It’s Not Just White People: Democrats Are Losing Normal Voters Of All Races


Last Monday, a Democratic firm hosted focus groups with women in Virginia who voted in 2017 for Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, in 2020 for Democratic President Joe Biden, and then this month for Republican Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin. It was centered on suburban women: a group that pivoted significantly to the right in the governor’s election.

Consultant Danny Barefoot said that Anvil Strategies called roughly 30,000 people in Virginia. Most didn’t answer, but several hundred of them fit the criteria he was looking for: people who voted Democrat, Democrat, Republican in the last three elections. Those people were called back and offered a $100 gift card if they’d do a lunch-hour Zoom and talk about why they voted the way they did. Ninety-six women, a fifth of whom were not white, were broken into three different sessions. Barefoot sat in on one of them and got permission from the funders to share quotes and results.

Focus groups are put together differently than surveys, which weigh the responses to reflect the population at large. While 96 respondents isn’t enough for a robust polling sample, it’s a chance to dig deeper into the views of a slice of the electorate. Virginia is about two-thirds white, and this sample was 79 percent white — so slightly whiter than the state at large but not by a ton. Eleven percent of them were Black women, 6 percent Latina, and 4 percent Asian American. They came from around the state. Barefoot said he didn’t ask about college education, because what he was interested in was people who lived in the suburbs regardless of race or educational background.

What Barefoot found is that while the women agreed with Democrats on policy, they just didn’t connect with them. When asked which party had better policy proposals, the group members overwhelmingly said Democrats. But when asked which party had cultural values closer to theirs, they cited Republicans.

The biggest disconnect came on education. Barefoot found that school closures were likely a big part of their votes for Youngkin and that frustration at school leadership over those closures bled into the controversy, pushed by Republicans, around the injection of “critical race theory” into the public school setting, along with the question of what say parents should have in schools. One Latina woman talked about how remote school foisted so much work on parents, yet later Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic nominee and former governor, would insist that parents should have no input in their children’s education. (That’s not exactly what he said, but that’s how it played.) As she put it: “They asked us to do all this work for months and then he says it’s none of our business now.”

It was the purest expression of the way Republicans have driven the fight over schools and then capitalized on it. The fear of public schools indoctrinating our children has been a GOP theme for its base voters for decades, but in the wake of Trump’s rise, the party watched in horror as suburban voters recoiled from Republicans into the arms of Democrats. Casting about for an issue that could win some of them back — recall that this is a game of margins, not absolutes — the party landed on schools. Around the country, the conservative media apparatus, unrivaled by Democrats, gave air cover to the schooling issue — handing local activists language to use, a story to tell, and the resources and platform to tell it.

The tactic was even more potent in northern Virginia, where many professional Republican operatives and lobbyists live. In Loudoun County this November, McAuliffe outpaced Youngkin 55 percent to 44. But Biden had beaten Trump there by 62 percent to 37. Youngkin’s showing was only 11,000 votes fewer than Trump won a year earlier, while McAuliffe notched 50,000 fewer votes than Biden had. While Biden carried Fairfax by 42 points, McAuliffe only took it by 31.

That the GOP didn’t make even bigger inroads, given their heavy investment in the issue, may be the one silver lining for Democrats — who, witnessing a dishonest astroturf campaign take shape and get twisted beyond all recognition on Fox News, decided, perhaps understandably but to their later regret, to ignore the question. After McAuliffe’s debate gaffe, in which he delivered up the perfect sound bite to Youngkin — “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach” — he took weeks to respond, initially not recognizing the danger. “Everybody clapped when I said it,” McAuliffe insisted later.

Even where Republicans spent heavily against outmatched Democrats, they made only marginal gains in school board races. But if the issue continues to go uncontested, their luck may run out. National Democrats have no coordinated response yet, leaving school board members — unstaffed, underfunded, borderline volunteers — hung out to dry, with nothing to rely on but mainstream media assertions that there’s actually nothing to see here.

In the Virginia election, two arguments that have been running parallel in Democratic circles for the past several years finally collided. One is the question of how Democrats should position themselves in the ongoing culture war, with jockeying over fraught and contested concepts like wokeness and cancel culture. Critical race theory is one example of this; Democrats can’t seem to agree on whether it’s a good thing that should be taught and defended or a Republican fabrication that’s not being taught in elementary schools at all. The other is the round-and-round debate over race and class: Are voters who flee Democrats motivated more by economic anxiety or by racial resentment and eroding white privilege?

