If Joe Biden wins, he will likely do so by popular majority, with a broad, multiracial coalition that spans class, ethnic, religious and educational lines. He’ll make large inroads relative to 2016 among White voters, both college-educated and non-college-educated — cosmopolitan and suburban and exurban and rural.
Even if Biden loses, he will almost certainly end up getting more votes than Trump, with a broader-than-before Democratic coalition swelled by opposition to the president.
Way back in 2002, a pair of analysts famously discerned an “emerging Democratic majority,” one made up of growing constituencies like minorities and young voters, and partly driven by increasing social liberalism among educated Whites.
The thesis failed in 2004, but it appeared back on track with Barack Obama’s 2008 victory via an unprecedentedly diverse coalition, and his 2012 majority reelection.
It’s often said that Democrats place too much faith in demographic change to ensure victories. Trump shattered that faith in 2016 by scoring huge margins among working-class Whites — yet without winning a majority of votes.
If Biden wins, it won’t be due merely to faith in demographics, but to intensive outreach to both disaffected young voters and working class whites alike. As Ronald Brownstein notes, Biden closed out in a “working-class Trump country” area that Democrats lost in 2016 by 20 points.
Would such a Biden victory reconstitute the “emerging Democratic majority” thesis? What should we now think of the various trends that make it up? What does it portend about the near future?
I spoke to Ruy Teixeira, one of the authors of the original thesis, about our current moment. An edited and condensed transcript follows.
Greg Sargent: It’s now been 18 years since the “emerging Democratic majority” thesis. What is the significance of what we’re seeing now to your original idea?
Ruy Teixeira: The thesis as originally articulated had a lot of moving parts. It wasn’t just, “Democrats will benefit from the growth of certain constituencies, like non-Whites, professionals and people who live in certain cosmopolitan areas.”
It was also that the coalition would only be dominant and stable if it managed to retain a substantial share of the White working class.
In 2016, the thing that totally undercut their chances was the fairly massive shift of White non-college voters toward Trump.
That lesson has been absorbed. The Democrats in 2018 had a much broader coalition. And in 2020, Biden is running in such a way that brings together the Democrats’ growth constituencies with much stronger results among White non-college voters.
We’re in a country that’s still dominant White — 70 percent-plus. Of that, roughly 40-plus percentage points are White non-college. The lesson to me is that you really have to go after a good chunk of those voters.
It’s to some extent a populist economic population. They haven’t been doing well for decades. Their communities have suffered declines, jobs problems, health care problems. Democrats have to speak to these people.
Sargent: Obviously Trump as the unknown outsider who would throttle elites and shake down China to right previous trade wrongs was able to maximize White working-class vote share and turnout against Hillary Clinton.
But Biden is also arguably from the corporate wing of the party and has been castigated as a neoliberal by the populist left. Why is he able to make inroads among this working-class White population?
Teixeira: A significant share of the people who voted for Trump in this constituency always had their doubts about him. They did think he made promises to improve their job situations, health care, trade.
For a significant portion of these voters, he didn’t deliver. He didn’t make their communities much better. He didn’t deliver a great health care plan. He didn’t stem the loss of manufacturing jobs. Add to that covid and the economic crash, and some of these voters are more willing to listen to a progressive economic message.
Biden is running on an even more left program than Clinton, but importantly, he takes these constituencies seriously. He talks to them.
Sargent: Biden may have picked the lock on a difficult problem for Democrats. He went very far in embracing the racial justice protests and in calling for police reform and policies to address systemic racism. Yet, at the same time, he’s able to overperform among working-class Whites.
Teixeira: He denounced rioting, he denounced violence. Then when people brought up demands like defunding the police, he flat-out rejected it.
Sargent: True, but on the other hand, what he’s been able to reveal is you don’t have to go too far in making gestures to working-class Whites that signal retreat on racial issues.
Teixeira: You don’t have to. These voters are not at a place where you can only get their votes if you say, “Let’s deport all the immigrants, let’s lock up all the criminals in the non-White areas.” It’s not where they’re at. They want a country that works well.
Sargent: This raises questions about the true nature of White working class enthralldom to Trumpian populism. You have to wonder whether the main ingredients — the demonization of immigrants, the chest-thumping about China, and so forth — matter much to the segments of the working-class White population that move back and forth between the two parties.
Teixeira: What the median White working-class voter wants is results. Trump said he’d improve their lives. Well, you know, what have you done for me lately?
There are people who, no matter how much Trump f---ks up, they’ll give him a pass. But the median voter in that category is much more pragmatic. They want their lives to be better.
Sargent: How seriously do you take the idea of a potentially permanent shift into the Democratic camp of the educated and suburban Whites that moved to Democrats in 2018 and are doing so again now?
Teixeira: It’s clear that there’s been a realignment of professionals. You now start with the assumption that nationally and in a lot of states, Democrats start out with some kind of advantage among college-educated Whites, which was not true even 15 years ago. I think that’s real.
Sargent: It seems like Biden may have picked the lock on another problem for Democrats. We were told early on in this election that Democrats faced a choice between a Rust Belt and a Sun Belt route to an electoral college win.
The first prioritized winning back working-class Whites and rebuilding the “blue wall” states that Trump cracked. The second would prioritize appeals to young voters and minorities and educated suburbanites in a way that could move states like Arizona and potentially Georgia into the Democratic camp.
That’s always been a crude generalization, in that working-class Whites matter a lot in states like Arizona and Florida. But it seems like Biden has found a way to take both routes. It looks like he’s rebuilding the “blue wall” and hastening the movement of Arizona and Georgia.
Teixeria: I always thought that was a false choice. You’re right — he’s figured out that you don’t need to choose.
You don’t need a message that will only appeal to the Rust Belt or only appeal to the Sun Belt. You can run on a broad message that has appeal not only to persuadable members of the White working class in the Northern-tier swing states, but also has appeal to those voters in Southern states, to younger voters, to non-Whites all over the country.
Sargent: If Biden does win, whither the emerging Democratic majority?
Teixeira: Assuming he does, he’s got to move immediately on the big stuff — covid and the economy. If you don’t solve the big things first, the coalition will start to fray and fall apart.
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