Misreading lessons of an evolving electorate

Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaHarris grapples with defund the police movement amid veep talk Five ways America would take a hard left under Joe Biden Valerie Jarrett: ‘Democracy depends upon having law enforcement’ MORE achieved a political victory in 2012 that seemed to defy all odds. His campaign mobilized a coalition of younger Americans, minorities and single women to win reelection. At the same time, white voters — the largest single bloc within the electorate — voted for his Republican opponent by a 20-point margin.

Obama’s victory convinced even his opponents that the nature of American politics was changing. The rapid pace of demographic change, experts on both sides believed, would leave the GOP as the permanent minority party unless it made a concerted effort to reach out to nonwhite voters and younger Americans. A political autopsy, overseen by five of the smartest thinkers within the Republican Party, concluded it needed to evolve beyond its historical base.


“The RNC cannot and will not write off any demographic or community or region of this country,” then-Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said when the autopsy was released.

Yet in the wake of the 2012 elections, both Democrats and Republicans alike missed a larger shift taking place within the electorate: They all paid attention to the Republican ceiling among minority voters. Few noticed that the Democratic floor among white working-class baby boomers was in the process of giving way.

Four years later, Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote Warren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases Esper orders ‘After Action Review’ of National Guard’s role in protests MORE won the presidency not by following the autopsy’s recommendations, but by redoubling his focus on white voters. The strategy flew in the face of conventional political wisdom — and it worked. Even Republicans who had worked on the autopsy were stunned.

“In focusing on [outreach to minorities], we ignored the reality that white working-class voters were swinging to us in historic numbers,” said one top Republican strategist involved in crafting the post-2012 autopsy. “We kind of ignored the pre-existing trend.”

This is the fourth story in The Hill’s Changing America series, in which we explore the two sets of divergent trends that are shaping the country today: The radically altered behavior of the largest voting bloc within the electorate contrasted with the rise of the most diverse generation in the nation’s history, and the growing importance of urban America contrasted with the slow, agonizing death of rural economies.

For generations, the fate of America’s two main political parties has been decided by white working-class voters, especially those who live in the Midwest. They are the voters who gave Democrats control of the House of Representatives for 40 years. They are the Reagan Democrats whose displeasure with Jimmy Carter ushered an icon of conservatism into the White House. 

They are those who split tickets, electing Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonWill the ‘law and order’ president pardon Roger Stone? Five ways America would take a hard left under Joe Biden The sad spectacle of Trump’s enablers MORE while they elevated Republican governors like John Engler, Tommy Thompson and Tom Ridge. When the worst recession in modern history struck, these voters did it again, putting Obama in the White House, then electing Republicans John Kasich, Scott Walker and Rick Snyder to Midwestern governships.

The political shifts among these white working-class voters have come as they feel the economic squeeze of a changing economy and confront looming questions about what it means to belong to the middle class.

In 2016, only one candidate spoke to those voters, promising a return to an era of high-quality blue-collar jobs by making America great again.

The economic stresses on white working-class voters have been decades in the making. As automation and globalization conspired to close plants and freeze wages, beginning as far back as the 1970s, fewer families were able to rely on income from one manufacturing salary. In 1970, just under half of American households had two wage earners; today, both parents work in more than two-thirds of households, according to the Census Bureau.

“People are not making the same relative wages that their parents made,” said Michael Heaney, a political scientist at the University of Michigan.

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Then came a cascade of new costs. First healthcare costs began to rise. Then more families accrued credit card debt. As the price of college soared, so did student loans: In 1994, about half of those who graduated from college carried debt, an average of about $10,000 each, according to Mark Kantrowitz, who studies student debt. In 2016, two-thirds of graduates will carry debt, averaging a whopping $35,000.

The combination of falling wages, rising costs and exploding debt has placed a particular strain on families once able to afford a middle-class lifestyle while saving for a deserved retirement, observers say.

“Everyone’s kept up the ability to appear like they aren’t falling behind,” said Laura Quinn, who runs the Democratic data analytics firm Catalist. “The safety net is now debt.”

Since the turn of the century, white working-class economic anxiety has translated into a more conservative political outlook. The recession, and anger toward Republicans who ran Washington, masked some of the movement, especially in 2008, when Obama won the White House.

