2016 loss shows Dems the need for white male voters

Nicholas Riccardi
Associated Press

Upper St. Clair Township, Pa. — When he moved to Pennsylvania about five years ago, it was a coin toss which party Brian Heitman would register with.

No longer.

Since Donald Trump’s election in 2016, Heitman, who is 42 and white, has become a reliable Democrat. Last week, he voted for the Democratic candidate in a special state Senate election in Pittsburgh’s affluent southern suburbs.

“A decade ago I probably wouldn’t have even noticed this election was happening,” Heitman said, “but I’m making a point in voting in every one I can nowadays.”

The Democrats’ 2020 presidential primary may feature a historically diverse field of women and minorities, but in some ways it is testing how the party appeals to white men such as Heitman. Many Democratic politicians went into the last presidential campaign cycle taking little account of those voters, and banked on a coalition of women and minorities to carry them to victory. Trump’s victory proved that thinking wrong.

That’s left Democrats wondering whether the nominee should be someone who can cut deep into Trump’s base — working-class whites — whether it’s enough to win over affluent, college-educated, suburban men and whether party is moving to far left to win them both.

Mike Wessell, center, a Republican-turned Democrat, talks with other supporters for democratic party candidate for Pennsylvania state senator Pam Iovino at her election returns party in Pittsburgh. Some Democrats thought they didn’t need white male voters in 2016. But the party knows it needs them in 2020.

“The white male vote is indispensable, it’s a part of any winning coalition,” said Democratic pollster Ronald Lester, who worked for Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016. He noted that successful national Democrats perform well with white men, and that includes Barack Obama, whose strength among white men in the Rust Belt helped fuel his White House victories.

Several candidates have jumped in with their own suggestions of how to do that.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, who hasn’t said whether he is running, spoke to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in an appearance Friday that seemed designed to show how he could win back white working-class voters. Biden said some of his “sophisticated friends” don’t understand the need to treat laborers with respect.

“How the hell do we get to the place where a lot of you think the rest of the country doesn’t see you, or know you?” Biden asked the mostly male crowd.

When Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, announced his campaign earlier in the week, he said his more centrist approach could appeal to working-class voters like those in his district, which embodies the Rust Belt terrain that Trump won.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said her no-frills style has delivered white Midwestern voters before. Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, uses his star appeal that helped him in Texas’ well-educated suburbs. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has said his economic populism will bring rural white voters back to the Democratic fold.

Polling makes clear why Democratic are searching for the right messenger.

White men make up typically make up about one-third of the electorate. In 2018, 41 percent of them voted for Democrats, according to AP VoteCast, a survey of the national electorate. While Democrats’ strength among women won headlines and was often credited with the Democrats’ strong showing, white men also moved to the Democrats. VoteCast showed Democrats won the votes of 46 percent of white male college graduates, a figure that’s buoyed some in the party.