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The Democrats’ Electoral Rubik’s Cube

Understanding the diverse coalition that Joe Biden must try to hold together.
December 14, 2020
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WILMINGTON, DELAWARE - DECEMBER 11: U.S. President-elect Joe Biden speaks during an event to announce new cabinet nominations at the Queen Theatre on December 11, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware. President-elect Joe Biden is continuing to round out his domestic team with the announcement of his choices for cabinet secretaries of Veterans Affairs and Agriculture, and the heads of his domestic policy council and the U.S. Trade Representative. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty)

Last month Joe Biden decisively bested Donald Trump in the Electoral College, and by over 7 million votes nationwide. But this disguises the durability of the GOP’s competitive position, and underlying grip on power, for years to come.

It’s a demographic truism that our increasingly diverse population threatens the long-term survival of a Republican party rooted in white America. Nonetheless, daunting structural barriers to a truly representative democracy—the Electoral College, the Senate, and the party’s self-perpetuating gerrymander of state and federal legislative districts—will indefinitely postpone the day of reckoning.

Given these advantages, the GOP’s electoral formula is straightforward—turn out a solid majority of whites; chip away at the Democrats’ margins among Asians and Hispanics; and suppress the votes of African Americans. Its relative success in 2020 presents Biden and his party with ongoing legislative and electoral challenges.

The voters’ clear rejection of Trump was not accompanied by a deeper mandate for Joe Biden and his party. Democrats lost seats in the House; failed—pending Georgia’s runoffs—to take control of the Senate; and suffered crushing defeats which free GOP state legislatures to fortify partisan gerrymandering. This augurs a legislative stalemate which the congressional elections of 2022 may only deepen.

For the most part, the Republican base is demographically and ideologically homogeneous. Not so the Democrats’ far more diverse coalition of Asians, Hispanics, blacks, and whites—mostly affluent and/or well educated, with a diminishing share of blue-collar voters.

Nationwide, Democrats must navigate philosophical, ethnic, and economic fissures of diabolical complexity. This is captured by the Guardian’s survey of ten bellwether constituencies.

In Maricopa County a 45,000-vote margin enabled Biden to flip Arizona by 10,000 votes. Here Biden’s gains in white-majority suburbs offset a diminishing margin among working-class Latinos—many of whom supported Bernie Sanders in the primaries.

Traditionally Democratic Hidalgo County along the Texas-Mexico border, home to working-class and poor Hispanics, swung toward Trump by 13 points over 2016. Statewide such gains swamped growing Democratic strength in affluent places like suburban Dallas.

In Miami-Dade County, Florida, the substantial Cuban-American vote favored Trump, while Biden lost ground among African Americans—assuring his decisive defeat statewide. A big trend toward Biden in suburban Atlanta epitomized the white swing voters who, added to an overwhelming African-American vote, tipped Georgia to Biden.

In Pennsylvania, Biden barely carried working-class Lackawanna County—which includes his hometown of Scranton—where Barack Obama won twice by over 25 points. By contrast, Biden took suburban Chester County near Philadelphia, once overwhelmingly Republican, by 17 points.

In Northampton County, North Carolina, a disappointing African-American turnout presaged Biden’s defeat statewide. And his crushing loss in blue-collar Mahoning County, Ohio, once a bastion of the Democratic working-class base, helped seal his fate in a state swiftly trending red.

Overall, Biden increased his margin among affluent whites; lost a crucial slice of Hispanics in some critical locales; hemorrhaged blue-collar whites; and, in other key districts, did not turn out as many African Americans as anticipated. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to this vexing national chessboard.

The Democrats’ dilemma is exacerbated by an ideological divide between party moderates and progressives—too many of whom imagine they have the universal answer. Neither faction does, least of all the most ardent progressives.

Consistently, the GOP argued that Democrats of all stripes were too radical for their constituencies, defeating moderate House members in states like New York, Florida, and California, while stalling the party’s hoped-for gains in Texas. Frustrated moderates blamed their defeat on progressives who embraced volatile slogans like “defund the police” or “democratic socialism.”

