The New York Times today has an article of a kind we’ve seen before and will likely see many times again before this election is over, warning that Hillary Clinton has a serious problem with white men, a problem that could threaten her ability to win a general election:
White men narrowly backed Hillary Clinton in her 2008 race for president, but they are resisting her candidacy this time around in major battleground states, rattling some Democrats about her general-election strategy.
While Mrs. Clinton swept the five major primaries on Tuesday, she lost white men in all of them, and by double-digit margins in Missouri, North Carolina and Ohio, exit polls showed — a sharp turnabout from 2008, when she won double-digit victories among white male voters in all three states…
The fading of white men as a Democratic bloc is hardly new: The last nominee to carry them was Lyndon Johnson in 1964, and many blue-collar “Reagan Democrats” now steadily vote Republican. But Democrats have won about 35 to 40 percent of white men in nearly every presidential election since 1988. And some Democratic leaders say the party needs white male voters to win the presidency, raise large sums of money and, like it or not, maintain credibility as a broad-based national coalition.
I’m not sure who the “Democratic leaders” are who think that, because the only one the article quotes is Bill Richardson, who’s been out of politics for a few years and frankly was never considered a strategic genius to begin with. But here’s the truth: Hillary Clinton doesn’t need white men.
Let’s be more specific. Clinton will have the support of tens of millions of white men. But she doesn’t need to do any better among them than any Democrat has, and even if she does worse, she’ll probably be completely fine.
That’s because whites are declining as a proportion of the electorate as the country grows more diverse with each passing year. In 1992, just 24 years ago, whites made up 87 percent of the voters, according to exit polls. By 2012 the figure had declined to 72 percent. Since women vote at slightly higher rates than men, white men made up around 35 percent of the voters.
Those numbers will be lower this year, which means that even if nothing changes in how non-whites vote, Republicans will need to keep increasing their margins among whites to even stay where they are overall — in other words, to keep losing by the same amount.
By way of illustration, in 1988, George H.W. Bush won 60 percent of white voters on his way to beating Michael Dukakis by seven points. In 2012, Mitt Romney did just as well among whites, winning 59 percent of their votes. But he lost to Barack Obama by four points. The electorate is now even less white than it was four years ago, which means that Donald Trump (or whoever the GOP nominee is) will have to do not just better among whites than Romney did in order to win, but much better.
Exactly how much better is difficult to say because we don’t know exactly what turnout will look like among different groups (David Bernstein recently estimated that Trump would have to get at least 70 percent of the white male vote, compared to Mitt Romney’s 62 percent). But as turnout increases among groups other than white men, the need to run up the score among white men gets higher and higher. And for certain groups — particularly Latinos and women of all races — Donald Trump provides an extraordinary incentive to get out and vote. Not only that, as I argued yesterday, women are likely to vote in even stronger numbers for Clinton.
It’s true that Clinton has done worse among white male voters in this year’s primaries than she did in 2008. But we should be extremely wary of taking voting results in primaries and extrapolating them out to the general election. For starters, the overwhelming majority of people who vote in primaries will vote for their party’s nominee in November, whether they supported him/her in the primary or not. Furthermore, the general electorate is a completely different group of people than the primary electorate, and they’ll be presented with a different choice.
The Times article talks to some white men who don’t like Clinton, and it’s always worthwhile to hear those individual voices in order to understand why certain people vote the way they do. But when you pull back to the electorate as a whole, you realize that there just aren’t enough votes among white men for Republicans to mine. The reason is simple: they’ve already got nearly all they’re going to get. While some people entertain the fantasy that there are huge numbers of “Reagan Democrats” just waiting to cross over, the Reagan Democrats are gone. They all either died (it was 36 years ago that they were identified, remember) or just became Republicans. The GOP already has them, and it isn’t enough.
Finally, the idea that the Democrats can’t “maintain credibility as a broad-based national coalition” unless they get more votes from white men is somewhere between absurd and insane. We have two main parties in this country. One of them reflects America’s diversity, getting its votes from a combination of whites, blacks, Latinos, Asian-Americans, and people of other ethnicities. Its nominee got 55 percent of his votes in 2012 from whites — smaller than their proportion of the population as a whole, but still a majority of those who voted for him.
The other party is almost entirely white; its nominee got 90 percent of his votes from whites in 2012. And we’re supposed to believe that if that party gets even more white, then it will be the one that’s “broad-based”?
Obviously, every candidate would like to get strong support from every demographic group. But if there’s one group Hillary Clinton can afford not to worry too much about, it’s white men. Most of them are going to vote against her anyway, and even if they do, she still would have a decent chance of winning the election.