The Democrats’ Leaky Coalition
They May Need a Whole New Bucket
The Democratic coalition in 2020 was not strong as attested to by their narrower-than-expected Presidential victory, losses in House races and resulting razor-thin control of Congress. Since then, Democrats have lost support, well, pretty much everywhere.
Democrats might have hoped that after their relatively poor showing among Hispanics in 2020, they would make up the lost ground as they moved toward 2022. Nope, not happening. They might have hoped that, after holding the line among white working class (noncollege) voters in 2020 and even making some modest gains, they could avoid catastrophic slippage among this demographic going forward. Nope, it’s happening again. And they might have hoped, fervently, that their strong gains among white college voters in 2020—by far the most important single factor in Biden’s victory—would hold in the future and perhaps improve further. Not happening either.
Here are the particulars of this very sad (for the Democrats) story.
1. Hispanics. As I have previously noted, in the 2020 election, Hispanics, after four years of Trump, gave him substantially more support than they did in 2016. According to Catalist, in 2020 Latinos had an amazingly large 16 point margin shift toward Trump (two party vote). Among Latinos, Cubans did have the largest shifts toward Trump (26 points), but those of Mexican origin also had a 12 point shift and even Puerto Ricans moved toward Trump by 18 points.
Still, even with this slippage, Biden carried Hispanics by 26 points according to Catalist. The problem is that this deterioration has, if anything, simply accelerated. 538 recently reported that, while Biden’s approval rating has dropped among all racial groups, it has been sharpest among Hispanics. It is now quite common for polls to show Biden’s approval rating among Hispanics underwater—that is, net negative with disapproval outpacing approval.
In 2020, the shifts toward Trump among Hispanics were heavily driven by shifts among working class Hispanics, the great majority—perhaps 80 percent--of Hispanic voters. Similarly, the decline in Biden’s approval rating among Hispanics since he took office also appears to be heavily driven by the working class. According to Civiqs data, Biden’s net approval rating (approval minus disapproval) among working class Hispanics has declined by 38 points since last January. (Note: Civiqs measures job approval with a question that includes a “neither approval nor disapprove” option for respondents; however, the change indicated by their overall net approval rating trend matches up well with that from the 538 aggregated net approval trend.)
The Civiqs data also indicate that this cratering of Biden approval among working class Hispanics has not been happening just in states like Texas where signs of trouble have been abundant, but also in must-hold Senate seat states like Arizona and Georgia and in vital potential pickup states like Pennsylvania. Whatever didn’t work for the Democrats in 2020 among this voter group still isn’t working today.
Nor does it appear to be working among black working class voters, whose net approval rating for Biden has declined by an amount not much less than that among Hispanic working class voters, albeit from a much higher base. So these voters are hardly likely to be a get out of jail free card for the Democrats in the November election, despite the hopes invested in them by many “base mobilization” Democratic activists.
The White Working Class. In the 2020 Presidential election, despite a slight improvement over 2016, Democrats still lost white working class voters in 2020 by 26 points (Catalist two party vote). But that slight improvement was nonetheless vital to the Democrats’ Presidential victory.
That’s all gone now. Really gone. Polls regularly report catastrophically low support for Biden among white working class voters (24 percent in the latest Quinnipiac University poll). The Civiqs data show a sharp deterioration in Biden’s net approval rating among this group since he took office, albeit not as sharp as among Hispanics. It would be a miracle if the Democrats did as well among this crucial voter group in 2022 as Biden did in 2020. In all likelihood they will do considerably worse than Biden and probably worse than Clinton did in 2016. That’s a huge problem both in general and particularly in white working class-heavy states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, the Democrats’ best hopes for Senate pickups to balance the serious possibility of losses among currently held states.
College-Educated Whites. By any reasonable standard, it was white college voters who delivered the 2020 election to Biden. According to Catalist, white college voters moved over 8 margin points toward Biden in 2020, greater than Biden’s gains among white noncollege voters (3 points) and starkly different from nonwhite voters who actually moved toward Trump. Therefore if there was a large, significant voter group with recent favorable trends for Democrats to build on—and counter the continued deterioration among the multiracial working class--it was college-educated whites.
It has decidedly not turned out that way. While Biden’s approval rating among white college graduates is still much better than among the white working class—as one would expect—the Civiqs data indicate deterioration in Biden’s net approval among this group that is only slightly less than among the white working class, with a particularly sharp drop among white college independents. Thus college whites cannot reasonably be expected to be a firewall for the Democrats based on recent trends.
In short the Democratic coalition is coming apart at the seams. How might the Democrats put that coalition back together? There are some things they definitely should not rely on, as I outlined in my recent piece on “How Not to Build a Coalition”. No, high turnout will not make up for the deficits outlined above. No, “people of color” are not a bloc with unshakable loyalty to the Democratic party that will eventually come around when the election looms. No, cultural leftism is not winner—it’s a big loser. No, turning up the volume on the “crisis of democracy’ will not bring the voters you’re losing back into your coalition. And, no, informing voters of your plans for “transformative” change will not get you back in their good graces.