Both Obama and the African-American congressional whip James Clyburn blamed “defund the police” for repelling critical voters. In response, Ilhan Omar wrote “it’s not a slogan but a policy demand,” while Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez chastised Obama for missing that the whole point was “to make [people] uncomfortable.”

As a party Democrats emphatically support African-American calls to combat police brutality, and to reform law enforcement in fundamental ways. But, pace Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, the whole point of an election is to win over your constituents—or lose the ability to effect real change in areas like policing. As reported in the New York Times, in discussing the Georgia runoffs with black representatives of several Democratic interest groups, Biden bluntly distilled the difference: “That’s how they beat the living hell out of us across the country, saying that we’re talking about defunding the police. We’re not. We’re talking about holding them accountable.”

Exactly.

If progressives represented most Americans, or even most Democrats, Sanders would not have been drubbed in two successive presidential primary contests. Depending on their district and state, the party needs both moderates and progressives: While progressives do well in majority-minority urban districts, they are far less suited to more moderate majority-white suburban districts.

By appropriating progressive catchphrases to nationalize congressional races, the GOP compromised the ability of moderates to address local sensibilities. Going forward this stratagem, however dishonest, may put Democrats in a vice—especially without Trump on the ballot to unify the party. Best to jettison tendentious slogans for real solutions.


Another problem is that the Democrats’ presumptive coalition of African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and persuadable whites is far from monolithic. Not only are there considerable divides among these groups, but within them.

Start with the gulf between upwardly versus downwardly mobile whites. Over time, the parties have effectively traded places: Whites with college degrees are trending Democratic, while the more numerous non-college-educated whites—beset by racial, cultural, and economic anxieties—are fleeing in droves.

One predictable result is that Republicans will gerrymander suburban House districts to further disadvantage Democrats. Absent the ability to speak more persuasively to blue-collar whites about improving their own lives, Democrats may find themselves hemmed into enclaves which cannot deliver a majority in the House or even, as happened in 2016, the Electoral College.

As for nonwhites, it should go without saying that Asians, Hispanics, and African Americans are not homogeneous “people of color”—or that the viewpoint of immigrant communities may differ from those whose ancestors were sold into slavery before being subjected to terrorism, enforced peonage, segregation, and corrosive racial stereotyping and discrimination.

Moreover, it is foolish to assume that Vietnamese who fled communism share the concerns of Indian Americans who came to further their education. Like immigrants from China, Cuba, Nicaragua, or Venezuela, the former may be receptive to charges of socialism lodged against Democrats, or to the calls for unfettered entrepreneurship through which the GOP attracts many Asians and Hispanics writ large.

Nor do immigrants who arrived legally, whether Asian, Hispanic, or Afro-Caribbean, necessarily sympathize with those who did not. Similarly, some Asian Americans feel victimized by affirmative action programs designed to alleviate discrimination against Hispanics and, particularly, blacks. This November, in California, significant numbers of Asians and Hispanics opposed the repeal of a ban on affirmative action in education, employment, and contracting.

Collectively, Asians and Hispanics were important to the Democrats’ coalition in 2020. Nonetheless the party saw a troubling erosion of support in both communities.

The defection of Hispanics in Texas and Florida received the most attention. Here, observers took more discerning stock of political variations driven by gender, age, economics, locale, national origin, and religious adherence.

It should be no surprise that many Hispanics in Florida were susceptible to GOP disinformation associating Democrats with doctrinaire socialism, or that others along the Texas border with Mexico have ties to friends or family members policing illegal immigration. But Trump’s share among Hispanics also increased in major cities like Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and San Jose.

Reasons vary. While Hispanic Catholics remain solidly Democratic—considerably more Democratic than white Catholics—they respond to cultural conservatism: opposition to abortion, support for charter schools, and calls for freedom of religion. Further, Democrats came late to targeted organizing and messaging in Hispanic communities.

Some Hispanics in Arizona reacted to being racially scapegoated by anti-immigrant zealots; others did not. As with Asians, Hispanics increasingly split along economic and educational lines—much like whites.


