Playbook for a Democratic Comeback

The key to the party’s revival lies in the upscale suburbs where Hillary Clinton made strong inroads.

Former President Bill Clinton smiles as balloons fall after Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton spoke during the final day of the Democratic National Convention, Thursday, July 28, 2016, in Philadelphia.(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
Jan. 3, 2017, 8 p.m.

The seeds of Democratic renewal can be found in the affluent neighborhoods of Atlanta and its northern suburbs, where a quiet protest against Donald Trump’s Republican Party took place on Election Day. The diverse, moderate-minded constituents of Health and Human Services Secretary designee Tom Price took a markedly different view of Trump than working-class white voters in the Rust Belt. Mitt Romney carried this district with 61 percent of the vote in 2012—a seat that The Almanac of American Politics dubbed a “safe Republican district”—but Trump eked out just a 1-point win over Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Clinton carried suburban Atlanta’s Cobb County by 3 points, a dramatic 15-point swing from Mitt Romney’s resounding double-digit victory in the county four years earlier. Among the most-affluent precincts in Fulton County, Clinton won by 3 points. Clinton even carried white voters in the Atlanta metropolitan area by a 1-point margin, a stunning turnaround in a state that has historically been deeply polarized along racial lines.

The results from the Atlanta suburbs offer Democrats a playbook for how to compete in the future—win over socially liberal, fiscally conservative voters who traditionally lined up with Republicans. This would pair the diverse Obama coalition with voters who have favored free markets and a tough-minded foreign policy. It would be a throwback to the centrist policies of Bill Clinton, along with a full-throated embrace of a diversifying America. It would concede some of the white working-class gains to Trump, while making an aggressive push to bring college-educated suburbanites into the Democratic fold.

Such a plan would bet on Trump overreaching as president—after all, his favorability still hovers in the mid-40s—and persuading voters who defected from him to keep supporting Democrats. A centrist-minded agenda would take a skeptical view of heavy-handed economic regulations, and focus on economic growth as its core principle. It would embrace a more muscular foreign policy, notably on Russian malfeasance and the terrorist threat at home. It would champion immigration reform and loudly oppose any measures that would hinder the flow of high-skilled labor into the country.

And it would reject some of the more politically damaging elements of President Obama’s record, particularly his hostile actions towards Israel and all-too-frequent pandering to protest groups trafficking in divisive rhetoric. As flawed as Clinton was, her strong performance in some GOP-friendly suburbs was partially attributable to her solid pro-Israel record and ability to keep some distance from the rabble-rousers.

In short, this strategy would draw the map that Democrats have always said represents their future—locking in Colorado and Virginia, while making a renewed play for North Carolina, Arizona, and Georgia. It would benefit from demographic diversity while mollifying moderate whites. It risks losing a little ground in the Midwest, but bets that a more talented presidential nominee can win back working-class voters while holding onto the gains in the suburbs. It would rely on making inroads with white voters, while being a bit less dependent on historic turnout and margins from African-Americans.

Consider: A 50 percent majority of voters believe that government is doing too much, according to exit polling. Nearly one-quarter of them were Clinton voters. These are the type of voters that Democrats would be smart to target as they look to rebuild.

This diagnosis runs counter to the advice of socialist-minded senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who claim the election results were a backlash against the Democratic Party’s closeness to Wall Street. They want to reshape Trump’s populism leftward, energizing the base in the process.

But this approach ignores the cultural disconnect between working-class whites and the leadership of today’s Democratic Party. The growing threat of terrorism, worsening race relations, concern over illegal immigration, and a disproportionate focus on bathroom bills played key roles in pushing blue-collar voters away from Democrats. While economic anxiety played an important role, it’s hard to see how Democrats will be able to out-Trump the incoming president without shedding their social liberalism. It’s very plausible that, because of Trump, Northern working-class whites could follow the path into the Republican Party that their Southern and Appalachian counterparts paved over the past two decades. And without Obama on a ballot, it’s unlikely that Democrats will benefit from black-turnout levels that hit historic highs in 2008 and 2012.

Democrats only need to look at last year’s election results to understand that they’ll need to reorient the party in the post-Obama era. On paper, they have an opportunity to cement their gains from the upscale suburbs to provide a springboard to a majority. But if an increasingly liberal base continues to dictate policy, the math for Democrats gets a lot tougher. The coming months will indicate whether they will be acting more like Walter Mondale or Bill Clinton in the wake of demoralizing defeats.

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