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Democrats need to do better with white voters part 4

by Eric Ferguson on April 18, 2013 · 1 comment

What do I mean by “Democrats need to better with white voters”? And what do I mean by “part 4”? The latter is easy to answer. It turned into a multi-post subject, where the entirety of part 1 was devoted just to answering the question of why. That’s why I’m going to give just the brief version of why Democrats need to win more white votes, despite all the attention given to generational differences among voters and the Republican attempts at reaching out to young people, non-whites, generally what the recent elections revealed as Democratic-leaning demographic groups (DLDGs). The gist is this:


  • President Obama won the popular vote by a narrow enough margin, that Republicans can overcome it if they have any success reaching out to DLDGs. Yes, I’m aware of how they’ve been tripping over their own tongues, but let’s give ourselves a margin of error by assuming they do better enough at outreach to give themselves a chance at the electoral college.
  • Republicans won a healthy majority of the US House with a large minority of the overall vote, and a similar dynamic holds true in many state legislatures. We have to win more white voters if we hope to win majorities of seats.


I’m aware the demographic trends have been in our favor, but I don’t see why we should concede elections while we wait for elections to be handed to us. I also don’t like just assuming current trends continue. I prefer giving ourselves a margin of error, just in case GOP outreach works, or demographic trends change.


So that’s the brief version of why Democrats have to win more white voters. There are a lot of variables involved, like age, religion, income, a bunch more, and identifying those was done in part 2 (please check there before asking why I didn’t consider something, because probably I did). I devoted part 3 to one variable, population density, which has a remarkable correlation to the presidential vote. It got its own post partly because it’s rather complicated, but also because this seems like the single most important variable. At a minimum, it seems population density will suggest some overlooked targets for future elections and possible future strategies.


So in this final part, we get down to the application of all this analysis. How do we win more white votes? If it was resolvable in a single blog post I suppose it would be more obvious and already done, so I can’t pretend to have the whole solution. I do have ideas though, after the jump, but first one point to make about the feasibility of winning a bigger share of the white vote. Could we increase Obama’s 39% a few points to, say, 43%? Obama’s share in 2008 was, oh look, 43%. That would seem definitive proof we can do this. So let’s do this:


The first idea is let’s have a Texas project. Yes, let’s make an effort to turn Texas blue, and no, this isn’t because of Texas’ demographic trends. The reason for trying to win in Texas is the importance of Texas in national Republican politics. Essentially, without Texas, the Republicans are barely a major party. Texas is important for Republicans because of the combination of sheer size and sure redishness. Demographic trends merely make winning more feasible, and I would advocate trying to win there even if Texas looked as red as Utah. Consider that:


  • Without Texas’ electoral college votes, Republicans have no route to 270 outside a landslide win. That’s not a 2012 development. 1988 was the last time the Republican candidate could have lost Texas and won. Without Texas, all the cheating in Ohio and Florida would have been insufficient for Bush Jr. to “win”. Democrats could afford the loss of California more easily than Republicans can afford to lose Texas. So let’s win it from them.
  • Texas’ numerous US House seats are gerrymandered. If Democrats could hold enough of the state government during the next redistricting to force a non-partisan map, Democrats get much closer to winning back the House. If in a happy scenario Democrats could gerrymander for their own benefit, maybe that’s the end of the GOP majority; narrowly, but narrowly is good enough
  • Not a small thing, the state legislature is just as gerrymandered. I imagine the same holds true for many local governments.
  • Though Texas is underrepresented in the US Senate like other big states, those two safe seats are important to Republican hopes of winning a Senate majority.
  • Like other large state governors, the governor of Texas is automatically a major national political figure. Can only help to have that person be a Democrat, provided we don’t elect someone as embarrassing as Rick Perry. Let’s restrict ourselves to smart people.
  • Follow the money. Texas is the GOP piggybank. If Texas were competitive, merely competitive, even with Republicans continuing to win, Republicans would have to keep the big money in Texas, which could have an effect in other states. Democrats get money from Texas too, and would have to find money to put into Texas if it was competitive, but considering whom oil billionaires donate to, I’m pretty sure Republicans get a lot more from Texas, even when we can’t know about the dark money. Democrats depend more on small donors, and I suspect, don’t know but suspect, that a lot more Texas Democrats would become donors when they know the money is going to candidates on their own ballot. So forcing Republicans to keep the Texas money in Texas might be the second most important effect (after securing the electoral college) of a successful Texas project.


