Getting the Lost Obama Voters Back

Reading Nate Cohn’s analysis of how the Obama coalition crumbled gave me a sick feeling in the stomach. It confirmed my first take on the election returns, but it showed that things are worse than I suspected.

Obviously, the pre-election polls were of no help to me. Clinton led in something like 55 straight polls of Pennsylvania, and yet lost my home state. Something similar happened in Michigan and Wisconsin. Compounding my problem was that Clinton’s suburban strategy was working (and did work).

Scarsdale, N.Y., voted for Mrs. Clinton by 57 points, up from Mr. Obama’s 18-point win. You could drive a full 30 miles through the leafy suburbs northwest of Boston before reaching a town where Mr. Trump hit 20 percent of the vote. She won the affluent east-side suburbs of Seattle, like Mercer Island, Bellevue and Issaquah, by around 50 points — doubling Mr. Obama’s victory.

Every old-money Republican enclave of western Connecticut, like Darien and Greenwich, voted for Mrs. Clinton, in some cases swinging 30 points in her direction. Every precinct of Winnetka and Glencoe, Ill., went to Mrs. Clinton as well.

Her gains were nearly as impressive in affluent Republican suburbs, like those edging west of Kansas City, Mo., and Houston; north of Atlanta, Dallas and Columbus, Ohio; or south of Charlotte, N.C., and Los Angeles in Orange County. Mrs. Clinton didn’t always win these affluent Republican enclaves, but she made big gains.

I live in the Philadelphia suburbs, where I organized voter registration and GOTV teams in 2004 and knocked many doors on my own in 2008 and 2012. I could sense that Trump was running much weaker than Romney and that moderate Republicans were embarrassed by their candidate and either abandoning him or supporting him quietly and begrudgingly. After the election, I compiled the following numbers from Philly’s suburban counties. The numbers probably changed slightly after the recount but these are probably still pretty accurate:

DELAWARE COUNTY: Clinton +63,000, Obama +61,000
MONTGOMERY COUNTY: Clinton +91,000 Obama +58,000
BUCKS COUNTY: Clinton +2,000, Obama +3,500
CHESTER COUNTY: Clinton +25,000, Obama -1,000

Moreover, turnout was up modestly in the suburbs, so there wasn’t a drop off in interest. These numbers are good, and certainly good enough to assure statewide victory against any normal Republican. According to Cohn, however, these numbers are actually pretty tepid compared to how well Clinton ran in the suburbs of many other major cities. This is probably due to the more working class makeup of Delaware and (particularly) Bucks counties.

Cohn suggests there was a predictable drop off in black turnout, with black precincts of Philadelphia showing an 8% participation decline, but Clinton netted almost as many votes out of Philly as Obama did in 2012, and more in Pittsburgh. In combination, she netted more votes out of those two cities. And, yet, she still squandered the comfortable lead that Obama enjoyed and lost by more than 40,000 votes.

And she lost because a lot of white working class voters who had supported Obama against Romney turned against her. Looking back at the Philadelphia convention, I should have been more concerned about how much energy was going into protesting the Trans-Pacific trade agreement. I assumed it might erode some support from the far left that would wind up voting for Jill Stein or maybe Gary Johnson, and that a lot of folks would stay home. I didn’t anticipate how many people would crossover and support Trump.

The role of race is complicated here. Obviously, we’re talking about a decisive bloc of Obama voters who supported Trump, but that doesn’t mean that they weren’t receptive to Trump’s call to ban Muslims or build a wall on the border with Mexico. Cohn argues persuasively that these voters had been turned off to Romney because he opposed the auto bailout and was successfully portrayed as a vulture capitalist. This time around, it was Clinton who was portrayed as too friendly with Wall Street.

Ever since the election, there’s been a raging debate over whether race or economics were more decisive factors, and I seem to be taking the economic side here, but I think it’s impossible to disentangle the two. What I think Cohn’s analysis shows is that race presents a cultural challenge to the Democrats in white working class communities, but that perceptions of plutocracy present an equal problem for Republicans. I don’t discount gender as a variable, either, or simpler factors like charisma and ability to “connect.”

A simple way of looking at it is that the Democrats must win the economic message with working class whites to avoid getting slaughtered on the identity issues.

Another thing to consider is that these key swing voters are simply indifferent to a lot of core liberal values, and that’s when they’re not outright hostile to them. The ones we care about are Democrats, or used to be. They’ve been voting for our presidential candidates, anyway, until this year.

But they haven’t been voting Democratic because they agree with us on pluralism or America’s proper role in the world or how to conduct diplomacy or the importance of science-informed education and policy or the importance of female autonomy and empowerment or the minimum requirements of temperament and experience expected of a president. They are probably more inclined to support the police than Blacks Lives Matter, don’t give a damn about climate change, and are conservative about gay rights. They voted for Obama despite all of these differences from Obama’s metropolitan “coalition of the ascendant.”

What this election did was cleave these voters from the Democratic Party even as the opposite thing was happening in our suburbs.

But the most threatening thing, in my view, is that too many of the suburban voters who abandoned the GOP’s presidential candidate wound up sticking with downticket Republicans. In other words, it isn’t an even swap.

Worse, even if it were an even swap, it would still be a bad trade due to the demographic dispersion of the vote. The Democrats will continue to lose most districts in this country if all their strength is confined to cities, suburbs, and college towns, and that means Republican dominance in state legislatures and the U.S. House of Representatives for as far as our eyes can see.

The coalition that did support Clinton is larger overall, but that doesn’t help. And the coalition is wounded and bewildered that so many people were willing to overlook Trump’s many flaws and insults, and they’re lashing out at the Democrats who abandoned the cause.

This is likely to act as an accelerant to a problem that actually needs to be arrested and reversed. This kind of polarization does not benefit the left, and we need to understand this even if every fiber of our beings wants to reject it.

Answers aren’t easy to come by, but one hopeful sign is that the voters we need supported us in the past despite not agreeing with us about many things. We don’t need to adopt their views on everything or compromise our values. We need to make sure that they see us on their side again against the big monied interests they’ve always opposed.

We may need to have a less cohesive party, not so much on civil rights or other core values, but on economic matters. To hold the suburbs and make further inroads there, we can’t necessarily move as one party into an economic populism that will bring the lost Obama voters back.

The answer may be to become less cohesive and coherent. Looking back at the New Deal coalition, we know that this can be successful, even if it gives people a lot of heartburn. Maybe it won’t be so bad this time, with the Jim Crowers all on the other side.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.