But nothing captures the complexities of the Democratic coalition more than the pivotal importance of overwhelming support from African Americans—at once indispensable and, in itself, insufficient.

In his victory speech, Biden told black voters “you’ve always had my back, and I’ll have yours.” So he must. But as detailed by the New York Times, the black share of the electorate dropped in battleground states like North Carolina and, more surprisingly, Georgia. Nor was there increased turnout in critical cities like Detroit, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia.

Within the black community, one fissure concerned “defunding” police departments. Progressives and younger blacks embraced it; older and more moderate voters found it unnerving. Overall, the relative moderation of African-American voters was critical to Biden’s victories over both Sanders and Trump.

Georgia illustrates the complex interplay within the Democratic coalition. African-American voters were the bedrock of Biden’s win. But outreach to Hispanics and Asians helped, and college-educated whites put Biden over the top.

Concurrently, ticket splitting down-ballot caused senatorial candidates Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff to run behind the total vote for their Republican opponents—making them underdogs in January’s runoffs. To win, both candidates will need a sliver of traditionally Republican white voters who remain unsympathetic to progressives, as well as more affluent Asians and Hispanics who have migrated to the suburbs.

The election further exposed Georgia’s persistent racial divide. A late-November Survey USA poll shows that, among white voters likely to vote in the runoff, Senator David Perdue has a 43-point lead over Ossoff, and the appointed Senator Kelly Loeffler has a 37-point lead over Warnock, the African-American pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church. Among black voters likely to vote in the runoff, Ossoff an 87-point advantage over Perdue, and Warnock an 83-point margin over Loeffler. Critically,Georgia’s population is about 58 percent white and 32 percent black, and in the poll roughly three-quarters of the white and black respondents said they would vote in the runoff.

Trafficking in coded racial politics, the GOP is casting the “radical liberal” Warnock as the face of the Democratic party. Should either Democrat eke out a victory, it will be because both enjoy a substantial margin among suburban women.

Politically and morally, Biden must address the urgent concerns of black Americans—including those shared by many Hispanics: Pandemic relief. Comprehensive police accountability. Food insecurity. Housing shortages. Gaping disparities in wealth creation, homeownership, education, and business opportunities. Greater representation in the cabinet, while important, is only a start.

But the road to these changes must involve an overarching program which helps the entire Democratic coalition cohere while addressing the legitimate concerns of blue-collar whites. That means addressing the fundamental desire of diverse Americans for economic security, opportunity, security, and prosperity.

This does not require embracing a doctrinaire progressivism of dubious popularity. Biden’s already ambitious agenda includes rebuilding infrastructure; expanding educational opportunity; raising the minimum wage; protecting the health and bargaining power of workers; assuring better care for children and seniors; and providing quality healthcare for more Americans.

Not every constituency in the Democrats ideal coalition will respond. But many will—including the more educated and affluent citizens who believe that a more inclusive America will be more prosperous and secure. Let the GOP oppose this program—as it surely will—and let them explain to voters what they offer instead.

Some Republicans imagine that their inroads among minorities may prefigure a multiracial working-class coalition which actualizes Trump’s pseudo-populism. But these gauzy aspirations will collide with the white identity politics essential to Trumpism, the economic solipsism of the party’s donor class, and its ideological aversion to federal programs for those who are falling behind. The Republican party has created its own ceiling, and scapegoating China is insufficient to raise it.

This is not true of Democrats, who appeal to voters across broader ethnic and ideological lines. However complicated their coalition, it offers the hope of transcending the zero-sum politics which is stagnating our governance and polarizing our citizens.

But the first step is for Democrats to realize that internecine ideological warfare and doctrinal purity are the enemies of our democratic revival. The political landscape is far too arduous for self-indulgence, and their opportunities far too easily extinguished. Only adults will do.

Richard North Patterson

Richard North Patterson is a lawyer, political commentator and best-selling novelist. He is a former chairman of Common Cause and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

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