Rust Belt vs. Sun Belt Is a False Choice for Democrats

One thing we know for certain about the 2020 Democratic primary: the field of candidates is going to be huge. On Monday, former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper said he was running and Eric Holder announced that he will not run. That brings the number of announced candidates to 14, with several still left to decide.

The specter of a field that large has many in our conflict-driven media licking their chops about what is to come over the next year. While the candidates themselves are focusing on their own campaigns, some of their supporters came out early with attacks on their opponents. On the far left, a firm pattern is emerging of activists attacking candidates they don’t feel are progressive enough on the issues they prioritize.

But there is also a whole different divide that is gaining a lot of attention. Rather than focusing on the candidates’ positions, it zeros in on the issue of electability, i.e. whether candidates are more likely to get over the threshold of 270 votes in the Electoral College. This question was recently explored by the New York Times, but Ron Brownstein is the latest to weigh in.

Two distinct paths are emerging for Democrats to beat Donald Trump in 2020, each presenting different challenges—and perhaps demanding a different kind of nominee.

The paths are through the Rust Belt and Sun Belt battlegrounds, which both parties consider most likely to decide the next presidential contest. New state-level polling from Gallup signals that Democrats face very different equations in those two regions.

In the key Rust Belt states that Trump captured in 2016, his job-approval rating during 2018 was consistently worse than his national average among whites with and without a college degree, according to detailed figures provided to me by Gallup. This suggests that the most straightforward path for Democrats to recapture these states—particularly Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin—may be to find a nominee who can reassure white voters who are cooling on Trump.

In almost all the Sun Belt states that Democrats are hoping to contest, by contrast, Trump’s approval rating among both college- and non-college-educated white voters exceeds his national average, according to the same previously unpublished results. This suggests that to flip targets such as Arizona, Florida, and North Carolina, Democrats must find a nominee who can mobilize much greater turnout among those states’ large and growing populations of nonwhite voters.

Brownstein goes on to suggest that candidates like Amy Klobuchar and Sherrod Brown (who hasn’t announced yet) will appeal to white voters in the Rust Belt while Kamala Harris, Corey Booker, and Julian Castro can boost turnout among nonwhite voters in the Sun Belt. What no one wants to say out loud is that those assumptions are based on the idea that voters will respond primarily to each candidate’s race. There may be some truth to that observation, but it is ultimately inadequate to understand the real dynamics of this election.

In a Washington Post piece documenting how various candidates are reaching out to African American voters, Matt Viser and Cleve Wootson make an important point.

While African American candidates such as Harris and Booker are making it clear their concerns go far beyond the black community, hopefuls like Warren and Sanders, who are white, have been striving to show through rhetoric and outreach that they grasp the issues facing African Americans.

That is the essence of the point Jamele Bouie made a couple of months ago.

One possible implication of all of this is that black candidates may have the strategic advantage in the Democratic primary. Not because they’ll automatically win black voters, but because they won’t have to demonstrate the same social solidarity. Like Obama, they can stay somewhat silent on race, embodying the opposition to the president’s racism rather than vocalizing it and allowing them space to focus on economic messaging without triggering the cycle of polarization that Clinton experienced.

As Bouie predicted, white candidates are trying to prove themselves trustworthy on issues of race, while black candidates literally embody the opposition to Trump’s racism. That leaves the latter free to focus on economic messaging with policies that not only help African Americans, but that benefit everyone else who is struggling to succeed.

Of course, there are other issues with the kind of divide Brownstein articulates. First of all, the organization Democracy in Color has documented that mobilizing people of color in the Rust Belt states is as critical as doing so in the Sun Belt states. On the other hand, we saw some white evangelical women in the south support a Democrat in 2018 because they were offended by Trump’s family separation policy.

Secondly, as Greg Sargent pointed out, “Matters of race and identity are in many ways economic issues.” It is not as if any candidate, no matter their race, can afford to ignore that. Finally, given that Republicans have staked their claim on being the party of xenophobia, the issue of race will be front and center in 2020, regardless of who becomes the Democratic nominee.

On the broader question of whether Democrats should focus more on the Rust Belt or the Sun Belt, it is interesting to note that the party chose Rep. Cheri Bustos to chair the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. She literally wrote the report on how Democrats need to reach out to (primarily white) voters in the rural heartland. Her expertise in that area is likely why she got the job, which should put to rest any concerns about Democrats abandoning the Rust Belt. But take a look at what Bustos tweeted recently.

Most pundits are still putting Texas on the fringe of possibilities when it comes to turning a Sun Belt state blue. But Bustos obviously isn’t prepared to cede any ground.

All of this is to suggest that there is no need for Democrats to chose between the Rust Belt and the Sun Belt as a strategy to win in 2020. They simply need to be smart and think outside the box as as the parties continue to realign.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.