The era of Trump has supposedly ushered in an era of change. But, all it did was accentuate the changes rippling through the American electorate. At the time of the 2016 election, Trump’s win was not just shocking for the fact he won but how he did it. Trump won the election by massively underperforming Romney in solidly red suburbs but running up massive margins in ancestrally blue rural areas and the exurbs.
For many analysts, this was chalked up to the massive educational divide seen in the Presidential race. For example, whereas Romney had easily won the affluent VA-10 based in suburban DC, Trump lost the district by 10 points to Hillary Clinton illustrating a common theme across the nation’s 435 Congressional districts. In places where Romney did well in affluent, metropolitan and dense suburban districts with high levels of education Trump did poorly. But in exurban and rural areas the President thrived.
This dynamic is now reflected on the electoral map to hold the House. Per CNN, “Democrats’ top opportunities to capture Republican-held seats are concentrated in well-educated, higher-income and preponderantly white districts. Most of these seats are centered on economically thriving suburbs around major metropolitan areas where Trump faces widespread resistance among white-collar voters, especially women, on cultural and personal grounds.”
But, by the same token, Democrats have few chances outside of these areas. Short of Kansas and Minnesota, Democrats are not really competing in rural, red areas. Yes, while the polls show Democrats are competitive in say a WA-8, it is unlikely they take such kinds of seats.
From a purely electoral perspective this has several immediate ramifications. It means if Democrats take the House their majority is likely to have little room for error. Sure, larger coalitions mean more ideas and more ideas can mean more uncertainty but more members in your Caucus generally makes it easier to pass legislation. Longer term, the trench dividing America is likely to grow into a chasm after this election, even if a few Republicans and Democrats in Congress sit in suburban or rural seats after November.
Notably, this is not a new phenomenon. It was just masked by wave election after wave election. Today, about two-thirds of House Republicans represent districts where the education level lags the national average and three-fifths represent seats where the median income lags the national average. More than half of Democrats sit in seats where the median income and educational level is higher than the national average. These districts are diverse and full of Millennials, women and white-collar professionals.
In it’s analysis of the House battleground, CNN found many competitive seats had two things in common, they were whiter than the national average and they were older. One could argue this highlights the structural issues the Democratic Party faces in terms of minorities being in urban, safe Democratic locales. But, it also highlights Democrat’s resurgence is being fueled by college educated whites, particularly college educated women.
This will ultimately mean any Democratic majority in Congress and their electoral coalition will increasingly be known as what is considered an “upstairs-downstairs” coalition. Democrats will command the loyalties of well-off, younger and college educated whites but also minorities situated in the South and Sunbelt. The question is whether this coalition is durable or whether it will destabilize over time after the Trump era?
After the dust settles from November, both parties will take stock of what happened. Democrats will likely hold the House because of the above and Republicans will still hold the Senate. Republicans will go through the typical recriminations of who is to blame and the media will inevitably point the finger at Trump. The narrative of a divided GOP and a united anti-Trump base will also likely emerge. But, Democrats will suddenly find themselves forced to deal with a governing coalition that just might not be governable.
Sure, the party can excite and unite their base via investigations of Trump and calls for universal healthcare. But, opposition to Trump may not equal Democratic success in two years like next week. The reason why is because the party’s traditional base of moderate and minorities might not be willing to stomach the policies of the newfound converts, well-off, affluent college educated white men and women.
If one looks closely enough, evidence of the friction in the party can be seen in New York and Boston. The accepted narrative is upstart Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who pulled off the upset of political fixture Joe Crowley, was due to unexpected turnout in a flood of new voters in the diversifying district. But, precinct level data actually shows Crowley did quite well in these precincts but was blown away in white, well off and college educated white precincts.
The data tells the story. Cortez’s best precincts were places full of highly educated, whiter and richer residents than the district as a whole. In those neighborhoods, Ocasio-Cortez clobbered Crowley by 70 percent or more. Crowley’s best precincts, meanwhile, were the working-class African-American enclave of LeFrak City, where he got more than 60 percent of the vote, and portions of heavily Hispanic Corona. He pulled some of his best numbers in Ocasio-Cortez’s heavily Latino and African-American neighborhood of Parkchester, in the Bronx—beating her by more than 25 points on her home court.
