Who, Exactly, Makes Up the Democratic Base?

Pundits can’t seem to figure it out. It’s because they’re using the wrong criteria.

By now, it’s become something of a cliché: political pundits stressing the importance of Democrats exciting and turning out their base to defeat Donald Trump. Then, there is the coinciding debate over the importance of appealing to the party’s so-called base versus trying to win over independents and reluctant Trump voters. The argument in favor of the former is pretty straightforward. There’s a large segment of left-leaning Democratic voters. The candidate who inspires and appeals to the greatest number of them will have the best chance of winning. Sounds reasonable, but here’s the problem: There’s no clear consensus of who the party’s base actually is.

Commentator Jess McIntosch recently described the base quite narrowly. “We all know” the Democratic base is “African-American voters and voters of color,” she said. But activists Page Gardner and pollster Stanley Greenberg think of the base more broadly, as a coalition “of people of color, unmarried women and young people.” Thomas Edsall, on the other hand, has argued that Democrats are effectively three different parties—ranging from “very liberal” and “somewhat liberal,” to “moderate to conservative” Americans—all of which are racially and ethnically diverse.

Not only do these descriptions of the Democratic base vary wildly, but so, too, do theories of how to “excite” or “energize” the base. Progressives like Robert Reich and Michael Moore have argued that candidates like Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders are most likely to increase voter turnout because of their transformative plans. As Saikat Chakrabarti, Alexandra Ocasio Cortez’s former chief of staff has explained, “You do the biggest, most badass thing you possibly can—and that’s going to excite people, and then they’re going to go vote.” Others disagree and believe the Democratic base will turn out in droves regardless of who the nominee is as long as Trump is on the ballot.

Of course, every group of reliable Democratic voters is important. But if Democrats want to consistently win elections in 2020 and beyond, they need to think differently about who, exactly, the base is and what unites them. The foundation of the Democratic Party is not built on what we look like, but rather, on a set of ideas that reflect our shared values. As President Obama has said, we don’t need to embrace a false choice between appealing to minority voters or white working-class voters. A candidate who prioritizes and effectively speaks to the issues that most voters truly care about can do both.

McIntosch is right that black and brown voters are the most reliable Democratic voters—although Jewish voters are pretty consistent in their support of Democrats, too. In 2016, 91 percent of black voters supported Hillary Clinton, along with 66 percent of Hispanic voters A staggering 98 percent of black women backed her as well. By contrast, only 39 percent of white voters supported Clinton. So the math makes clear: the more voters of color who vote, the better chance Democrats have of winning.

That said, it would be wrong to determine the party’s base by relying solely on the tendencies of one voting bloc. Even in 2016, Democratic voters were approximately 60 percent white, 20 percent black, and 14 percent Hispanic., and 45 percent of all voters were whites without a college degree. By the time a coalition big enough to win in a general election is assembled—unmarried women, black voters, Hispanic voters, millennials—the concept of “the base” is no longer effectively measured by demographic makeup.

It’s also not ideologically monolithic. The Democratic party is neither overwhelmingly liberal or moderate: Self-identified liberals make up 46 percent of the party, whereas moderates comprise 39 percent, and conservatives 14 percent. Therefore, a candidate who appeals more to liberals at the exclusion of everyone else is not necessarily more likely to turn out the base than a more moderate candidate—let alone attract independents.

But a candidate can turn out—and win over—more voters if he or she emphasizes the right priorities and values, and if they share the same concerns and anxieties as the broader electorate.

Gallup polling from 2018 found that the top issues for Democrats are health care; how women are treated in society; income inequality; gun policy; climate change; immigration; and the economy. A staggering 78 percent said the federal government has a responsibility to ensure that all Americans have health insurance. At the same time, Democrats are divided on their policy prescription: 44 percent support a single-payer system while 34 percent prefer a mix of public and private insurance. The vast majority of Democrats also want to increase federal spending on education; surprisingly, 63 percent do not think race should be a factor in college admissions.

Other very popular positions among Democrats include raising taxes on large corporations and the wealthiest Americans, supporting gun-safety measures, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions and taking other steps to combat climate change.

So, who actually makes up the Democratic party’s base? They are the voters united by those shared beliefs—regardless of what they look like or how old they are.

Don’t get me wrong. It is valuable to understand which groups, on average, are more likely to vote for Democrats. That information is crucial to successful and targeted turnout operations, which can pay immense dividends in the long run. But the key to truly understanding how to win elections is to focus less on superficial differences and more on commonly held values.

If the Democratic Party wants to turn out their voters in 2020, they should choose a nominee who speaks effectively to the priorities and anxieties of the majority of Americans. On average, voters want someone who can help lower prescription drug costs, enact sensible gun control, invest in infrastructure, and strengthen women’s rights. They shouldn’t pick someone peddling divisive policies that can turn off more voters than they turn out.

Any candidate who can remain in step with most Democratic voters while not adopting more extreme policy positions will likely win over many independents and Republican-leaning voters as well. A majority of Republicans also support increasing federal spending on education, rebuilding highways and bridges, and imposing universal background checks on gun sales.

What’s more, approximately one-third of Republicans support raising taxes on corporations or believe abortion should be legal in most or all cases. Trump was out of step with most Americans in pushing for a tax break for corporations and the wealthiest Americans, standing in the way of gun control, and separating immigrant children from their families. Simply put, there is a golden opportunity for Democrats to exploit those weaknesses.

But to take advantage, party leaders need to stop defining its base through the prism of age, race, or gender. It’s by focusing on the issues that most Americans care about that the party will succeed in 2020. If Democrats do that, they can turn out their base and reach enough swing voters to make Trump a one-term president.

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David Edward Burke

David Edward Burke is the founder of Citizens Take Action, a nonprofit organization that advocates for political reform.