Is the Democratic Party Too Diverse?

Writing for The Daily Beast, John Avalon makes an odd complaint about the Obama campaign and the Democratic Party writ large—that they're focusing too much on attracting non-white voters. To be fair, the bulk of the column is devoted to explaining the dangers of a strategy that relies on high turnout and support from African Americans and Latinos; if Obama underperforms with those voters in states like Colorado and Virginia, he will have considerably narrowed his path to reelection.

But the alternative, greater appeal to white voters—and particularly working-class whites—just isn’t tenable. No Democratic nominee has won a majority of the white vote since 1964. Indeed, at this point, it's good if Democrats manage a moderate plurality of the white vote—Obama will be doing well if he captures 40 percent. There are a variety of reasons for this—for one, ethnocentrism among white voters drives skepticism for government programs—but the result is the same: Democrats consistently struggle to win a plurality of white support.

All things equal, it makes the most sense for Democrats to focus their efforts on that other group of Americans who are both growing as a share of the population, and are far more amenable to Democratic views. In the end, an election won with an overwhelming majority of black and Latino Americans “counts” just as much as one won with a majority of white voters.

Of course, this hasn’t stopped Democrats from trying to appeal to white voters, and over the last ten years, liberals have worked hard to regain their appeal to lower-income whites who might benefit from Democratic economic policies. The popularity of John Edwards among liberal elites was partially a result of his identity. Many liberals—myself included—thought that a white Southern man would be better positioned to push and advocate for progressive policies.

With all of this in mind, it’s odd that Avalon would respond to the racial polarization of American politics with a call for “both sides” to look for voters beyond their respective “bases”:

In the largest sense, it’s unhealthy for our 21st Century democracy to be this divided along racial lines. This is a problem that President Obama inherited—after signing the Voting Rights Act, LBJ famously said to his press secretary, Bill Moyers, “We just delivered the South to the Republicans for your generation and mine”—and it has been compounded by the fever pitch of polarization.

To heal this divide, both parties need to do a better job appealing to voters beyond their base. For Republicans, it could eventually become an existential problem driven by the bitter irony that the Party of Lincoln is on the wrong side of history when it comes to diversity. [Emphasis mine]

The problem with this, as I just detailed, is that Democrats are working hard to make appeals to voters that stand outside of their coalition. Obama’s lead in Ohio, for example, is a product of tireless efforts to boost the president’s standing with working-class whites (although this is a notable exception to the broader trend of poor Democratic performance with white voters). Beyond that, Democrats have a party that reflects the diversity of the United States—it’s not clear that they need to spend more effort looking for white voters.

The opposite is true for Republicans; GOP politicians show little concern for the substantive issues of African Americans, and have little interest in attracting their votes. Looking at the last three decades of elections, Republicans are more likely to demogagoue black Americans—from Willie Horton and the “Hands” ad, to “welfare queens” and “food stamp president”—than they are to ask for their votes.

The situation with Latino voters is more complicated. Up until the end of the second Bush presidency, Republicans were invested in winning a sizable share of the Latino vote. The Republican Party might never win a majority of that vote, but the idea is that they could perform as well with Latinos as Democrats do with whites—a modest plurality. Indeed, 2004 was a sign that they were on the way to meeting the goal; George W. Bush won between 35 and 44 percent of the Latino vote, a high point for Republican presidential nominees. 

Over the last four years, however, Republicans have alienated Latinos with harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric, draconian anti-immigration policies—like those seen in Arizona and Alabama—and a pitched battle again efforts to expand the social safety net. When only 30 percent of Latinos have health insurance, attacks on the Affordable Care Act are guaranteed to turn away voters.

It’s Republicans, far more than Democrats, that need to appeal to voters outside of their base. And it’s Republicans, far more than Democrats, who are reluctant to do it.