The key is to make economics central to our politics.
After a year of self-flagellation and angst, Democrats finally got some good news last week. But they shouldn’t get carried away: They also got some bad news.
First the bad news: Rural America still really dislikes Democrats. But that wasn’t a surprise. The good news came in increasingly affluent and diverse Virginia: In the age of Trump, well-educated suburbanites like Democrats considerably more than they used to. And voters are, overall, quite energized (turnout was at a 20-year high for the Virginia governor’s race) — especially younger voters, who supported the Democrat, Ralph Northam, overwhelmingly as compared with the Democratic nominee in 2013 and turned out at much higher rates.
All this, despite Democrats’ nationally failing to coalesce around a singular bold message and Mr. Northam’s running a decent but not particularly inspiring campaign.
Democrats are benefiting from a law of political physics, and despite so much else going haywire in our politics, it appears to still hold: There is a pendulum-like swing in American politics against the party that holds the presidency. One of the most striking results from the exit polls is that Mr. Northam did a little better across almost all subgroups in Virginia than Hillary Clinton did in 2016.
One obvious lesson, then, is that the key to Democrats’ fortunes in 2018 and 2020 will be to execute on the fundamentals — pick quality candidates who don’t mess up, make sure to get voters to the polls, and take advantage of President Trump’s low approval numbers and the inevitable turn against Republicans. Ride the wave. Don’t get too fancy.
Indeed, to look at the map of potential Democratic House 2018 pickups is to look at a lot of upscale Sun Belt and Mid-Atlantic suburban districts where Mrs. Clinton outperformed the Republican congressional candidate, places that look like the well-educated and diverse Northern Virginia suburbs where Mr. Northam improved on the 2013 vote totals of the current governor, Terry McAuliffe, also a Democrat. Notably, Mr. Northam won a majority of white college graduates: 51 percent, as compared with Mrs. Clinton’s 45 percent in 2016.
Of course, not every state has the same demographic profile as Virginia, which is becoming wealthier, more highly educated, more diverse. Despite the Democratic Party’s success this week, it still faces several questions: Can Democrats really afford to write-off Obama-Trump voters — those voters, typically white, working class, who voted for Barack Obama in 2012 and for Donald Trump in 2016? After all, Democrats still face a structural problem: geography. The rules governing elections, especially in the House, give a greater voice to the rural, sparsely populated but large stretches of the country that vote Republican.
And will wealthier suburbs really tilt toward Democrats? And can Democrats really count on higher turnout, especially among fickle younger voters? Don’t Democrats need to settle on a bold vision to excite voters?
One way to answer these questions is turn to the latest Democracy Fund Voter Study Group national panel survey, conducted in July, which asked voters whom they planned to vote for in the 2018 congressional midterms. Because this is a panel survey, it includes identifiable voters for Obama-Trump and Romney-Clinton (they supported Mitt Romney in 2012 and Mrs. Clinton in 2016). It also includes what I’ll call “Obama-Other” voters who supported Mr. Obama in 2012 but then either voted for a third party or not at all in 2016.
Based on this data, I estimate Obama-Trump voters as 3.6 percent of the population, Romney-Clinton voters as 1.9 percent and Obama-Other voters at 4.3 percent.
Almost 40 percent of Obama-Trump voters (mostly rural, non-college-educated whites) are sticking with Republicans. But a significant share of those voters (44 percent) say they are undecided. Most likely, this means they just won’t vote, but if they do, they’ll probably break toward Republicans.
Consistent with Virginia, many of the Clinton-Romney voters are sticking with Democrats, with half saying they will vote for the party’s candidate.
Perhaps most significantly, half of the Obama-Other voters are committed to voting for the Democrat in 2018; half are undecided (presumably between voting and not voting at all). Based on my analysis of Voter Study Group data, these voters tend to be much more nonwhite, poorer and less educated than the overall electorate. They’re the marginal voters Democrats need to mobilize to win.
The next graphic measures voters’ attitudes toward economic and cultural issues.
The Obama-Trump voters who plan to stick with Republicans are more consistently conservative on both economic and cultural dimensions, but particularly on the latter (they are still broadly left of center on the economic dimension).
The Republican-voting Romney-Clinton voters don’t differ too much from Democrat-voting Romney-Clinton voters — this group might include those who have always voted Republican; maybe some old liberal Nelson Rockefeller-style Republicans; or maybe some voters who don’t follow politics very closely and don’t realize that the Republican Party is more conservative than them. In the Obama-Other category, the undecideds look a lot like the Democratic voting decideds, squarely in the liberal camp.
Since most of the voters are in all three subgroups (and the national electorate, too) lean left economically, a strong progressive economic message would almost certainly help Democrats. Moving right on economics, by contrast, will not help Democrats with any of these voters and could even risk losing some, demoralizing an energized base, especially younger voters.
On culture, there’s also not a whole lot to be gained by triangulating, particularly if Democrats want to mobilize the Obama-Other category of voters. Besides, if the racially tinged campaign of Mr. Northam’s opponent, Ed Gillespie, is indeed a preview of how Republicans plan to run in 2018, Democrats are going to have a hard time neutralizing cultural issues, and they’re going to struggle to win over rural voters who are motivated by these issues.
Their best bet will be to offer a sharper economic message, which offers at least some possibility of gain among Obama-Trump voters and Obama-Other voters, with little risk of alienating Romney-Clinton voters.
The Virginia results suggest Democrats still might also be able to expand their base without attempting to reach these voters with a new economic populism — results that will certainly give comfort to the donor class of the party that gets nervous every time Bernie Sanders begins talking. The inevitable pendulum swing against the Republican Party, Mr. Trump’s deep unpopularity, an energized electorate and the wave of Republican congressional retirements — and the slow but steady demographic shift toward a younger, more diverse electorate — will all give Democrats an advantage that they can ride mostly just by being Democrats and not doing stupid things.
Project this trend forward, and perhaps a just-out-of-reach suburban Atlanta House district that a Democratic nominee, Jon Ossoff, narrowly lost this year becomes a narrow Democratic pickup in 2018.
Still, the better bet for Democrats would be to present a sharper economic message, which offers at least some possibility of gain among Obama-Trump voters and Obama-Other voters, with little risk of alienating Romney-Clinton voters.
It’s also better for our politics. The more Democrats rely simply on upscale voters’ cosmopolitan cultural values and corresponding revulsion to Mr. Trump, the more our political system becomes organized around zero-sum culture issues and locked in increasingly no-compromise polarization. Economics, after all, you can bargain over. Identity and culture, not so much. The good news for Democrats is that running on a stronger economic vision is not only good for the country, it’s also good for the Democrats’ long-term fortunes.