If you remember back to the Democratic primary, there was a lot of talk about South Carolina, with a large number of black Democratic primary voters, being Clinton’s ‘firewall’: Clinton would do well there and stop Sanders’ momentum. Regardless of whether you think the Democratic primary schedule is ‘fair’ or more importantly, useful to the party, that was the terrain, and both Clinton and Sanders had to fight on that terrain.
In national elections, despite Ruy Teixeira’s and others claims about a new Democratic majority, 2016 showed that the Republican firewall is the large number of white working class voters in the Upper Midwest and Pennsylvania. Like it or not, if Democrats want to win nationally they have to win some of those states. And down ballot, due to gerrymandering and housing patterns (often discriminatory, at least in the past), these same voters have a disportionately large influence, as Chad Orzel notes (boldface mine):
This morning saw the umpteenth reshared tweetstorm (no link because it doesn’t matter who it was) berating people who write about how liberals ought to reach out to working-class whites– as I did a little while back— for caring too much about the “feelings” of white people. While there are undoubtedly some disingenuous op-eds being written for which that’s true, I think it misses an extremely important point about this whole thing. That is, it’s true that these pieces are concerned about the feelings of white people, but only as a means to an end. What really matters isn’t their feelings, but their votes.
…You think it’s ridiculous that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by 2.5 million votes but still lost, so you want to get rid of the Electoral College? Great. To do that, you need to amend the Constitution, which requires control of Congress and/or a whole bunch of state legislatures, most of which are in Republican hands, because they get the votes of those working-class whites. You want to ditch the Electoral College, you need to change those votes.
Think those working-class whites have too much power because of gerrymandered districts that over-weight rural areas? You’re probably right, but if you want to fix it, you need to control the legislatures that make the districts, and those are mostly in Republican hands because they get the votes of those people in rural districts. You want to stop gerrymandering and protect voting rights, you need to change those votes.
There are a whole host of things wrong with our current system. Fixing any of them requires winning elections, particularly those off-year legislative elections where Democrats underperform even when they’re winning statewide and national elections. Winning some of those is going to require getting the people who vote in those elections to change their votes, and hopefully their minds.
And that is why pundits and those who play pundit in a half-assed way on their blogs are saying you should care about the feelings of those working-class whites: because they vote, and you need their votes. And you’re not going to get those votes by berating them and insulting them and disparaging their feelings. You get their votes by understanding where they’re coming from, offering them something they want, and treating them with respect.
And again, this does not mean you need to cater to their basest impulses. Fundamental principles of tolerance and equality are not negotiable, and can not be compromised. But you don’t have to pander to racism to move some votes– most of the policies in the Democratic platform are already clearly better for those people than the Republican alternatives. It’s just a matter of pitching them in a way that makes that clear.
…Another common and maddening refrain the past few weeks has been “Why do we have to care about their feelings, when they’re hateful toward us?” The answer is, bluntly, that they don’t need your votes. They’re living in gerrymandered districts that give them too much power, and they’re winning the elections that matter. If you want to change the broken system in fundamental ways, you need to convince them to vote for policies that involve giving up some of that power. They can keep things just the way they are, or make them much, much worse, without any assistance from you.
One thing to note is that Democrats already get quite a few bigoted voters while openly opposing bigotry. The other reason for some limited optimism (not feeling very cheery right now) is many Democratic voters in swing states (note the qualification) simply sat this election out (boldface mine):
But this emerging consensus around a Rust Belt revolt is wrong. People like Edsall have missed the real story: Relative to the 2012 election, Democratic support in the Rust Belt collapsed as a huge number of Democrats stayed home or (to a lesser extent) voted for a third party. Trump did not really flip white working-class voters in the Rust Belt. Mostly, Democrats lost them…
Relative to 2012, Democrats lost 950,000 white voters in the Rust Belt (-13 percent). This figure includes a loss of 770,000 votes cast by white men (-24.2 percent). Compare that number to the modest gains Republicans made in terms of white voters: They picked up only 450,000 whites (+4.9 percent).
Democrats also lost the black, indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC) vote in the Rust Belt 5, with 400,000 fewer voters in this category (-11.5 percent). While disaggregated exit-poll data on BIPOC voters was inconsistently available across the five states we examined, in those places where numbers were available, Democrats saw losses among both black American and Latino voters. Importantly, some of the greatest losses in BIPOC votes were in states such as Ohio and Wisconsin, both of which adopted voter suppression laws beginning in 2012. But even in states with no such laws, such as Pennsylvania, BIPOC turnout was significantly lower this election cycle. In short, more people of color stayed home in the Rust Belt in 2016 than in 2012.
…Compared with 2012, three times as many voters in the Rust Belt who made under $100,000 voted for third parties. Twice as many voted for alternative or write-in candidates. Similarly, compared with 2012, some 500,000 more voters chose to sit out this presidential election. If there was a Rust Belt revolt this year, it was the voters’ flight from both parties.
The good news is that we just have to find a way to get those voters to come home again. Like it or not, we need to breach that firewall.