by David Leonhardt · November 12, 2017
Supporters of President Trump attended a rally Youngstown, Ohio, in July. Justin Merriman/Getty Images
The Democratic Party certainly did well in last week’s elections. In one place after another, voters seemed to reject President Trump’s hateful, lawless politics. The results have further energized progressives for 2018, which will be a vastly more important referendum on Trump than 2017.
But if Democrats are going to succeed next year and beyond, they can’t focus only on last week’s positive signs and start believing their own spin. They also need to think about the warning signs. There were more of those than many people realize.
The reality is, the Democratic victories occurred almost entirely in areas that had voted for Hillary Clinton last year. In Trump country, Democrats continued to struggle.
Outside of highly educated suburbs and racially diverse cities, Democrats still do not have an effective response to Trumpism. And they need one. To build a national coalition — one with the power to pass policies that can help the middle class, protect civil rights and combat climate change — Democrats have to do better in whiter, more rural areas.
Virginia — the focus of attention last week and a blue-leaning state — highlights both the good and the bad. The Democratic margins in suburbs and cities were smashing, thanks to a surge in turnout. Elsewhere, though, the situation was very different.
Ralph Northam, the Democratic governor-elect, didn’t only lose outside of the big metropolitan areas, and badly. He lost by more than the previous Democratic nominee, Gov. Terry McAuliffe, had in 2013. Of Virginia’s 133 counties and cities, Northam fared worse than McAuliffe in 89 of them.
True, Northam did better than Clinton had, but only modestly so, as The Times’s Nate Cohn noted. That’s another way of saying that Trump’s success with the white working class now looks almost like the norm.
Patrick Ruffini, a savvy conservative pollster, made a similar point when analyzing Virginia’s House of Delegates results. On first glance, those results look fantastic for Democrats. They flipped 15 of the 100 delegate districts, including a few inspiring long-shot wins. Yet only a single one of those 15 districts had voted for Trump. Republicans largely held the Trump districts, which let them keep control (pending recounts), 51 delegates to 49.
I know that many progressives are tired of hearing about the white working class. They would rather stop obsessing over small-town America and instead pursue a coalition of minorities and highly educated whites, like the coalition that won Virginia last week.
But giving up on the white working class would be a terrible mistake. Whites without four-year college degrees make up fully half of the adult population, and they tend to be dispersed, rather than packed in small geographic areas, which increases their political power.
Accepting landslide defeats among the white working class effectively forfeits many state legislatures — like those in Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin, all of which are now Republican. State legislatures don’t just make policy. They are also in charge of gerrymandering.
Without the white working class, Democrats will need everything else to go spectacularly well to retake the House of Representatives next year. Virginia itself has four Republican-held seats that analysts think will be in play. Northam won only two of those four districts, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.
Or consider the Democrats’ four special-election House losses earlier this year, including the high-profile Georgia race. All were in Trump-won districts that Democrats couldn’t quite flip.
How can the party can do better? It’s not an easy problem, and I wouldn’t trust anyone who claims otherwise. But the crux of the matter is clear enough: Democrats have to get the white working class to focus on the working-class part of their identity rather than the white part.
Most voters don’t make decisions by doing a cost-benefit analysis of candidates’ proposals. They instead tend to vote for candidates who instinctively seem to get their lives. Voters are attracted to candidates with whom they can identify.
Trumpism focuses people on the white part of identity. The Virginia campaign, for example, revolved around talk of immigrants and old Confederate heroes. When those are the topics, Democrats are going to struggle (however frustrating that may be).
But race isn’t the only part of people’s identities. When voters instead focus on class, Democrats thrive. Think back to Barack Obama’s populist-tinged 2012 re-election campaign. Or look at the senators, like Sherrod Brown and Claire McCaskill, who hold their own outside of metropolitan areas. Or the landslide victories for ballot initiatives on Medicaid and the minimum wage.
The best news for Democrats is that they don’t turn off many suburban and urban voters by focusing on class. Most of them are struggling with slow-growing wages, too.
Again, no one should pretend that finding the perfect message is easy. And no one should pretend that the Democrats have already found it.