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Democrats need to do better with white voters

by Eric Ferguson on December 31, 2012 · 8 comments

UPDATE: This turned out to be part one. Link to the other four parts.


I recognize that saying Democrats need to do better with white voters seems counter-intuitive. Didn’t Obama just prove that a Democrat can win the presidency with just 39% of the white vote? Yes. I’m likewise aware that Republicans lost badly with Democratic leaning demographic groups (rather than list them all*, or rather than use the phrase “Democratic leaning demographic groups” over and over, permit me to create an acronym, DLDGs). Normally the onus is on the losing side to figure out how to reach out to the winner’s voters, yet here I am advocating the opposite. It’s counter-intuitive enough that I’m confining this post to the why of reaching out to white voters, and leaving the how for later.


So, why should Democrats worry about reaching out to white voters instead of just watching Republicans flailing efforts at reaching out to DLDGs? Because they might not always be flailing. Yes, my forays into conservative media have revealed disgust over having to care what DLDGs think, and some of those thinking about outreach are cluelessly stuck in their ideology. I wish I could find where I read about a month ago that the way to reach urban voters is to destroy the teachers unions — really. Personally, I’m content to leave them taking their usual approach of picking the bits of GOP platform that might have some appeal rather than rethinking their approach … or learning anything about the people who don’t vote for them. But will they remain clueless? Not all of them, and some do have a clue already. Republicans might not succeed in cutting into the Democratic lead among DLDGs, but they’re going to try, they might succeed, and they need to pick up just a few points to make up Romney’s deficit to Obama in the popular vote. If Democrats can pick up a few points among white voters, they gain a margin of error, just in case Republicans enjoy some success — and even if Republicans have no success at all, Democrats have more problems than winning the popular vote by just a few points.


Yes I know, the presidency is decided by this archaic refugee from the 18th century, the electoral college, which didn’t make a whole lot of sense even then and makes none now, but that’s how the presidency is decided. That’s just it: we may need to do better among whites to have any hope of winning the electoral college. I’m thinking of this recent development Dan Burns wrote about recently, the blue states with Republican governments that are thinking of allocating their electoral college votes by congressional district. These are the same state governments where Republicans gerrymandered the districts to guarantee they win most of the seats despite Democrats getting most of the vote or coming very close. In Pennsylvania for example, one of the states considering this change in the electoral college, Democrats won 49% of the congressional vote but won just 5 out of 18 seats. Nationally, not only did Republicans win the majority of the House with a minority of the votes, but Mitt Romney won most districts. Instead of Obama’s roughly 5.5% win gaining him all 20 of Pennsylvania’s electoral votes, he would have gotten just seven — five for the districts he won and the two for winning statewide — while Romney would have gotten 13.


Lest anyone think gerrymandering is just about congressional districts, just imagine Republicans doing this in every state they control. No, they wouldn’t do this in states that reliably vote Republican for president, but thanks to the wave of 2010, they control both houses and the governor in several blue states.


To anticipate another question, doing this is perfectly legal. States allocate their electoral college votes however they see fit. Think back to 2000 when the Florida legislature considered ignoring the recount and awarding Florida’s votes to Bush. That would have been legal.


No, Democrats can’t do the same thing. Even if we get past the principle that the state shouldn’t twist the rules to let the minority party win, Democrats don’t control the government in any presidentially red states, at least not right now.


Would having this system in place in 2012 have let Romney win? It’s impossible to be sure because that would have been a different campaign. It would depend on how many voters split their tickets between Obama and the Republican congressional candidate and how they’re distributed (Obama won by about 4%, House Democrats won by about 1%), and of course on which states implement this. Just looking at Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, which are considering this reallocation, the electoral college gets very close.


I certainly didn’t mean to imply the House of Representatives is no big deal when I said, “Lest anyone think gerrymandering is just about congressional districts…”, because it’s a very big deal. Even if I saw no way Republicans could win the electoral college in the foreseeable future, the grip Republicans have on the House is plenty of reason to worry about winning more heavily white districts. Nor is it just about Congress, because state legislatures were gerrymandered the same way, and the GOP grip on legislatures is what makes the gerrymandering possible — as well as the state-level assaults on the rights of people who tend not to vote Republican. Want to restore women’s rights or the right to organize? We’re going to have to win back state legislatures.


Republican-friendly districting even all about gerrymandering. It’s about density. Even non-partisan redistricting has given advantages to Republicans because Democrats tend to live in more densely populated areas, resulting in the same packing as gerrymandering, just less of it. If you’re going to keep Minneapolis together in one congressional district, then you’re going to have a heavily Democratic district no matter how you draw the lines. No gerrymandering necessary. Even inner suburbs can be somewhat densely populated and they lean blue too, but outer suburbs and rural areas can be drawn lots of ways without splitting municipalities. If Wisconsin weren’t gerrymandered, the districts including Madison and Milwaukee would be heavily Democratic while Republicans would enjoy an advantage in other districts. In other words, just somehow undoing the gerrymandering wouldn’t fix the whole problem.


So how do we fix the problem? That’s why Democrats have to win more white votes, even while the white majority shrinks; to have a hope of retaking the House, to avoid ceding a permanent advantage to the GOP in the electoral college, and to win back state legislatures. Waiting for demographic trends to aid us isn’t enough even if the GOP utterly fails to improve its share of the DLDG vote, which is not a safe assumption anyway. Undoing gerrymandering isn’t enough even if we can do it, which maybe we can’t. Unpacking Democrats seems like a long shot since people have reasons for living where they do. Care to move just to vote in a less blue district? Me neither.


Maybe some social trend will cause people to move around in such a way as to unpack districts, but I can’t even guess at what that trend might be. The opposite seems to be true, that people are moving to areas where their own political predilections prevail — I’ve even seen it suggested that this is conscious. Even if the packing is broken up just by how people move around, it’s far enough away to be of no help to solving our immediate problem. Maybe there’s just something about high density that makes people more liberal and low density that makes them conservative, but the growth of central cities and inner suburbs, not guaranteed to happen, might be countered by exurban sprawl.


Why go on about density? It isn’t just noticing that Democrats tend to win in central cities and inner suburbs, and by larger margins than Republicans tend to win in Republican safe districts. Have a look at this chart:

So our problem is the need to win more sparsely populated districts. Since such districts tend to be heavily white, we need to figure out how to increase our share of white voters. I hope in a near-future post to at least start thinking through the variables.


*Just so as not to leave out anyone who doesn’t immerse themselves in electoral politics enough to know what demographic groups are Democratic leaning, in hopes I’m leaving out nobody ¬†— and realizing I’m leaving out nuances — such groups include blacks, Latinos, Asians, American Indians, non-Christians, students, young adults, single-women, gays, urbanites, and immigrants, with recognition there is crossover among them. Most GOP consternation is caused by losses among the groups growing as a portion of the population, especially Latinos which are the largest racial/ethnic minority, and to a lesser degree Asians. Non-Christians are growing, though I’m not sure the GOP has picked up on that yet except to stoke paranoid fear of atheists and Muslims. Young voters are a problem because, though probably they aren’t growing as a portion of the population, people establish a habit when they vote for the same party in their first several elections, and they’ve been heavily Democratic for a decade. Gays probably aren’t growing as a portion of the population, but open gays are growing as is their acceptance by straights. “Urbanization” might be broadly construed to include inner tiers of suburbs which have much in common with central cities, often including political preferences, so that even though outer suburbs tend to be Republican, the growth of cities is more advantageous to Democrats.

UPDATE: The other parts of this series:

Part 2 on the variables of the problem

Part 3 on population density

Part 4 on strategy

Part 5 which I never intended to write

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