Photographer: Drew Angerer/Bloomberg
Democrats

The Democrats' New Base: Romney Voters

The party naturally wants to go with what it knows: its labor roots. But that's no way to take back the House.

There's a paradox within the Democratic Party right now as leaders plot their path forward. On the one hand, they want to get back to their labor roots. On the other hand, electoral trends will pull them in the other direction: In 2016, the group that most swung toward Democrats was wealthy Mitt Romney voters, who will represent the key to Democrats making electoral gains in 2018.

Democrats would be forgiven for thinking "make labor great again" should be their electoral approach right now. In times of confusion and uncertainty, it's human nature to go with what you know. Even after losing many working-class white voters to the Republican Party, labor roots in the Democratic Party remain deep. On paper, focusing on those labor roots would please the labor interests within the party, and perhaps would win back some of those straying Trump voters.

The problem is even the recent official strategy of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee acknowledges those aren't the voters they'll be targeting. Their main focus will be targeting the 23 seats held by House Republicans in districts that Hillary Clinton won, plus an additional 10 seats in districts that Clinton narrowly lost.

And what we know about those districts that swung toward Clinton is that they're full of rich people who voted for Romney in 2012. The five Republican-held House districts with the biggest swings toward Democrats in the presidential race in 2016 are in Texas and Georgia. All have average household incomes over $100,000 per year. Three of those five districts are on the DCCC list. Also on the list include four Republican-held districts in Southern California -- the 39th, the 45th, the 48th and the 49th -- which have average household incomes above $100,000.

Making matters worse for labor interests in the Democratic Party is the districts on the other side of the ledger -- Democratic-held seats that had big swings toward the Republican Party in 2016. These are the seats Republicans are most likely to target in 2018 as pickup opportunities. They're moderate-income districts in the Midwest. The five Democratic-held seats with the biggest swings toward Republicans are Pennsylvania's 17th, Ohio's 13th, Minnesota's 8th, Minnesota's 7th and Michigan's 5th. Ohio's 13th happens to be the district of Tim Ryan, the congressman who challenged Nancy Pelosi for House minority leader. In the unlikely scenario where Republicans produce another wave in 2018, he's the kind of Democratic congressman who could lose his seat. He's also the kind most likely to serve the Democrats' shrunken labor base.

Midterm elections tend to be referendums on the perceived overreach of the incumbent presidential administration. If 2010 was a referendum on Obamacare, the 2018 midterms may well be a referendum on overreach related to trade and immigration -- or whatever else President Donald Trump turns into a signature issue by then. Rich suburban white voters in growing, diverse sunny states who registered their displeasure with Trump in the 2016 election are a more obvious demographic to target for such a campaign than older, moderate-income white voters in the Midwest.

Politicos know: You run the campaign you can win, not the campaign you wish you had. Trade and immigration and Trump will be symbolically on the ballot. Labor issues might not. Democrats might be turning into the party of free trade, global business and immigration -- the kind of party Romney hoped to lead in 2012.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Conor Sen at csen9@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net

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