These approaches are all demonstrably wrong, as election and poll results since 2020 demonstrate--including of course the astonishing landslide recalls of three ultra-progressive school board members in deepest blue San Francisco. A course correction is clearly in order though realistically it is probably too late to forestall a poor election in 2022. Democrats should probably be thinking in terms of damage minimization and setting themselves up to keep Trump out of the White House in 2024.
It starts with effective governance though, truth be told, it is probably too late to turn around negative voter perceptions for this cycle. In retrospect, it was clearly an error of the first magnitude not to have immediately passed the infrastructure bill when it came down from the Senate. That should have been followed by a modest deal for one or two key items that voters could understand and appreciate instead of the chimerical quest for a gargantuan omnibus Build Back Better bill that became defined by its price tag rather than its components.
The shambolic and endless intra-Democratic squabbling about Build Back Better, followed by the kamikaze drive to pass a big voting rights bill, struck many voters, including disenchanted members of the Democratic coalition, as losing the plot in a country that was thirsting for normality but enduring inflation spikes, big supply chain problems and a covid pandemic that just wouldn’t quit. And to put a cherry on top of this mess, we now have the spectacle of “Squad” member Rashida Tlaib planning to air a reply to Biden’s upcoming State of the Union address where she is expected to call out some of her fellow Democrats for standing in the way of the transformative change that would have been wrought by the Build Back Better bill. That’ll certainly turn a lot of voters around!
And then there is the Democrats’ pressing need to rebrand themselves on cultural issues, where they are decidedly out of step with mainstream American opinion on issues around crime, immigration, race, gender, schools and language policing. They are not close to that yet, despite Biden’s attempts to sidestep these issues and leverage his personal image as a moderate.
A recent polling memo for the Democratic Congressional Campaign noted the following, according to a San Francisco Chronicle article:
In swing districts, 64% of voters agreed with the statement that "Democrats in Congress support defunding the police and taking more cops off of the street." The internal poll found that 80% of self-defined swing voters in competitive districts agreed with the same statement…
Sixty-two percent of voters in contested districts agreed with the statement, "Democrats in Congress have created a border crisis that allows illegal immigrants to enter the country without repercussions and grants them tax-payer funded benefits once here." Seventy-eight percent of swing voters in those districts agreed.
Sixty-one percent of swing district voters agreed with the statements, "Democrats in Congress are spending money out of control," and, "Democrats are teaching kids as young as five Critical Race Theory, which teaches that America is a racist country and that white people are racist." And 59% agreed with the statement, "Democrats are too focused on pursuing an agenda that divides us and judging those who don't see things their way."
But the left and “woker” wing of the Democrats refuses to acknowledge that any of this is a problem, preferring to characterize all attitudes along these lines as reflecting the nefarious propaganda of Fox News and the like, rather than actual concerns of voters. This Fox News Fallacy, as I have termed it, has to go if Democrats have any hopes of recapturing the American mainstream and, not incidentally, the voters they are now in the process of losing from their coalition.
A new approach wouldn’t entail anything radical or inconsistent with Democratic principles. Quite the contrary. As William Galston and Elaine Kamarck wisely note in their recent report on “The New Politics of Evasion”:
[T]he progressive cultural agenda does not enjoy majority support and weakens Democrats’ electoral prospects whenever it is seen as the dominant force within the party. On all these issues, however, there is an honorable middle ground that enjoys wide public support. Most Americans favor both humane treatment for immigrants, including a path to citizenship for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients or DREAMers and other longtime residents, along with vigorous enforcement to secure our border. Most Americans don’t want fewer police; they want better police, along with reforms that hold bad cops responsible and weeds them out. Most Americans favor teaching both the positive and negative sides of our history, including slavery and racial discrimination, but they will not tolerate pedagogy they see as dividing students along racial and ethnic lines. And they favor keeping the schools open for their children as we recover from the COVID pandemic….
Articulating these positions will cause some strains within the party’s coalition, but there is no alternative. While the president’s desire to preserve party unity is understandable, he cannot afford to do so at the cost of weakening his prospects in 2024. As Terry McAuliffe discovered, social issues often arouse intense passions. By seeking to sidestep Critical Race Theory rather than confronting the political challenge, he allowed himself to become associated with a way of thinking that the majority of his state could not accept. Because Joe Biden may be the last man between Donald Trump and the Oval Office, he cannot afford to repeat this mistake.
Just so. Confronting some elements within the Democratic coalition may be the only way to prevent its continuing fragmentation as an electoral force.