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Democrats are learning ‘demographics aren’t destiny’

Jun 05,2024 - Last updated at Jun 05,2024

After Barack Obama’s decisive 2008 victory, Democratic Party strategists became convinced that their party’s future dominance was insured because “demographics are destiny”.

Obama performed well among many groups, but his decisive performance among young voters, Black, Latino and Asian American voters, and college educated women captured the strategists’ attention. With these groups’ share of the electorate growing, the strategists thought focusing on issues most appealing to this “Obama coalition” would guarantee future victories.

In subsequent years they elevated issues and directed extensive voter outreach to cultivate and keep that coalition together. In the process, they appeared to abandon outreach to other constituencies, especially white working-class voters, leaving the field wide open to their Republican opponents.

In 2008–2009, Republicans, deflecting from their responsibility for the Great Recession, exploited white voters’ feelings of unease and abandonment. Preying on resentment and fears, the GOP weaponised racism and xenophobia in the “birther movement” (“Obama’s not one of us”) and the “Tea Party” (“Democrats’ ideas about government benefit ‘them’ not you”).

In the next three elections, Democrats, relying on mobilisation of their “Obama coalition” base, lost over 1,400 state and federal seats, giving Republicans control of both houses of Congress and the majority of governorships and state legislatures. Sadly, Democrats did not learn from those losses.

After the 2014 midterms, the Democratic Party’s pollster gave an upbeat presentation despite the stunning number of nationwide defeats. He proclaimed some good news from 2014: Democrats had kept their coalition together, winning the youth, Black, Latino, Asian and educated women’s votes, but “We just didn’t win enough of them.” He recommended the party commit more resources to getting out these voters in future elections.

I objected saying that he was ignoring white ethnic working-class voters in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin, who’d always been Democrats and whose rights, prosperity and futures were being damaged by Republicans. We needed to pay attention to their needs. His startling response: “We’re not going to throw money away on people who are never going to vote for us.” I replied that it’s not “either/or”. We can be attentive to our new coalition’s concerns, while also keeping in mind our old coalition partners’ needs. The “both/and” approach dismissed, I countered that we would never be a majoritarian party and were handing these voters to Republicans on a silver platter. Enter Donald Trump in 2016.

As a candidate, Joe Biden understood “both/and”, making efforts to win back these voters. But the party apparatus and paid consultants have not followed suit, devoting little or no resources to white working-class voter outreach and even less to understanding their values and needs.

In 2001, my brother John and I published “What Ethnic Americans Really Think”, based on our polling of these communities. White ethnic voters held largely progressive attitudes toward government and economic policy, but had more nuanced feelings about social issues. Their priorities were support for federal funding for education, healthcare and job creation. They were pro-union and for racial equality, but conflicted about abortion and gay rights.

Though the interests of white working-class voters are more aligned with Democrats’ economic and governmental policies, Democrats fell into the Republicans’ trap, focusing on combating bigoted, intolerant Republican messages and ignoring white voters’ economic angst and feelings of abandonment, instead of attending to both.

Now polls show Democrats are also at risk of losing components of the “Obama coalition”. By viewing Black, Latino and Asian American voters as monoliths, Democrats ignore their complexity. Upwards of 15 per cent of Black voters are African immigrants and many Latino voters are also more recent immigrants. Their attitudes and values are more in line with European ethnic immigrants of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Democratic strategists need to adjust or risk losing their support.

One more thought: My generation grew up with a strong attachment to party ID, when you “belonged to” political parties. Today, being a Democrat or a Republican means being on an e-mail or phone-banking list, only hearing from your party for fundraising or get-out-the-vote. Party ID has suffered, especially among young voters and recent immigrants, and the numbers of independents and swing voters have increased. It’s why Donald Trump easily toppled Republican Party leadership and why Democrats may have trouble winning elections with their “demographics are destiny” mantra.

The writer is president of the Washington-based Arab American Institute

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