And while some blame the Obama administration for ignoring the economic hardships faced by white working-class voters, driving them into Republican hands, the trend began long before he took office.

In 2000, 40 percent of white voters without a college degree in the Midwest, and 45 percent of those in the South, identified as Republicans or Republican-leaning independents. Today, 56 percent of Midwestern noncollege whites and 60 percent of Southern whites without a college degree identify as Republican or Republican-leaning, according to Pew Research Center polling.

There are 1,552 counties in America in which the population is more than 90 percent white. In 2016, Trump beat Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWhite House accuses Biden of pushing ‘conspiracy theories’ with Trump election claim Biden courts younger voters — who have been a weakness Trayvon Martin’s mother Sybrina Fulton qualifies to run for county commissioner in Florida MORE in 1,466 of those counties by an average of more than 43 percentage points. Among the 856 counties that are more than 95 percent white, Trump won 826.

As political ideologies have shifted, so too has the political map. Tom Bonier, a Democratic data expert, pointed to Missouri, a state Bill Clinton won twice. Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreCNN coronavirus town hall to feature science author David Quammen, ‘Empire’ actress Taraji Henson Top Democratic pollster advised Biden campaign to pick Warren as VP Melania Trump to appear on CNN coronavirus town hall Thursday night MORE competed in Missouri in 2000, but in the four subsequent elections, Democrats have barely bothered.

“Missouri was the canary in the coal mine for Democrats. Missouri 20 years ago was a swing state,” Bonier said. “All the sudden it just fell off the table, and it was white working-class voters just flocking away from the party.”

The 2016 elections illustrated the culmination of that political shift across the Midwest. Trump won Iowa. And Ohio. And Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

Voters who once defied political gravity have now come crashing down on Democrats’ heads. White working-class voters in Iowa, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and even in more traditionally blue states like Washington, Oregon and Minnesota, are now voting more in line with their socioeconomic peers from Alabama, Mississippi — and Missouri.

“A lot of this has been treated as if it was an overnight phenomenon,” Bonier said. In 2016, he added, “white working-class voters in Ohio were performing like white working-class voters in Missouri, who long since abandoned the party.”

Those voters found little to love in Hillary Clinton, whose campaign aimed to drive turnout among the blocs of younger and minority voters so instrumental to Obama’s success. And the economic stress they experienced made them uniquely receptive to Trump’s anti-immigrant, anti-trade populism.

“In a sense, you would argue that they were ready to be reached,” said Ruy Teixeira, a demographer at the liberal Center for American Progress.

America looks different now than it did when those voters came of age. Whites make up three-quarters of the baby boomer generation. They comprise just 55.8 percent of the millennial generation, a generation that is more likely to embrace diversity and globalism.

“The older population, made up of mostly older white baby boomers, are the ones who are most fearful of the demographic change that’s going on in the country,” said William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution. “It’s not that they’re racist; it’s just new to them.”

Once a group begins voting overwhelmingly for one party during its formative years, it largely sticks with that party, social scientists have found. That gave Democrats an edge among the greatest generation, whose political experiences were formed by Franklin Roosevelt, and the silent generation, which experienced the birth of Social Security. It gave Republicans an advantage among baby boomers, who grew up with Ronald Reagan and the rise of the new conservatism.

But that means that while Republican success among those white working-class voters is a short-term advantage, it is unlikely to last as the younger generation becomes a more potent force in the electorate — especially if those voters continue voting Democratic in such heavy percentages.

More than two-thirds of all baby boomers turned out to vote in November, according to Michael McDonald, a political scientist at the University of Florida; they accounted for more than a third of the total electorate. Conversely, fewer than half of millennials showed up at the polls; they represented less than a quarter of the electorate. As more millennials vote, Democrats will pull from a larger demographic pool. As boomers die off, the Republican pool will shrink.

“We’ve got 10 to 15 years until [millennials’] turnout rates approach those of older voters,” said Mark Stephenson, a Republican demographics and data expert. “Even so, that’s not a ton of time to change the mindset around an entire party, so Republicans should continue to work to appeal to that generation.”

The Republican autopsy compiled after the 2012 election was ahead of its time. But that time is coming.

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