Page: How Democrats lost white voters
While talking to black and white Republicans recently about the Grand Old Party’s outreach efforts to voters of color, I wondered: What are Democrats doing to reach working-class whites?
Much has been said and written — some of it by me — about how desperately Grand Old Party leaders seek to woo voters of color back to the GOP, the fabled “party of Lincoln” to which earlier generations of African-Americans were fondly devoted.
The surprisingly robust exodus of Hispanic, Asian, unmarried women and young voters, too, in Mitt Romney’s racially lopsided 2012 presidential election loss convinced GOP chairman Reince Priebus and other moderate GOP leaders that, yes, maybe it’s time to spend serious time and dollars on expanding the party’s voting base.
Fast forward to now: After last year’s surprisingly large Republican victories in low-turnout midterm congressional elections, Democrats are asking themselves a similar question to the one Republicans have raised about themselves: How can Andrew Jackson’s and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fabled “party of labor” expand its outreach to its own largest bloc of demographic defectors, working-class whites?
Yes, despite having one of their own in the White House and demographic trends favoring Democrats in future electoral maps, the Dems face several minefields in the short run.
One, what happens to the black vote after President Barack Obama leaves the White House?
African-Americans are likely to vote heavily Democratic for the foreseeable future, but it doesn’t take much of a shift in the size or partisan preferences of black voters to shift outcomes in the electoral map.
Two, will Democratic gains in presidential elections be offset by Republican gains in mid-terms? Democrats won the popular vote in five of the past six presidential elections, but surprisingly large GOP upsets in the 2010 and 2014 midterms show how more reliably and enthusiastically the Republican base turns out.
The GOP’s 2006 “thumping,” as President George W. Bush called it, resulted from unusual high anger over the Iraq war and the Bush administration’s Hurricane Katrina response. Democracy can keep politicians on their toes.
Three, Hillary Rodham Clinton looks strong in national polls but has a history of snatching defeat out of the jaws of victory. (See her 2008 contest versus a relatively unknown Illinois senator.) Once the lesser GOP lights are eliminated in the primaries, a Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio or even a fast-rising star like Scott Walker could give Clinton another nail-biter of a race.
Today’s partisan racial divide took shape a half-century ago as the hard-won victories of the civil rights revolution coincided with the decline of high-paying, low-skill industrial jobs. As long-overdue opportunities opened up for women and minorities, they began to dry up for workers who lacked much education beyond high school.
Former Alabama Gov. George Wallace gave voice to blue-collar frustrations and middle-class resentments of “pointy-headed professors,” the liberal “beatnik crowd” and Washington’s “briefcase-totin’ bureaucrats.” Richard Nixon won the presidency in 1968 partly by positioning himself as a moderate, pragmatic alternative to Wallace’s extremism in attracting what were called “white backlash” votes.
It is important to ask why voters don’t vote their economic interests. But I think the most important question in politics, regardless of race, creed or color, is simply, “Who’s on my side?”
Clarence Page writes for the Chicago Tribune.