This suggests minority voters prioritize seniority and the delivery of goods vs. adherence to notions of diversity and free healthcare for all. “It’s a new world,” says Ari Espinal, a 30-year-old New York assemblywoman and daughter of Dominican immigrants who first met Crowley when she was a neighborhood activist as a teenager and grew up as part of Crowley’s Queens County organization. That connection worked against her this year, however, when her upstart opponent with an inspiring anti-Trump story—a young Colombian immigrant who wanted to be the first Dreamer elected to office in New York—aligned herself with Ocasio-Cortez and against Crowley. Espinal lost in the September primary. “The millennials came out. I am a part of that group, and for them politics isn’t the first thing on their mind,” she says. “They don’t know who their local rep is and what they are bringing to the table. They know who is hot and sexy at the time.”
In Boston, Ayanna Pressely, defeated Mike Capuano by a double digit margin. She did this by winning wealthy Cambridge while losing big in the working class and immigrant enclaves of Chelsea and Everett.
The results suggest a rift the party has yet to deal with. From the perspective of party elders why should they? They are set to win the House and all seems good to knock the orange haired boogeyman out of the White House in two years. But, it also suggests a problem inherent in the party’s electoral coalition that may start playing out more and more at the national level. Democrats need both minority and college educated whites to show up to win statewide and national elections. If there is a massive cultural divide between the two the party will struggle to win nationally.
It’s All Local
Two recent and local events highlight what the Democratic Party is in store for during the era of Trump. In San Francisco, London Breed, an African-American politician raised by a grandmother in public housing, Breed barely fended off two challengers from the left. While Breed, running as the “moderate” in the contest won largely minority communities, her challengers dominated among the city’s growing upscale white population.
During the summer meeting of the Democratic National Committee, the party faced a split when supporters of Bernie Sanders pushed for rules changes that many minority delegates opposed. In particular, the younger and whiter delegates, who had not been involved in politics before 2016, wanted to limit the power of super-delegates. To longstanding African-American and Hispanic delegates, the proposed rules changes suggested the newcomers wanted to skip their place in line. Bluntly, one delegate compared it to the Fugitive Slave Act. Donna Brazile, who worked for Hillary Clinton’s campaign called it an “insult to democracy.”
At the local level this is increasingly playing out on issues of affordable housing, college affordability and pre-K. Few affluent minorities are NIMBY’s, but it is college educated whites jumping up and down over the idea because their property values might drop. More funding for public schools is gospel on the left, but few college educated whites are calling for their charter schools to accept out of district minority students. Indeed, a map of Chicago shows just how these white, affluent communities self-segregate from minority communities even as they preach about the benefits of diversity.
The Ides of 2020
As the party turns to 2020, the energy in the party seems to reside with the left in college towns and the coasts. Still, any winning candidate cannot ignore the growing cultural war in their ranks. While the party’s left-wing might be worrying about abortion and social issues a large wing of the party is still blue-collar, of color and prefers a more incremental approach to social and economic issues. Hence why the loss of a Joe Crowley or Mike Capuano is largely celebrated only among certain pockets of the party.
Like most party partisans, Democratic voters are united on the big issues; economic inequality, abortion, increasing the minimum wage and reforming the criminal justice system. But, in terms of style, if not substance, the party is divided. Most partisans of any belief or color will come on board by November 2020 but there remains a very real alternative possibility. The split in the party becomes more enduring, the party’s increasing diverse base and college educated white support diverge on tactics and substance and the Democratic primary becomes a spectacle where a damaged nominee faces a united GOP around Trump. In this case, it is a very real possibility Trump actually does win a massive share of the minority vote not seen since 2004 under then President Bush’s reelection campaign.
The Changing Party
The Democratic Party has always been a loose coalition. Less than a century ago the party was a mix of agrarian farmers and big city pols. It welcomed segregated blacks into its ranks in mass into the modern day. The GOP was the party of business interests and the new suburbs and the nation’s growing college educated population. In 1994, college voters favored Congressional Republicans 54-39 but by 2017 those numbers had reversed according to Pew.
One cannot deny the racial component implicit here. College educated voters tend to be whiter and more affluent. But, when it comes to electoral support the party’s minority base delivers time and time again. Non-white voters went 80-20 for Obama and black voters went 90-8 for Clinton. One would think the party would pay attention to this dynamic.
But, increasingly, the party seems to be taking these voters for granted. Only after the NYT did a study finding low turnout in urban locales in Midwestern states cost Clinton the election did the party consider they had a problem. But, soon after, the party’s energized base spit out fury at Trump and all was deemed fine again. The problem is this opens the door for a Trump or another Republican to come along and start courting minorities along economic and cultural lines. Inevitably, this woul
d be a fraught alliance as the GOP caters to its evangelical and white base but it could usher in a permanent shift where some minorities are brought into the GOP fold on economic issues. If that happens, the Electoral College might lock the party out of the White House beyond 2020.
