The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why did the Democratic coalition fracture so quickly?

Virginia Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
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As we headed into the Virginia gubernatorial contest, a big and looming question for our politics was whether the shift of Democrats to suburban voters alienated by Donald Trump would hold. The answer to that question, at least in the short term in Virginia, is no.

Which gives rise to another question: Why did the Democratic coalition that came together in the Trump era fracture so quickly?

Republican Glenn Youngkin won, 50 percent to 48 percent, by shifting voters in a red direction everywhere. He ran up even greater margins over Democrat Terry McAuliffe in some deep-red and rural counties than Trump himself did in 2020.

But Youngkin also made gains in the suburbs. He improved over Trump by 8 points in Loudoun County, the site of battles over education and race, by 6 points in Fairfax County, and by 5 points in Prince William County. He made similar gains in the Richmond area.

Exit polls suggest Democrats lost serious ground with non-college-educated White women (Democrats had worried those women were at risk in the suburbs). They did gain among educated White women but lost ground among educated White men, and may have lost ground among Black voters.

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That means the coalitions that won the House in 2018 and the White House in 2020 may have frayed pretty badly. Why?

The most obvious explanation, offered by Jonathan Bernstein, is that Democrats control Washington and President Biden’s approval rating is in the dumps. When the bumpy recovery and recent pandemic wave brought Biden down, the loss became structurally more likely, just as both parties have lost such contests during previous periods of White House control.

Other explanations are everywhere. Democrats have thus far failed to deliver on Biden’s agenda, raising doubts about the ability of Democratic governance to deliver. The centrists who have stymied progress have helped create scenes of chaotic infighting in Washington removed from voter concerns.

Or maybe education and the critical race theory (CRT) debate did alienate a lot of suburbanites. If so, it’s both true that anti-CRT demagoguery of the rankest kind was employed to juice up the GOP base and that softer versions of the issue did motivate some swing voters.

If that’s right, this is something Democrats must address on both fronts. That would entail both fighting back with more visceral appeals that spotlight the role of Republican lies in fomenting social chaos and conflict, and more frontally addressing parental concerns about curricula.

Indeed, one plausible explanation, suggested by Zachary Carter, is that generalized parental anxieties about school closures and their rocky reopening sparked anger at Democrats that became fertile soil for the anti-CRT cause to take root.

Jared Leopold, a Democratic strategist in Virginia, notes that Youngkin’s success will shape the GOP playbook in the 2022 midterms.

“We’re going to see an army of mini-Youngkins in 2022 running the parental control playbook in attempt to tap into anxiety over local schools,” Leopold told me. “Voters are anxious, including over schools — and every Democratic candidate needs a plan to address that."

In truth, all these factors probably played some role. But I confess to being taken by surprise at how quickly the Democratic coalition frayed, only one year after coming together against Trump.

All of which suggests two very unsettling conclusions.

The first is that Republicans appear to be reaping the positive consequences of the deep polarization along educational lines unleashed by Trump while evading the negative ones.

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Trump drove up the GOP’s share of the blue-collar and non-metropolitan White vote, while driving suburban and educated Whites into the Democratic coalition. Youngkin actually built on the former, driving up the GOP vote share in red areas even higher through CRT and “election integrity” appeals.

Yet he did this while simultaneously keeping Trump at arm’s length, and offering a cheerful center-right vision, in a way that reversed the losses among suburban and educated Whites.

In short: Republicans continue to benefit from the deep changes Trump inflicted on our politics, without paying any price for his legacy of white nationalism, presiding over the deaths of hundreds of thousands in the pandemic, and attempting to violently overthrow our political system.

As Eric Levitz details, a snapback to Republicans among educated Whites would compound Democrats’ structural disadvantages. That shift was supposed to offset GOP gains among blue-collar Whites (which give Republicans a leg up in the Senate and electoral college), but that’s increasing while the Democratic hold on educated Whites is in doubt.

Which leads to another point. If this result does signal a Democratic loss of the House and possibly the Senate in 2022 — and GOP strength in the New Jersey gubernatorial race also underscores this — we may be staring at the third time a Democratic president had a window of only two years to clean up a major mess left behind by Republicans.

Obviously, you can blame Democrats for failing to clean up Trump’s mess faster, but there are understandable reasons for the delay. That key elements of the Democratic coalition seem inclined to peel off so fast, due to impatience with the pace of change and other factors, shows that maintaining durable Democratic control is extremely challenging even after an epic disaster such as the Trump presidency.

It’s hard to see how that’s tenable when it comes to the prospects for lasting progressive change or addressing major crises such as global warming. And that unsettling reality underscores the need for a partywide effort to figure out how to prevent these reversions.

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