House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, with, from left, Representative John Yarmuth, Representative Hakeem Jeffries, Representative Barbara Lee, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, and Senator Chris Van Hollen speak to reporters about President Donald Trump's first 100 days, during a news conference on Capitol Hill.
The basic political context for the discussion about white working class voters is the urgent challenge of the 2018 and 2020 elections. These elections will determine whether the horrendous outcome of the 2016 elections represented a wake-up call for progressives, or a nightmare that has only just begun. If Democrats do not make significant gains in the states in these two elections, Republicans will dominate another decennial round of redistricting that could place not only state legislatures but also the U.S. House out of reach until 2032. The odds of Republicans earning a “lock” on the House go up even more if Democrats don’t win a significant number of seats in the midterms and the next presidential year.
Worse yet, if Republicans maintain “trifecta” control of the federal government beyond 2020, they will almost certainly impose policies on the country whose implications are difficult to project, but that transcend any present slicing and dicing of the electorate. Winning back a significant share of the white working class vote at some future juncture may come too late if the New Deal policies that once made them vote for Democrats have been consigned to the dustbin of history.
So the specific challenges of 2018 and 2020 need to be at the front of every progressive’s mind in considering the long-term regeneration of our electoral coalition.
2018: Finally, Democrats May Have a Midterm Cycle They Can Win
Fortunately, Democrats should have a decent environment for making gains in the U.S. House and many gubernatorial and legislative elections in 2018. Unfortunately, that environment probably will not extend to the U.S. Senate. (More about that later.)
Normally the party controlling the White House loses support in midterms, and in presidential re-election years makes gains or more or less stands pat.
Looking at recent midterms, in U.S. House races the presidential party lost 31 seats in 2006, 63 in 2010 and 13 in 2014. Not counting special elections, Democrats will need to win 24 seats in 2018 to gain control of the chamber.
In U.S. Senate races the White House party lost six seats in 2006, six in 2010 and nine in 2014. Democrats would need a net gain of just three seats in 2018 to regain the control they lost in 2014.
In governorships, it lost six in 2006, six in 2010, and three in 2014.
Translated to popular votes, the presidential partly lost (as measured by the national House vote) by 8 percent in 2006, 7 percent in 2010 and 6 percent in 2014. Thanks to the impressive job of gerrymandering Republicans executed prior to 2012, Democrats would probably need to win the House popular vote by somewhere between 7 and 12 percent to give Nancy Pelosi back her gavel as speaker. It’s possible but hardly easy.
A substantial degree of pessimism regarding Democratic prospects in the Senate is necessary because the party faces one of the worst landscapes in recent history. Democrats must defend 25 of the 35 seats at stake. Eleven of those 25 are in states carried by Trump in 2016; only one Republican (Dean Heller of Nevada) is in a state carried by Hillary Clinton. Nine of the seats that Democrats must defend are in states that combine, unfortunately, a high percentage of non-college educated white voters and a low percentage of minority voters—a combination that made them so hospitable to Trump. In the initial Cook Political Report Senate ratings for 2018, only two Republican seats are anything less than “Solid R,” while 13 Democratic seats are less than “Solid D.” This does not mean Democrats will necessarily lose seats, but it does mean winning the net three needed to regain the chamber would take a genuine tsunami and some strokes of luck as well.
In fact, because the Senate landscape is so bleak, Democratic success or failure among white working class voters may not have an impact on control of the upper chamber in 2018. But success could sure do wonders for Democratic senators who must defend their seats next year: Bob Casey, Joe Manchin, Sherrod Brown, Joe Donnelly, Claire McCaskill, Debbie Stabenow, Heidi Heitkamp, and Tammy Baldwin, all of whom hail from states Trump carried that have relatively high percentages of non-college educated white voters. And while gaining seats will be difficult, minimizing losses to give Democrats a chance at regaining control in 2020 or 2022 could be crucial down the road.
Class and Race in 2018
The 2018 picture for the House is immensely complicated, but it helps to understand that the racial and educational cleavages that were so important to the 2016 presidential election are crucial to the House landscape as well. A comprehensive demographic analysis of House districts by Ron Brownstein and Leah Askarinam provides some useful signposts:
From the presidency through lower-ballot races, Republicans rely on a preponderantly white coalition that is strongest among whites without a college degree and those living outside of major metropolitan areas. Democrats depend on a heavily urbanized (and often post-industrial), upstairs-downstairs coalition of minorities, many of them clustered in lower-income inner-city districts. They also rely on more affluent college-educated whites both in cities and inner suburbs.
