The centrist Democratic think tank Third Way reliably supports socially liberal, fiscally sensible policies that are catnip to the cosmopolitan wing of the party—and as a result, the group often aggravates the party’s base of populist progressives.
But a new study of last year’s election results, provided exclusively to National Journal, underscores the idea that Democrats need to win back working-class Donald Trump voters before they chase moderate Republicans who defected to Hillary Clinton. The analysis comes as a sobering reminder that, despite the golden opportunity Democrats have to take back the House next year, they will still have to win in areas outside their cultural comfort zone.
The report comes on the heels of the Democrats’ disappointing loss last month in suburban Atlanta in one of the most affluent, best-educated congressional districts in the country. Despite narrowing the district’s traditional Republican advantage and raising record sums of money, Democratic nominee Jon Ossoff came up short. Republicans, even most of those disenchanted with President Trump, ultimately turned out to support the GOP congressional candidate, Karen Handel.
“Focusing only on Romney-Clinton voters wouldn’t just be an overly narrow path—it would be a losing one, given their limited numbers, the states in which they live, and their seeming resistance to vote Democratic when the Republican opponent isn’t Donald Trump,” the report concludes. “When dealing with using limited resources for targeting, Romney-Clinton voters might simply be too difficult to flip.”
The conclusion comes as a bit of a surprise, given that Democratic moderates have been assiduously targeting GOP-leaning suburbs as a prime opportunity for realignment in the age of Trump. To win back the House, the report argues, Democrats need to continue to make inroads in territory around booming metropolitan areas while also appealing to more culturally conservative Trump voters.
The paper spotlights some more uncomfortable realities: There were twice as many voters (around 6 million) who defected from President Obama to Trump than there were who went from Mitt Romney to Clinton (about 3 million). The GOP defectors disproportionately hail from states that aren’t competitive in Senate and presidential races, while the newfound Trump supporters are concentrated in the Midwestern battlegrounds. So Clinton’s impressive gains in deep-blue California’s Orange County and ruby-red Texas’s Harris County are unlikely to make a dent in the two states’ overwhelming partisan advantages.
The political crosscurrents on the House map also played to Trump’s favor, albeit less dramatically: Twenty-one House districts went from backing Obama to supporting Trump, while 15 switched from Romney to Clinton. Most of those Clinton-district Republicans have strong individual brands at the congressional level. Republicans hold all 15 of the Romney-Clinton seats, all 15 representatives outperformed Trump in their districts last year, and 11 of them won by whopping double-digit margins. It’s unlikely that Republicans will be able to maintain those advantages in their first midterm with Trump, but many have won under difficult circumstances before.
By contrast, Republicans now hold 12 of the 21 Obama-Trump seats. These districts appear to be steadily heading away from their Democratic roots, giving Republicans more opportunities in the future. In fact, two of the Democrats holding Obama-Trump seats (Reps. Jacky Rosen of Nevada and Tim Walz of Minnesota) are running for higher office, giving House Republicans unexpected openings.
The Third Way report strictly focused on politics, not preferred policy outcomes. So it doesn’t settle the question that’s dividing Democratic strategists: To win back Obama-Trump voters, should their candidates move to the right on cultural issues like immigration or drive home an unapologetically progressive economic message? Neither approach seems consistent with Third Way’s support for “radical centrism.”
The paper favorably cited a Democracy Fund report arguing that “attitudes about legal and illegal immigration were strongly correlated with vote switching.” But it’s hard to imagine either wing of the Democratic Party trying to challenge the current party consensus on the benefits of diversity and immigration. If winning over Trump defectors isn’t enough, what’s the next step?
Trump’s myriad political problems could be the short-term answer. The growing Russia scandal, a glaring lack of legislative accomplishments, and the worsening chaos within the White House may be enough for Democrats to take back the House in 2018 and the presidency in three years. But longer-term, Democrats will have to grapple with the reality that their party’s message, increasingly tailored to cosmopolitan interests, is struggling to resonate with a majority of the country.
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