Yes, at some point, winning Texas might be just a matter of improving non-white turnout, but not yet. I see no benefit in waiting for demographic trends that don’t guarantee the outcome we want. What if DLDGs, especially Hispanics, turn out more Republican than the national average? What if demographics are indeed destiny and victory is coming, but we could speed it up by an election or two? Above all, what if by going after Republicans at their source of strength, we could weaken them severely? It’s what Republicans are trying to do to us by attacking organized labor and restricting voting rights.


Ideally we want all state parties to be strong enough to compete with their Republican counterparts, but no disrespect to the other 49 states (including mine) intended, Texas is simply more important in the strategic sense of nobbling the national Republicans. Moreover, the Texas electoral map is similar to most other states’ maps, in the sense of looking something like blue dots in a red sea. Winning without waiting for demographic trends is going to require solving this problem of winning more suburban and rural whites.


The Vermont project: Vermont? Isn’t it one of the bluest states already? Yes, but why? It’s heavily white and rural, which means it should be safely Republican, right? Except it’s not. So it shows definitively that winning where the large majority is white and population density is low can be done. Is there something unique about Vermont? Have Vermont Democrats figured out something that can be replicated elsewhere? I don’t know. Sure seems worth finding out though. Seems worth looking for other exceptions too, in case they have something to teach us, and one of those exceptions leads me to the next idea.


Increase union membership: Presumably few who frequent liberal blogs need to be persuaded that increasing union membership would be a good idea, just as a matter of economic justice and protecting the right to organize. Republicans presumably aren’t trying to destroy unions because they consciously want economic injustice, but they sure do see a partisan gain to destroying organized labor, and they’re right. Unions are an integral part of the Democratic Party. They’re still a major source of funds, and they’re a huge source of campaign volunteers. Union members vote about 2/3 Democratic, which clearly is a lot higher proportion than those who aren’t members, which gets to the exception to rural whites voting Republican that I mentioned in the prior paragraph. As a Minnesotan looking at my own state’s map, I notice that the blue dots in a red sea, outside the Twin Cities metro area, are mostly towns with high union membership. The Northeastern part of the state is a big blue area. The minority population is low and the population density is sparse, yet it’s one of the Democratic strongholds — and it’s strongly union. It’s less agricultural than other rural parts of Minnesota, and more people are in heavily organized industries and professions.


I don’t know if union members are more likely to vote Democratic, or if Democrats are more likely to join unions. Maybe it’s a feedback. I also haven’t seen voting preferences of union members broken down by other demographics, but with admittedly limited information, it seems likely that if we get more people to join unions, they will be more likely to vote Democratic, regardless of other demographics, even among whites. It would seem impractical to target certain districts for organizing drives because unions have to look for new members wherever the opportunity presents itself. It does behoove Democrats though to put labor issues higher up the agenda to create an environment where labor can grow. We have to roll back right-to-freeload, as right-to-work should be called. Prohibit the use of replacement workers during lock outs. Increase penalties for illegalities like firing union supporters and interfering in representation elections. I realize these sound like an agenda where winning big is a prerequisite, but the point is whatever we can get done from wherever we are improves our odds of winning more often.


Help ourselves with issues: We may split off some of the GOP vote by going on offense on the right issues. Forgive me again picking an example from my own state, but it’s familiar. Last election we had a shocking upset win against a constitutional amendment to impose photo ID for voting. The differences in support among different age groups were small. The “coalition of the ascendant” explanation just didn’t hold true this time. Seniors were as likely to oppose it as students. Going admittedly by anecdotes (though do we really want photo ID in place long enough to gather hard data on this?), elderly voters were the most likely to get screwed over by photo ID. Not surprising since they’re least likely to drive, most likely to have mobility problems impede a trip to a licensing office, least likely to have a birth certificate or an easy time getting one, and an extra problem for many women, their birth certificates are often rejected because they changed their names when they married. Photo ID opponents talked up the problems of senior citizens during the campaign, and results suggest that even some elderly Republicans must have voted “no”. Since Republicans are trying to impose photo ID everywhere, there should be few places where Democrats can’t use it as an issue to pick up some elderly voters, at least for state legislative and gubernatorial elections. Long term of course, we’re going to need for elderly voters to turn against photo ID if we’re going to win on the issue and not just win one or two elections.


I probably would have chosen as an example the GOP threat to Medicare and Social Security, had the president not offered chained-CPI. Maybe it truly is just a negotiating ploy, but I’m in the camp that thinks offering it has undermined the belief that Democrats are rock-solid on protecting entitlements. Well, maybe if a specific Republican goes full-bore privatization and voucherization, local Democrats can still use the issue to split off some votes. By the way, even before the 90%-debt-cliff research was discredited, it turned out all age groups, including young voters, want to fix Social Security not by cutting benefits, but by improving benefits and raising the tax. Yes, young people too, so it might be a way to appeal to all age groups if the president can get this “Grand Bargain” nonsense out of his head. At the least, it suggests we can campaign on this issue when appealing to seniors without hurting ourselves among younger age groups.


