites still have advantages over African-Americans; agreed that women still face significant obstacles in society; agreed that society can prosper without people making marriage and child-rearing a priority; and agreed that the growing number of newcomers strengthens, rather than weakens, America. Urban and suburban minorities and college-educated whites were also much more likely than their white blue-collar counterparts to say government should do more to solve problems. (Rural blue- and white-collar whites largely converged on the question.) The sole wrinkle in this general pattern is that in urban areas non-whites were slightly less likely than blue-collar whites to express liberal views on abortion and gay marriage — a reflection of the deep culturally conservative strains in many African-American and Hispanic churches.

But, just as important, Pew’s survey also found that the share of each major demographic group expressing liberal views was almost always greater, often much greater, in larger than smaller places…The share of college whites who said government should do more to solve problems rose even more precipitously from about two-fifths in rural places, to just over half in suburbia, to nearly three-fourths in urban centers…Among non-whites, the share supporting more government activism similarly grew from 62% in rural communities, to 65% in suburbs to 78% in urban centers.

Additional data from Browstein’s article supports the patterns with ‘social issues,’ including same-sex marriage, immigration and reproductive rights. The data amplifies “the persistent power of place” in American politics, as well as demographic realities in “shaping political attitudes.”  He adds that the survey results “reinforce the argument that Ruy Teixeira, a longtime liberal electoral analyst, and author John Judis made in their landmark 2002 book, “The Emerging Democratic Majority.” In that book, the two argued that Democrats had a better chance of reaching blue-collar whites who chose to live amid the diversity of urban centers than those who located in more racially and religiously homogenous communities outside the metropolitan core.” He quotes Teixeira on some of the reasons for the attitudinal differences:

“One is you hang around in an area where certain types of ideas are dominant and you tend to absorb those attitudes,” he said. Second, he continued, in small places people are less likely to actually face personal interaction with the sources of so many cultural flashpoints. “There is a well known relationship about … having certain attitudes about immigration or feminists and not encountering many,” he notes…Finally, he said, these impulses are reinforced by the growing economic gap between thriving larger metropolitan areas and smaller places that are struggling to hold population and jobs. “The fact is that a lot of these white non-college voters who are living in dense areas are living in areas that are working, where economic mobility is feasible, and that takes the edge off of their cultural conservatism,” Teixeira says.

Brownstein explains that “The November midterm election seems likely to further extend this crevice between what I have called the Democratic “coalition of transformation” and the Republican “coalition of restoration.” All polls suggest Republicans face enormous risk in white-collar suburbs and urban districts crowded with college-educated whites and minority voters resistant to Trump. But the Democrats’ prospects appear much more limited beyond those urban centers.”

Brownstein sees an opportunity for Democrats, noting that “In Pew’s data, large majorities of blue-collar whites across rural, suburban and urban communities agreed that the economy favors the powerful; across all three areas, in fact, they were nearly as likely to agree with that sentiment as were minorities and college whites.” He concludes with Teixeira’s observation that, “The chink in the armor [for Republicans], such as it is, there is a conflict between these [blue-collar and rural] voters’ views of the rich and powerful in general and their views of entitlement programs and the way Republicans really do approach policy…If [Democrats] can convince more people that it’s a really top priority to help you and your community, they would look the other way on some of their cultural conservative views.

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