Democrats, cut the cheer

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - DAVID VON DREHLE david.von­drehle@wash­post.com

Given the year they’ve had, Democrats are un­der­stand­ably eu­phoric about their wins in Vir­ginia, New Jersey and else­where Tues­day. A man drag­ging him­self across a desert will be deliri­ously happy to find a bot­tle of wa­ter. But he shouldn’t as­sume that one bot­tle means there’s a river over the next dune — nor should the Democrats be overly op­ti­mistic about what lies ahead.

I say this not just be­cause a year is an eter­nity in to­day’s pol­i­tics, although it is. Don­ald Trump went from novelty can­di­date to pres­i­dent-elect in the year be­tween Novem­ber 2015 and Novem­ber 2016, and in the 12 months af­ter that, the Repub­li­can Party went from a his­toric high-wa­ter mark to a sham­bolic mess. Only a fool or a po­lit­i­cal pun­dit (I know: Writ­ers should avoid re­dun­dancy) would pre­dict what will hap­pen over the next 365 days. Still, I feel safe in fore­cast­ing that it will be a lot.

I could also warn Democrats to heed what might be the only iron­clad rule of con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can pol­i­tics: Con­ven­tional wis­dom is al­ways wrong. I was pretty sure Demo­crat Hil­lary Clin­ton would eke out a win over Trump de­spite her dreary cam­paign — un­til I no­ticed that ev­ery­one else in pol­i­tics and the me­dia seemed to think the same thing. With the Acela crowd so cer­tain, Clin­ton was doomed.

More sub­stan­tial rea­sons for Democrats to re­main cau­tious are found in a deeply re­searched pa­per pub­lished Nov. 1 by the lib­eral Cen­ter for Amer­i­can Progress. Po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tists Rob Grif­fin, Ruy Tex­eira and John Halpin set out af­ter the 2016 elec­tion to de­ter­mine who voted — by race, age and ed­u­ca­tion — and in what pro­por­tions. Their months-long project drew strands from a wide range of data sources and wove them into a pic­ture quite dif­fer­ent from the one painted by the im­per­fect art of Elec­tion Day exit polling.

“Voter Trends in 2016: A Fi­nal Ex­am­i­na­tion” sug­gests that the coali­tion of col­lege-ed­u­cated pro­gres­sives and peo­ple of color on which Democrats have staked their iden­tity may be weaker than most party strate­gists be­lieved. And as they con­tinue their crawl through the po­lit­i­cal wilder­ness, they may find that ef­forts to strengthen the coali­tion prove coun­ter­pro­duc­tive, as they did against Trump.

I was struck by two sets of data from this rich trove of find­ings that may add up to a cau­tion­ary tale. First, the white elec­torate is larger and less ed­u­cated than exit polls would have us be­lieve. The poll­sters cal­cu­lated that 71 per­cent of vot­ers in 2016 were white and that more than half of them had four or more years of col­lege. But the CAP team came to a very dif­fer­ent con­clu­sion: The turnout was nearly 74 per­cent white (a sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence in a ra­zor-thin elec­tion), and only about two out of five of these vot­ers had a col­lege de­gree.

Over­all, 45 per­cent of vot­ers in 2016 — by far the largest seg­ment — were whites who ei­ther did not at­tend or did not com­plete col­lege. This was not en­tirely a Trump-driven phe­nom­e­non. The au­thors found that exit polls greatly un­der­es­ti­mated the vot­ing power of non-col­lege-ed­u­cated whites in 2012, too.

Sec­ond, what­ever strength Democrats have gained from iden­tity pol­i­tics ap­pears to have reached a nat­u­ral ceil­ing. Can­di­date Trump built his cam­paign on his will­ing­ness to of­fend peo­ple. He bashed im­mi­grants, linked Mex­i­cans to vi­o­lent crime, dog­whis­tled to white su­prem­a­cists. Yet when the votes were counted, Trump out­per­formed 2012 GOP nom­i­nee Mitt Rom­ney among African Amer­i­can vot­ers and matched Rom­ney among Lati­nos.

There’s no deny­ing that a sig­nif­i­cant source of the en­ergy in the Demo­cratic Party comes from peo­ple for whom iden­tity pol­i­tics are highly salient. But these find­ings sug­gest that fur­ther sharp­en­ing these is­sues will not gain Democrats much of anything. To the ex­tent that some white vot­ers are alien­ated by these is­sues, iden­tity pol­i­tics may back­fire, driving votes away.

A lot of pix­els have been devoted to the the­ory that Clin­ton would have won the elec­tion had she matched Barack Obama in African Amer­i­can turnout. The CAP study con­firms that this is true. But the study also shows that she would have won had she matched Obama among whites with­out a de­gree.

Once the party of the work­ing class, Democrats have lost their con­nec­tion to the largest bloc of vot­ers in Amer­ica. Democrats had an edge in 1992 of more than five points over Repub­li­cans in the reg­is­tra­tion of white vot­ers with only a high school diploma. By 2016, Repub­li­cans had flipped that ad­van­tage and widened it to more than 25 points.

No party should feel san­guine head­ing into an elec­tion so glar­ingly weak with the plu­ral­ity of the elec­torate. Democrats will cel­e­brate in 2018 and beyond only if they be­gin re­con­nect­ing with the white work­ing class. How? By as­sur­ing them that their con­cerns mat­ter — not more than, but as much as, any­one else’s.

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