Target young voters: Even if young white voters went mostly Republican last year, they weren’t as Republican as older whites. Much as we might help ourselves in one election by focusing on issues where young whites have different attitudes than older whites, like marriage equality, there’s a longer term strategy here. Voters who vote for the same party in each of their first few elections tend to make that party their default position for life. It becomes necessary for the other party to try to sell them on splitting their ticket or switching for one election. That’s why Republicans are freaking out, or why they should be freaking out, over losing newer voters consistently for roughly a decade now. Those oldest young voters are just hitting the age where they vote regularly. Cutting into the young white vote now could mean cutting into it for decades. Of course, there is always a new group of first-time voters, and Republicans are bound to wake up to the problem and try to do better, which means this is something we should never stop working on ourselves. We should recognize one weakness in this strategy however: the current trend is for young adults to prefer to live in areas of greater population density. Such areas tend to already be Democratic, so there’s a good chance we’re adding votes where we’re already self-packed, not in districts where we’re losing. Still, make voting Democratic a habit, and those who move might retain the habit and make some red and purple areas more competitive.


Adopt a district: Democrats have generally developed a better ground game, but packing of both the self-packing and gerrymandering types means that sometimes we’re merely moving our candidates from 68% of the vote to 72%. Whoopee. You still get merely the one seat. An alternative is for Democrats in safe districts to go help in swing districts. I’m a local party chair in a safe district, and our district party helped several legislative candidates in winnable races. All won, not a guaranteed result of course, but a couple were close enough that our help might account for the difference. These other districts are heavily white. Democrats scratched out just enough wins to flip both houses. Maybe this is a tactic rather than a strategy, but whatever. File it under “things you can do”. As the phrase “go help” implies, the help was mostly in the form of somebody going to the district and knocking doors. Mostly: pardon me if I don’t put internal stuff where the opposition might see it. The main point is the problem with winning in some places might be not a poor message or a weak candidate, but the concentration of our resources in the wrong places, and by resources I mean both money and people willing to hike with a clipboard.


The 50-state strategy: I recognize that this clashes with the Texas project idea, which is a bit awkward as I’ve loved the 50-state strategy since Howard Dean first explained it. Damn liberal nuance, but the truth is there is a reasonable counter-argument. By failing to at least run a “some guy” candidate everywhere, we concede those shocking wins down ballot where there isn’t any polling to let us know the race is winnable. We give up the chance to have a candidate get practice running a campaign and maybe win something else later. We don’t have anyone to expose the flaws of a Republican who might be beatable in the future while seeking a different office or running in new district lines. We need to build up local parties to provide support for candidates and form the bench for future races. Texas isn’t the only state where we hold no statewide offices, and I wonder how much such state parties can support local parties. So maybe there’s a hybrid idea, where we focus instead of trying to do everything everywhere, with the focus being where we’re weakest.


I’m reluctant however to support the idea of focusing where there’s a current opportunity, at least not until we’re in the last months before the election. I’m a believer in creating opportunity instead of just waiting for it, which I suppose explains this whole “let’s win more white votes” thing. We’re never going to make the red states/districts competitive until we’re willing to try, and sustain the effort over multiple elections. I still support a Texas project because of the national implications of doing better there, but I see a case for a Tennessee project or South Carolina project. The lure of opportunity does make some other states more tempting targets than Texas. They just aren’t nearly as big and don’t offer the same chance to weaken Republicans nationally.


Yes, ignoring opportunity is a bad idea. I’m saying it’s also a bad idea to look only at which districts are swing districts right at the moment and ignore everything else. Republicans seem to do it that way, but let them have their mistakes. We don’t need to copy.


UPDATE: There is an organization called Battleground Texas which seems to be led by former Obama staffers. From looking at their web site, they seem to be trying the same sort of data-driven ground-level organizing that worked for the Obama campaign. It looks like they’re operating as an independent group rather than as a branch of the national or state parties. If I may be permitted a moment of optimism, other than being independent rather than a party project, this looks like exactly what I was advocating. I need to do some more research, but probably I’ll be digging into my own pockets to help them.


For reference, the series on “Democrats need to do better with white voters”:

Part 1 on why we need to do better with white voters

Part 2 on the variables of the problem

Part 3 on population density

Part 4 on strategy

The Part 5 I never intended to write
cross-posted at Daily Kos, in case anyone was wondering why this seems aimed at a national audience. It is.


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