Increasingly, polls and political surveys find a divergence of opinion on what the party’s blue-collar base wants vs. their upper end. The party’s base, even accounting for its white and union blue-collar base, is generally more skeptical of government regulation and takes a dimmer view of illegal immigration. They tend to focus less on abortion, the environment and gay rights and even the social welfare state. Only on corporate profits do college educated, white Democrats hold more conservatives views on profits and globalization.
To these younger, whiter, and more affluent voters they often have the luxury of not needing to worry about seniority in Congress. They can choose a candidate they agree with on principle vs. what the politician will actually deliver to them. This means throwing out the baby for the bathwater and prioritizing outsider status.
The problem is hailing from outside the establishment does not mean much to voters who actually need goods from the government, who rely on social services or government jobs in their districts. When a Crowley or Capauno lose, they see years of seniority vanish while the left sees a moral victory.
Ironically, the shift among Democrats mirrors the take no prisoners mentality of the GOP base who sees compromise with Democrats as heresy. The GOP saw several good incumbents go down to defeat and actually lost those seats (see Indiana and Missouri Senate contests).
During the 2016 election, Bernie Sanders kept the race close by running up massive margins among young, college educated white voters in low turnout caucuses and the Northeast while Clinton dominated in the South and among voters of color. Clinton did win all income and education levels but Sanders won those voters with incomes in-between the richest and poorest and drew to a draw with post-graduate voters.
Whether the bulk of the party is truly willing to embrace a massive, redistribution set of policies remains to be seen. It is one thing to favor unlimited immigration, a $15 minimum wage, free college or a federal jobs guarantee because it requires little from the well-off. But, when these policies are adopted and have to be paid for via higher income taxes, or good doctors serving all and not just a few, or private charters being opened to all the equation changes. Indeed, likely 2020 hopeful Kamala Harris unveiled her idea of an American Savings Account for all baby Americans to combat inequality. Missing from the idea. How to pay for it.
The reason why is simple. Upper income whites will vote Democratic on social issues but they will also vote strategically if it means they can maintain their fiscal standing. For example, in 2015, President Barack Obama proposed ending the deduction for college savings accounts—a tax break whose benefit goes almost entirely to upper-income voters—he was shot down by liberal powerhouses Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer. When Trump passed his tax cuts, Democrats started talking about how it would limit the property taxes federal deduction which almost completely benefits the well-off.
To a degree, affluent, whites will stick with Democrats at some cost to their bank account as long as it does not threaten their standard of living. They can put principle over pragmatism. What changes is if a Democrat emboldened by the left-wing wins the White House in the future and proposes implementing these redistributionist policies? Will another realignment occur? Or will older and more affluent voters, who tend to not favor truly redistributionist parties (economic, social and cultural) bolt from the party?
At the ground level these differences start to rub parts of the coalition the wrong way. When it comes down to the needs of the working class vs. the left, like integrated schools or more public housing, the left has been far more reluctant to act. This scenario plays out in dark blue cities like Boston, San Francisco and Chicago. And in Cortez’s own district.
The Loss of Clout
Joe Crowley had not had a competitive election in 20 years. Cortez changed that. Crowley was hardly ignorant of his district’s needs and wants. Crowley, the establishment guy, blocked a street in Washington during an immigration protest and said he would refuse to shake Donald Trump’s hand. Crowley called for a $15 minimum wage and called for an end of federal financing of private prisons. The difference between the two could be measured in millimeters.
But at the local level, the preferences of a Cortez voter and a Crowley voter are light-years distant. At the federal level, differences between the candidates usually only have theoretical implications, but at the local levels they have real world consequences. Upscale parents will vote for a self-described socialist for President but suddenly become conservative on minority kids being bused into their kids school, or having affordable housing next to their prim and proper neighborhood (common even where I live).
In Queens, the election of Cortez had this very real impact. Off an old road, 82nd Street, developers proposed converting an old theater into a 13 story mixed use project with three stories of affordable units. Crowley supported the idea and the idea a Target would be on the ground floor would mean these residents would not only have their housing there but also their livelihood. The building would be a self-enclosed neighborhood all residents would have a stake in.
Cortez opposed it, saying it would bring gentrification and affordable housing was not “affordable enough” Not sure what that means. Cortez made it seem like Crowley was in the pockets of the wealthy and real estate lobby. The precinct has been diversifying with more Asian immigrants who need these service sector type jobs. It boosted her credibility in the surrounding and much whiter precincts.
Because of this and other reasons Crowley lost the election. Three weeks later, the local city councilman who supported the project withdrew his support. Neighborhood activists (ie. rich and white progressives) claimed victory. The building still sits dormant, a monument to the victory of principle over the real estate industry, over gentrification and the old system.