The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How Democrats can shake voters loose from the GOP coalition

President Biden greets members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 313 in New Castle, Del., on Sept. 6. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)
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The latest Pew Research Center poll divides the partisan electorate into eight subgroups, with four on the Republican side. While these groups on the right may not seem like particularly rich targets for Democratic outreach, Democrats would be foolish to write these voters off entirely.

As the pollsters put it, the right is divided into Faith and Flag Conservatives (anti-compromisers, White evangelical theocrats); Committed Conservatives (those with “a somewhat softer edge, particularly on issues of immigration and America’s place in the world”); the Populist Right (rural, less-educated voters who are anti-immigrant and anti-corporation); and the Ambivalent Right (largely young voters with “conservative views about the size of government, the economic system and issues of race and gender” but who generally do not support former president Donald Trump).

Those last two groups — the Populist Right and the Ambivalent Right — warrant further attention from Democrats. Their huge margins of defeat in rural areas, most recently in Virginia, suggest the party should at least try to reduce antipathy among these voters. Even raising doubts about the GOP would be helpful in contests in which Republicans count on maximizing turnout among rural White voters.

Pew reports: “Nearly nine-in-ten (87%) say that the economic system in this country unfairly favors powerful interests, far higher than the share in any other Republican-oriented group and more in line with groups in the Democratic coalition on this question.” And they essentially buy into the Biden administration’s tax policy: “A majority of Populist Right (56%) say that taxes on household income over $400,000 should be raised and that taxes on large businesses and corporations should be raised (also 56%).”

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The Populist Right will not like a slew of Democratic positions on the expansion of the government social safety net, nor will Democrats satisfy hardcore opponents of immigration, for whom keeping foreigners out is the driving motivation. But they certainly can dispute the myth that they are for “open borders” or “defunding the police” (often linked to the false association of immigrants and crime).

Moreover, they can stress that Republicans across the board refused to give the Internal Revenue Service funds to go after rich tax cheats and that they want to protect billionaires and some of the biggest corporations from paying any taxes. This would help dismantle Republicans’ ludicrous facade as the party of working people. Democrats will not win a majority of these voters, but they could win more of them.

Likewise, most voters in the Ambivalent Right are still going to vote Republican. But these voters are more progressive on abortion and gay rights. They are also solidly anti-Trump. Per Pew: “Whereas large majorities of each of the other Republican-oriented groups say they feel warmly toward Trump, Ambivalent Right are somewhat more likely to say they feel coldly toward the former president (46%) than warmly (34%). And most (63%) would not like to see Trump continue to be a major national political figure for many years to come.”

Reminding these voters that today’s Republicans are flunkies of Trump, willing to throw the 2024 election to him over the wishes of the voters if they hold the House majority, might shake loose voters nervous about Trump’s return. Likewise, by stressing horrible overreach from Republicans on abortion, particularly the Texas law that incentivizes spying on and harassing women, Democrats can widen fault lines within the GOP, which is becoming more antagonistic toward women.

In short, Democrats need not reinvent themselves nor abandon their progressive base to diminish Republicans’ appeal to certain factions of the GOP coalition. Reiterating that the GOP is the party of the rich (favoring tax cuts for the rich over child-care support for working people) and still beholden to its cult leader should help reduce margins in red locales.

Finally, Democrats would do well to claim the values mantle that Republicans have forfeited. Democrats remain the pro-democracy party — unlike the GOP, which wants to make it difficult to vote and easy to overturn elections that do not go its way. Democrats have crafted a pro-family agenda to lessen the burden on working parents, an agenda Republicans unanimously oppose in Congress. And Democrats are the pro-children party that wants to inoculate kids, fund quality education and ensure they learn the full story of American greatness and their civic responsibilities.

That’s a values-based message that will cheer the Democratic base and give at least some voters in the GOP coalition pause about voting for the pro-Trump, plutocratic Republican Party.