Tellingly, Brownstein and Askarinam suggest that the presidential patterns in 2016 are actually converging with what we’ve been seeing in House races and were not some sort of anomaly attributable to the distinctive characteristics of the presidential candidates. Unfortunately, they note that Republicans have a congressional significant advantage:
[W]hites exceed their share of the national population in 259 seats, and Republicans hold fully 196 of those—which puts them on the brink of a congressional majority even before they begin to compete for the more diverse seats. And there are 244 districts where the white share of college graduates lags the national average, and Republicans hold 176 of those. (Most of them overlap with the districts where the number of minorities is also fewer than average.)
Indeed, the Republican majority in the House now depends very heavily on overwhelming strength in the 176 districts with both low diversity and low levels of college education.
Back in 2009, when the Democratic caucus still featured a large number of rural, culturally conservative “blue dogs”—like John Tanner of Tennessee, Ike Skelton of Missouri, and John Spratt of South Carolina—Republicans held a modest 20-seat advantage in these districts. After the 2010 election, the GOP exploded their lead in the low-diversity, low-education districts to 90 seats. The gap widened again to 125 seats in 2014, and edged up to 128 after 2016. The Republican success in hunting the blue dogs nearly to extinction presaged the big margins Trump marshaled from small places, particularly in interior states, to overcome Clinton’s advantages in the largest urban centers.
It’s doubtful that many of these “lo-lo” districts have a sufficiently large Democratic voting base to make a Democratic comeback possible, even if the party’s performance among white working class voters improves significantly.
But Democrats have actually done better than they did in their last landslide victory year of 2008 in districts at the other end of the diversity/education spectrum:
Compared with the 111th Congress from early 2009 to early 2011, when Democrats last controlled the majority, the Democratic Party has actually widened its advantage in the districts high in both diversity and college-educated whites (from 50 seats then to 66 now). Since then, Democrats have lost ground modestly in the high-diversity districts with fewer-than-average white college graduates (from a 28-seat advantage to a 20-seat edge now). The party has also skidded somewhat more sharply in the districts with low diversity and large numbers of college-educated whites (from an advantage of 19 seats then to a deficit of five now).
The most obvious targets for each party in 2018 are House members in districts carried by the other party’s presidential nominee in 2016. These districts also tend to be “stragglers behind enemy lines” in demographic terms, as Brownstein and Askarinam put it.
Twenty-three House Republicans won in districts carried by Hillary Clinton in 2016. Barack Obama only carried about a third of them in 2012. These districts are characterized in an analysis by Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball as having “higher-than-average numbers of college graduates and/or are more diverse than the average district.” Fifteen of them are in the Sunbelt, seven in California alone. There are other districts that Clinton narrowly lost, but made big gains over Obama’s performance. One of them is GA-6, where a special election is being held to replace Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price.
The districts represented by Democrats that were carried by Donald Trump, as one might expect, typically have less diversity and a less educated white population. Half are in the Midwest; three in Minnesota.
An improved performance among white working class voters would obviously help Democrats minimize their losses in these twelve potentially vulnerable districts, and could also be pivotal in what might be close races in the districts where the big push will be among higher-educated white voters. In the end, a vote is a vote, but while an exchange of “straggler” districts would give Democrats a net boost, it would not be enough to gain control of the chamber.
From a macro point of view, Democrats will struggle to win the House so long as their performance among white working class voters remains as disastrous as it was not only in 2016 (a 35-point loss), but in the midterms of 2010 and 2014 (both were 30-point losses). These voters do not vote at as high a rate as college-educated white voters in either presidential or midterm elections, but they represented 36 percent of the electorate as recently as 2014. Yes, they are declining as a percentage of the population, but not fast enough to make losses on the levels Democrats suffered in 2014 and 2016 sustainable without favorable shifts elsewhere.
The Example of 2006
The ideal scenario for Democrats, as it happens, was in 2006, the last time Democrats were in the situation like the one they face today, running against a Republican president and Congress.
