Obama's Coalition Included Rural Whites
From a Democrat's perspective, the political map of Missouri looks like a blood-red sea with three little blue boats -- Columbia, Kansas City, St. Louis -- bobbing on the murderous waves. Donald Trump won the state by 19 points on the strength of rural, exurban and suburban votes. It's a pattern that was repeated across the Midwest.
Roy Temple was chairman of the Missouri State Democratic Party during the 2016 election. He is a partner in the political multimedia advertising agency, GPS Impact. I spoke with him, via e-mail, about his experience in a state that has moved more securely into the Republican column in recent years.
Wilkinson: If Democrats are going to win in states like Missouri, they will have to attract nonurban white voters. You've been dealing with this in your state for a while. What advice do you have for your party?
Temple: The first step for Democratic recovery is to understand the full extent of the problem. It’s just not a matter of red vs. blue; it’s also a matter of how deep the hue. In 2008, Barack Obama came within 3,600 votes of carrying Missouri. In 2016, Secretary Hillary Clinton lost the state by more than 520,000 votes.
In 2008, Obama lost the smallest 80 (of 114) counties by a 22.5 percent margin. Clinton, on the other hand, lost the same counties by a 57.1 percent margin.
The current discussion among Democrats centers on whether the key to future Democratic fortunes is to replicate the Obama coalition or to improve our standing with white working-class voters. Based on the math, the reality is that the deterioration among white working class voters -- both rural and exurban -- was a much larger factor in the outcome in Missouri than the underperformance among the “Obama-coalition” counties.
Wilkinson: In other words, there was a white, nonurban component of the Obama coalition that deserted Clinton?
Temple: There was 15 to 20 percent of the vote in rural counties that was an invisible part of the Obama coalition. We lost them this election. When President Obama spoke about Hope and Change, these rural voters believed he was including them in that promise. In 2016, many of those same voters who had cast their ballot for Obama in 2008 either never heard the Democratic message, or rejected it out of hand.
Wilkinson: What failed?
Temple: Clearly, the negative assault on Clinton played a huge role and prevented her policy proposals from landing with these voters. In the last statewide tracking poll I saw before the election, her favorable rating was 35 percent and her unfavorable was 61 percent. She ultimately got 37.9 percent of the vote. In short, she got almost zero of the “hold your nose” vote. Trump’s favorable rating was only 48 percent but he got 56 percent of the vote.
Wilkinson: Was there a Democratic policy message that might have won those voters?
Temple: In my view, this was not about some huge policy dispute. And the cure is certainly not abandoning our principles. Clinton had more substance to offer to these voters than Trump did, but they were not capable of hearing it through the negative barrage.
Whatever the precise cause, it's clear that what we believed we were saying and what these voters were hearing were two different things. Many of these voters heard Democrats saying something on a continuum between: "We’re not worried about you” and “Screw you!"
Wilkinson: There's an argument that those voters, who represent a declining share of the electorate, are already beyond reach and so Democrats should focus on mobilizing the rising electorate of young people and nonwhites. Is it time for the party to cut their losses with rural white America?
Temple: Certainly we can and should court the rising electorate. And if the only office you ever cared about winning was the White House, that would be a fine strategy. However, if you want a Democratic president with the ability to govern, or a Democratic governor, you need a broader coalition. The fact is that working class voters have cultural anxieties about Democrats. We can either run campaigns that cross-pressure these voters, appealing to them on grounds of economic well-being, making clear the positive value proposition of supporting a Democrat, or we can run campaigns that risk reinforcing their cultural concerns. The outcome in November suggests that in this election, we deepened those concerns.
Wilkinson: The Republicans ran a guy from Manhattan who sits in the front pew of the Church of Hedonism, and he still had a landslide in rural white America. So what exactly is the cultural disconnect between Democrats and those voters?
Temple: These voters didn’t support Trump because they believed he shared their identity. They didn’t mistake him for a fundamentalist Christian. They supported Trump because they felt that he didn’t look down on them for their identity.
Democrats will never succeed with any group of voters whose dominant source of information about Democratic beliefs is the Republican Party. Future Democratic success depends on defining ourselves in ways that help these voters overcome their anxieties with Democrats by making sure they know we are competing for their vote while continuing to stand for all the values we hold dear.
There is no value in pursuing the hardest core cultural conservative. However, there is a segment of the working-class vote that is anxious about some of the social issues, but can still find a way to support a Democrat if we have something to say to them.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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