Few questions in American political debate recur with the regularity of this one: Can Democrats win the white working class?

As soon as it’s time to start contemplating the next election, commentators begin to ask this question, demanding of Democrats that they explain why this time will be different and they’ll be able to win over those white voters. I’m going to argue that Democrats don’t have to win the white working class, so they shouldn’t worry themselves too much about it.

But first, here’s the latest example of the genre, in today’s Wall Street Journal, which gets a little more specific, asking whether Hillary Clinton can appeal to white voters, even in rural areas:

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Mrs. Clinton’s allies are confident she can attract white voters who have turned away from her party, particularly women. Democratic pollster Geoff Garin, who worked on her 2008 campaign, said she “demonstrated a significant ability to not only win votes from working-class white women but to connect with them on a personal level.”
After a rocky start in that campaign, Mrs. Clinton cast herself as a scrappy underdog and union ally while topping Mr. Obama in more than 20 states in Democratic primaries in places such as Pennsylvania and Ohio that have many white, working-class voters.
Recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News polling shows that Mrs. Clinton’s appeal among those voters has withered.
In June 2008, Mrs. Clinton was viewed positively by 43% of whites without college degrees and negatively by 44%. Last month, 32% of that group held a positive view and 48% had a negative view. Her image among those voters is only slightly better than that of Mr. Obama.

A note about that significant ability to win votes from working-class whites that Clinton demonstrated, which is reiterated later in the story by a consultant to a pro-Clinton PAC: Those voters were actually working-class white Democrats, in the 2008 primaries. Right away you’re talking about a minority of the white working class. And she did indeed do far better than Barack Obama among them. His race and hers had a whole lot to do with that, and it also may help explain why her ratings among whites without college degrees are worse now than they were in June 2008. Back then she had just been defeated by Obama; he was the reference point against which she was compared. Now she’s a soon-to-be Democratic presidential candidate, and the implicit comparison is to a white Republican.

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But here’s the good news for Clinton: It doesn’t matter. She doesn’t need to win the white vote, working-class or otherwise, in order to become president. The last time a Democratic presidential candidate won a majority of the white vote was 1964. Yet they’ve managed to win five elections since then.

We spend so much time contemplating what different demographic groups find appealing and repellent that it’s almost as though we forget that a vote is a vote. For instance, Democrats are often scolded for their unpopularity among voters in rural areas and small towns, because of a mythos that says those are the most virtuous and true Americans and therefore their votes are somehow more desirable than those of people who live in suburbs and cities. But they aren’t. The vote of a tattooed 20-something hipster in Des Moines is no less helpful than that of the 60-something farmer who lives a hundred miles north.

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Demographics, of course, are obviously important. For instance, Republicans’ struggles with Hispanic voters are meaningful because they’ve managed to alienate all of those voters at once, and that has ended up costing them millions of votes. But is there something Hillary Clinton (or some other Democrat) could do that would cause huge numbers of working-class white voters to vote differently than they had before? Probably not. The plain truth is that she’s likely to get more of their votes than Barack Obama did just because she’s white (though not so many more that it will make her unbeatable). But there isn’t some magical key to unlocking the votes of that entire demographic category that can be found and deployed.

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What Democrats need to do is offer an agenda, particularly on the economy, that appeals to a broad spectrum of Americans. That’s both simple and complicated. But if and when they put that agenda together, lots of white working class voters still won’t respond, because they’re Republicans. And that’s okay. Democrats don’t need them all. What they need is about the same proportion of those votes that they got in the last couple of presidential elections. More would be nice, but the same amount would work fine. Because you may remember who won those elections.

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