In 2002, a book called “The Emerging Democratic Majority” was published by John Judis and Roy Teixeira. Its argument was simple: due to natural demographic shifts in the United States, primarily the increase in the non-white percentage of the electorate (as well as the increasing number of unwed women and the coming of age by millennials), the Democratic Party would be on the path towards becoming a majority party. The book was a hit, and deeply influential to political scientists, pundits and strategists. Although the 2010 and 2014 midterms, in which the Republican Party made generational gains in Congress, state legislatures and governors, raised numerous questions about the validity of this “majority,” the upcoming 2016 race seemed to promise presidential level turnout among core Democratic constituencies.
Not only had these groups combined to win the majority of votes at the national level in the previous five out of six elections (something that will almost always carry a candidate across the electoral college finish line), but previously pink and even red states such as Virginia, Colorado, Florida and North Carolina seemed to be slipping from the Grand Old Party’s grasp.
In November 2016 however, where at the supposed zenith of a successful Obama presidency and despite the Clinton operation having superior spending on data, a ground game and televised advertising, Trump won. While not a historically large win by any measure, it was a remarkable electoral success. Although Trump lost Virginia and Colorado, he cruised to victory in North Carolina all the while smashing through traditional Democratic working class bastions in the Midwest. Ohio’s Mahoning Valley; gone. South-Eastern Iowa was lit up by hues of pink.
The Fox Valley in Wisconsin turned blood red. Most impressive of all were the margins around the Pittsburgh/ Wilkes Barr/Scranton and Tampa media markets that allowed Trump to survive general election turnout out of Philadelphia and South-East Florida.
With President Trump in office and governing, the makeup of either his re-election coalition or a successor’s is beginning to take shape. In the Wall Street Journal on January 26th columnist Peggy Noonan theorized about how President Trump might help his reelection odds. Noting that the presidential painting Trump chose for the Oval Office was a portrait of Andrew Jackson, she pointed out that Jackson was the “champion of the 19th century’s deplorables.” She went on to point out what in her opinion was the most important meeting President Trump had in his first week, a gathering glossed over even by more conservative media outlets.
On the Monday after the election, President Trump invited a group of union leaders to the White House and then, in the presence of not just the President himself but Vice-President Pence and other senior staffers, spoke with the labor activists for “almost an hour and a half.” This move, although probably more symbolic than substantive, was nonetheless incredibly savvy, and plays to the heart of Trump’s seemingly improbable win.
The primary reason Trump was able to beat through a multi-million vote deficit to still overwhelmingly secure the Electoral College is electoral efficiency. 2016 Republican presidential voters were incredibly well distributed.
They were clustered so efficiently that states like Maine (not just the rural 2nd Congressional District), Minnesota, New Hampshire and Nevada could easily fall in 2020 even if Trump should lose the popular vote by a greater margin (assuming he could boost support among certain constituencies).
Detractors will argue that states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania will return to the Democratic fold primarily due to some sort of backlash to the President.
Although this is entirely possible, Democrats should carefully consider the following points.
The Democratic coalition of 2016 was so geographically lopsided that a 2.1 percent popular vote lead lost them the Electoral College by 14 percent. One must also remind themselves that now-President Trump’s favorability going into the election was, according to Gallup, just 34 percent.
His current favorability, according to Gallup, is 42 percent.
Another point to consider: although exit poll data is somewhat suspect, given that they tend to oversample younger and better educated individuals than the electorate at large, union households went for Clinton only 51-42 (and these margins were worse for her in the Midwest).
Despite this representing a sizable closure in the union gap between Republicans and Democrats (it was 58-40 Obama in 2012), it should not be read as the absolute ceiling for Trump.
In a single tweet Nate Cohn, a writer for the New York Times Upshot column, summed up the post-election devastation. Cohn said ,“How to think about this election: white working class voters just decided to vote like a minority group. They’re >40 percent of the electorate.”
He left out one important point, however. White working class voters only gave Trump 66 percent of their votes in 2016. The obstacles keeping Trump from capturing 70 percent or 80 percent or higher are in short supply for Democrats.
Creating them should be a top priority if Democrats wish to remain competitive in the heartland and, by the extension, the rest of the country.