Donald Trump never had a popular majority behind him, but he was the Great Disrupter. By shattering old assumptions, he clarified the battlefield for the future.
Trump sped up two trends that began gathering steam in the 1990s: the steady shift of well-educated and professional voters toward the Democratic Party, and the move of White working-class voters to the GOP. Biden won in 2020 partly because he cut into Trump’s working-class margins a bit, but largely because he swept increasingly diverse suburban areas that were at the heart of the Democrats’ gains in the 2018 midterms.
This raises two questions: Can Republicans begin to claw back some of the upscale, well-educated voters they lost under Trump? And can Democrats expand on the inroads Biden began to make among voters who didn’t attend college?
Democrats hold the initiative, and not just because they control the presidency and narrow congressional majorities. As long as the vast majority of GOP politicians refuse to break with Trump, they will be tethered to his minority coalition. A comeback will be tough if moderate middle- and upper-middle-class professionals continue to associate the party with Trump, far-right extremists and the Jan. 6. attack on the Capitol. It’s why reducing the size of the electorate is the GOP’s most visible initiative.
This creates a vulnerability Biden hopes to exploit. It’s hard to imagine that any Republican will win more of the White, non-college-educated vote than Trump did, so some parts of that electorate are up for grabs. Democrats do not need to carry this group; a shift of five or 10 points among these voters would put the GOP on its heels.
This is the upshot of a new report by Aliza Astrow, a political analyst for the centrist Democratic group Third Way. The report is both a warning and a promise. As long as Democrats stay weak among non-college-educated voters, she argues, they will have trouble holding, let alone strengthening, their control over the House and Senate. And they will continue to face agonizing fights to win the electoral college, even with large leads in the national popular vote. But modest shifts toward the Democrats among voters without a college degree would change the game.
Third Way-ers and the Democratic Party’s left often feud, so it’s worth emphasizing that Astrow’s analysis is not rooted in ideology.
The two models she cites of Democrats who succeeded in winning non-college-educated voters in states Trump carried represent different wings of the party: moderate Gov. Roy Cooper in North Carolina and progressive Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio. Both, she said, campaigned on jobs for blue-collar workers, job training and infrastructure. Those who heard Biden’s speech last week will notice something familiar.
Moreover, Astrow is careful to discuss Black and Latino non-college-educated voters, not just Whites. While Democrats carried non-White voters without a college degree by large margins in the past four presidential elections, the party’s share among non-college-educated minority voters has slipped since 2008. (Their performance among non-college-educated Whites declined even more.)
Biden recouped some of the party’s 2016 losses with these groups — enough to win the key states that gave him his electoral college victory — but did not hit Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 levels. As Astrow reports, Obama won 53 percent of the non-college-educated vote in 2008 and 51 percent in 2012. Hillary Clinton took 44 percent in 2016, and Biden bumped the Democrats’ share back up to 48 percent in 2020.
The ongoing debate among pollsters is whether economic policies can really move the numbers among White working-class voters. After all, their ballots for Trump were largely explained by issues related to race, culture and immigration.
But Biden’s intuition is that economic questions unite less economically privileged voters across racial lines — and that many non-college-educated voters think the Democrats have stopped talking to them altogether. By addressing their concerns explicitly and sympathetically, as he did last week, Biden hopes first to close this communications gap and then deliver tangible benefits.
There’s certainly a case that American politics are now so fluid that sturdy realignments are impossible.
But with Republicans stranded on Trump Island, Biden has an opportunity to hold his party’s base and begin poaching the GOP’s core voters. He’s made no secret of his intentions.