Democrats Can Win in Both the Rust Belt and the Sun Belt

In Kentucky and Virginia, Tuesday’s election was great news for teachers, those who depend on Obamacare for health insurance, and voting rights. Democrat Andy Beshear beat Trump mini-me Matt Bevin in the Kentucky governor’s race and Democrats won majorities in both houses of the Virginia legislature.

While Bevin’s loss is more comparable to those of Roy Moore and Kris Kobach in that he was a particularly bad candidate, those who have been emphasizing the need for Democrats to re-take governorships and state legislatures have reason to celebrate the next stage of success on that front. For example:

During that same time period, Republicans have flipped zero governorships.

The good news about Tuesday’s election was welcome relief from all of the hand-wringing we saw from Democrats about the latest NYT/Siena poll that showed Trump competitive in several battleground states—particularly against Elizabeth Warren.

While Nate Cohn suggests that a poll this early has historically been predictive of general election results, I suspect that this race won’t follow historical precedents. For example, while it is not likely, it is possible that Trump won’t be the incumbent president a year from now. Take a look at what Robert Costa reported Tuesday night.

There is also one variable in the upcoming election that could break from historical precedents.

While most reports of the NYT/Siena poll focused on the traditional battleground states that Trump won in 2016, like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, during a discussion with Isaac Chotiner, Cohn talked about the poll results in a state that isn’t usually included as a battleground: Arizona. You might remember that Trump’s margin of victory in that state was less than four percent. The NYT/Siena poll has both Biden and Warren leading Trump, with Sanders trailing him by one point. Here’s what Cohn told Chotiner about that.

[I]n this poll of registered voters you have a more diverse electorate than the one you have seen on Election Day, and that’s an advantage Democrats can claim that they wouldn’t get in a state like Michigan or Pennsylvania, where most of the non-voters are a bunch of white working-class voters who would be relatively favorable to the President…

I think that, in general, the Democrats have this upside that they have not realized in states like Texas or Arizona, while I think there is a case that it is the reverse for Republicans in the north… I think, if you were to extrapolate from our data, you would think there would be a real opportunity for Democrats in Texas.

That highlights the Rust Belt vs Sun Belt strategy that has been a focus among pundits. The difference between those two regions of the country has to do with the pool of eligible voters that can be tapped into. David Wasserman estimates that there are 44.4 million non-college whites who didn’t vote in 2016, compared to 9.3 million college-educated whites, and 32.9 million non-whites. But non-whites who didn’t vote in 2016 are concentrated in states that could become the new battlegrounds, like Texas and Arizona.

John Cassidy points to some other good news for Democrats in the more typical battleground states.

Trump’s margin of victory in 2016 was extremely slim; and the number of white non-college-educated voters, even as it remains large in absolute terms, is set to fall by about two percentage points in 2020 relative to other groups, such as college-educated whites and Hispanics. If everything else, including voting patterns and turnout rates, were to stay the same, that demographic change could prove decisive. As Teixeira and Halpin put it: “The Democratic candidate would take back Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin to carry the Electoral College by 279 votes to 259 votes.”

How this will all play out in the 2020 presidential race is that the Democratic nominee, no matter who they are, will focus on bread-and-butter issues that can elicit broad popular support. As we saw in the Kentucky governor’s race, that is a winning platform for Democrats. Knowing that, Republicans will repeat what they have done in every election since Trump became president: engage in fear-mongering about the so-called “cultural issues.” That has been a proven strategy for mobilizing their base and comes right out of Steve Bannon’s playbook.

“The Democrats,” [Bannon] said, “the longer they talk about identity politics, I got ’em. I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.”

That is Bannon’s twisted way of saying that the Republican strategy is to fear monger about race and identity because it plays well with their base of nostalgia voters.

The Democratic nominee will have to demonstrate that they can walk and chew gum at the same time. When women, people of color, and our LGBT brothers and sisters come under attack, they can’t back down. But they also can’t lose the message of the issues that matter to all of us. While he didn’t win the Florida governor’s race, Andrew Gillum was able to capture the Democratic message amazingly well in this one minute ad.

That is the kind of message that will resonate in both the Rust Belt and the Sun Belt. For those who are offended by the inclusion of women and people of color, getting their votes isn’t possible anyway.

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Nancy LeTourneau

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