Simshauser ’20: Rethinking Democrats’ strategy for 2020

Following the 2016 presidential election — as the initial shock of President Trump’s victory began to wane — liberals looked to exit polling data, attempting to diagnose the exact factors that had felled Hillary Clinton’s ostensibly sturdy “blue wall.” Almost immediately, the narrative began to center on the white working-class voter, the demographic Trump had overwhelmingly carried by a margin of ​67 to 28 percent​. This aligned with anecdotal evidence, and emphasized the image of the disaffected white voter, who had been alienated by the stereotypical “coastal liberal elite.” News coverage — already prone to over-covering the racialized notion of the “Real American” — accelerated this idea, which posited that Democrats had to soften their advocacy on progressive social issues if they wanted to win elections. However, such a shift in strategy runs the risk of compromising Democratic ideals, particularly on immigration.

In recent days, the ​Pew Research Center has released survey​s that reinforce this point of view and starkly contradict exit polling data. Multiple studies have shown that the ​proportion​ of white voters without a college degree was severely underestimated. Exit polls estimated that the white working class — used here to indicate whites without a college degree — comprised 34 percent of the total 2016 electorate. In reality, they cast 44 percent of votes, a disparity of 13.5 million individuals. Moreover, initial exit polls had concluded that whites with a college degree were the largest demographic in the Democratic party. In fact, non-college-educated whites are the largest bloc of the party’s voters, outnumbering whites with a college degree by 33 to 28 percent.

This is a reckoning for the Democratic party; it repudiates the idea that supposed “elites” are the overwhelming force on the left. At the same time, however, it magnifies the white working-class bloc even more in elections — affirming the beliefs of those advocating that Democrats move further to the center. This is distressing for progressives, who had found solace in viewing the white working class as more or less a lost or relatively unimportant cause, particularly given the overwhelming support for Democrats among nonwhite voters.

The revelation that non-college-educated white voters make up almost half of the electorate could be the impetus for moderating actions, like easing the party stance on abortion or gun control. Conor Lamb, who won a Pennsylvania congressional district that Trump carried by 20 points, marketed himself as this sort of Democrat. In addition to being pro-life and pro-gun, he even ran ads where he explicitly opposed House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and her “California liberalism.” However, in the case of a general national election, there is reason to believe these moderating tactics would not suffice, primarily because of one unresolvable issue: immigration.

Social scientists who analyze the cultural divide among electoral voting blocs have focused on immigration as the wedge issue. This is not surprising; Trump harnessed his initial support by taking a hard line on immigration. By arguing broadly against immigration​ — rather than debating policy around reforming the system — he shifted the paradigm surrounding the immigration debate within national politics. Through his championing of a border wall and his denigration of foreigners entering the country, he coalesced the ardent support of non-college-educated white voters.

The immigration debate is a flashpoint into the larger divide between college-educated and non-college-educated white voters. College-educated whites believe that immigrants strengthen the country by a margin of 52 to 35 percent; conversely, 61 percent of white working-class voters — defined by the study in question as whites who did not graduate from college and are paid by the job or by the hour — say that immigrants weaken the nation. ​William Galston of the Brookings Institute​ incisively notes the larger forces at work in these numbers: “working-class whites are experiencing a pervasive sense of vulnerability … on every front — economic, cultural, personal security — they feel threatened and beleaguered.” Trump won these voters by a much larger margin than Mitt Romney did in 2012 because he made immigration an issue of race politics, not of policy. Amongst voters who listed immigration as the biggest issue in the election, 64 percent voted for Trump, compared to 32 percent for Clinton.

Pew’s realization of the magnified influence of non-college-educated white voters, then, is somewhat alarming for Democrats. Looking at immigration as a flashpoint, the argument could be made that attempting to moderate on cultural issues like gun control would not be enough in a general election against a Republican party that has shifted toward the views of extremists like Sen. Tom Cotton, R-AR, on immigration. In the 2012 election, both parties made the question of immigration one of reform. Trump made it a far more personal question: Who belongs in this country? The resonance of his stance is clear; there is still substantial support among Trump voters for a border wall, a physical bulwark for those attempting to hold on to their cultural status.

For Democrats, while the data advocate an even stronger push toward the moderate white voter, the debate regarding immigration could stand as an uncrossable threshold. This ought to catalyze deeper debate regarding strategy in the next general election: Should Democrats be focused on turnout of progressive voters, or persuasion of the elusive “Obama-Trump” voter? This is an incomplete picture and does not acknowledge issues such as racially targeted voter suppression or Russian interference. But the partisan — and cultural — divide between college-educated and non-college-educated white voters implies that the perception of the status of whites in this country was the wedge issue upon which Trump seized support.

Engaging in nativist and racist rhetoric on immigration is obviously a line in the sand that Democrats will not and should not cross. But the resonance of the immigration debate goes far deeper than other cultural issues in voters’ attitudes. The “Obama-Trump” voter, whose vote Democrats so badly covet, may not be persuaded by slight moves to the center from Democrats. And if the Democratic ticket ignores the progressive wing of the party on too many social issues, they risk alienating more voters from the left than they would win over on the right.

Derek Simshauser ’20 can be reached at derek_simshauser@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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