Political scientist Alan Abramowitz provides a reminder:
At that time, there were only 18 Republican seats in districts carried by John Kerry in 2004, and Democrats had to defend 42 of their own seats in districts carried by George W. Bush. Nevertheless, Democrats were able to win back control of the House, making a net gain of 31 seats. In addition to winning 10 of the 18 Republican seats in districts carried by Kerry in 2004, Democrats won 20 Republican seats in districts carried by Bush and won an open seat previously held by then-Representative Bernie Sanders.
The lesson of 2006 for Democratic strategists is not to focus exclusively on districts carried by Hillary Clinton but to cast their net considerably wider. In a midterm election with an unpopular president, the out-party can win a considerable number of seats in districts carried by the president’s party in the previous election. In 2006, Democrats took back 10 of 41 Republican seats in districts in which George W. Bush won between 50 percent and 55 percent of the major-party vote and seven of 58 districts in which Bush won between 55 percent and 60 percent. They even captured three districts in which Bush won at least 60 percent of the vote.
2006 also showed that losses for an incumbent president’s party can mushroom when said president is especially unpopular. As Abramowitz notes, George’s W. Bush’s final Gallup approval rating before the 2006 midterms was 38 percent. Trump could well be in similar territory in 2018.
Amazingly, in 2006 Democrats actually carried the over-60 vote (albeit by an eyelash, after a failed GOP effort to privatize Social Security), and only lost white working class voters by ten points (they had lost this group by 20 points in 2004). Numbers anything like that would guarantee a Democratic wave, even if “Obama Coalition” voters don’t turn out in huge numbers.
The X-factor in 2018 will be turnout patterns. A Trump presidency in alliance with a GOP Congress could be the one thing that diminishes or even reverses the midterm “falloff” in participation by two groups that have recently become central to the Democratic electorate: young and minority voters. This year’s special and off-year elections could be a leading indicator of what might happen in the midterms.
2020—A Do or Die Year for Democrats
The incessant intra-Democratic arguments over the catastrophe of 2016 don’t often pay enough attention to the future. But obviously a Democratic presidential win in 2020 is essential to avoid a catastrophic long-term decline of government as a positive force in national life. A GOP victory could produce a very conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court for decades to come; and (assuming Donald Trump or someone much like him is the GOP nominee) a Republican flirtation with serious authoritarianism and the massive disenfranchisement of Democratic voters. The very gradual demographic drift towards higher levels of Democratic-leaning demographic groups will inevitably continue, but just as in 2016, such trends cannot be relied on to produce victory.
The most plausible way to feel optimistic about the 2020 presidential race is to look at the positive popular vote totals from 2016, and the roughly 80,000-vote margin in three states that gave Trump his electoral college majority, and then to focus on simple ways to use party and candidate resources better to reverse this outcome. Certainly Democrats in 2020 are not likely to suffer from over-confidence, or from voters’ misapprehension that Trump is free from corruption or corporate influence.
But down-ballot races in 2020 could be just as important as the top of the ticket. It will be a precious opportunity to create a governing “trifecta” by winning the White House and both houses of Congress in one fell swoop. If as expected Democrats make gains in the House in 2018, another push in 2020 could get them over the top, particularly since presidential turnout patterns are normally more beneficent than midterms to Democrats. After the dreadful Senate landscape of 2018, Democratic will get a break in 2020, when two-thirds of the seats up are currently held by Republicans (though only two of them are in states carried by Hillary Clinton last November).
Perhaps most importantly, 2020 will be the final chance for state-level gains before the next decennial reapportionment and redistricting process kicks in. As with the House, the hope is that marginal gains in 2018 will be a springboard for improvements that bring Democrats near parity, especially in the states (e.g., Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas) where GOP gerrymandering has been so egregious in the recent past.
In terms of the white working class vote, improvements over the 2016 performance are to be expected, if only because four years of broken Trump promises to his supporters in this demographic group, along with favoritism towards the very elites he claims to despise, should have an impact if Democrats are minimally competent in publicizing these developments to working Americans.
If everything goes well for the Donkey Party in 2020, perhaps progressives will return once again to speculating about the sufficiency of youth and minority votes for the future. But even in that happy contingency, white working class voters will have a moral hold on Democrats that is just as important as their political value. It is to be profoundly hoped that Democrats never again need to be reminded of that fundamental fact as they were in 2016.
Click here to read the rest our series on the White Working Class and the Democrats.