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While these debates have unfolded, Democrats have seen a steady erosion in support among working-class voters of all races, while gaining support among the most highly educated voters. That movement would point toward class divisions driving voter behavior, but the rearing up of critical race theory as a central plank of the Republican Party appeared to throw the question open again. Maybe it’s racism, after all?

Properly understanding how different voting blocs understand the terms of the debate, however, unlocks the contradiction: The culture war is not a proxy for race, it’s a proxy for class. The Democratic problem with working-class voters goes far beyond white people.

Now, for the portion of the Republican base heavily predisposed to racial prejudice, the culture war and issues like critical race theory easily work as dog whistles calling them to the polls. But for many voters, and not just white ones, critical race theory is in a basket with other cultural microaggressions directed at working people by the elites they see as running the Democratic Party. Take, for instance, one of the women in Barefoot’s focus groups. When asked if Democrats share their cultural values, she said, “They fight for the right things and I usually vote for them but they believe some crazy things. Sometimes I feel like if I don’t know the right words for things they think I am a bigot.”

Barefoot’s results rhymed with the conclusions of a memo put out by strategist Andrew Levison, who has long made the argument that Democratic efforts at connecting with working-class voters are fundamentally flawed. The memo, published after the Virginia election but not directly responding to it, looks at how Democrats can win support among a growing number of anti-Trump Republicans. Rather than convince the entire white working class — which is typically approximated in polls by looking for white voters without a college degree — Levison argues that Democrats should “identify a distinct, persuadable sector of the white working class” and then figure out how to get members of that specific group to vote Democratic.

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Levison, citing data from multiple election cycles, notes that Democrats roughly win about a third of white working-class votes. The party loses about a third right out of the gate: hardcore right-wing people who would never consider voting for Democrats and think even a Democrat like Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer — known for much of his career as “Wall Street Chuck” — is a flaming socialist and a traitor. Levison calls that third “extremists,” and argues they are not gettable under any circumstances; he distinguishes them from the final third, which is made up of what he calls “cultural traditionalists.”

His category of cultural traditionalists, he acknowledges, is not meant to capture every voter who is gettable by Democrats; likewise, many cultural traditionalists have competing and conflicting views on various issues. But just as corporations work to create consumer profiles before going to market with an ad campaign, Democrats need to define who that persuadable person among the white working class is. To do so, Levison relies on years of survey data, much of it collected by Working America, a community affiliate of the AFL-CIO, that does tens of thousands of in-person interviews with working-class people around the country each year looking to identify those who are persuadable.

As Levison defines them, cultural traditionalists are people who don’t follow the news closely but have an easy-going personality and an open mind — contrasted with cranky, short-tempered people who are more likely to fall into the “extremist” category. They believe in patriotism and the “American way of life” but also believe that diversity, pluralism, and tolerance are essential characteristics of that American way of life. When it comes to race, these traditionalists have something of a Michael Scott view, rooted in the cliche that they “don’t see race” or “don’t see color.” They also have religious and moral values they’d happily describe as “old fashioned” but say they have no problem with people who have different views. When these voters shifted their views on marriage equality, accepting it as something that ought to be legal even if they were skeptical of it, the dam had broken.

Cultural traditionalists, according to Levison, also think of government as often wasteful and inefficient and of politicians as corrupt and bought off — but they don’t think government is inherently evil and can be convinced that it can do good things. Meanwhile, they think Democrats are a party that “primarily represents social groups like educated liberals and racial or ethnic minorities while having little interest, understanding, or concern for ordinary white working people like themselves.”

Levison’s distinction between these cultural traditionalists and what he calls the extremists, except for that last part, can plausibly apply to many, many Black and Latino working-class people as well. And even that last part — that Democrats don’t have much interest or concern for ordinary white working people, specifically — is not really a value judgment, it’s a widespread interpretation of Democratic messaging that is not uniquely held by white voters.

They’re the sort of voter that would be gettable for Democrats without compromising on a racial justice agenda if it is sold as the United States continuously striving to close the gap between reality and its values. But, Levison adds, there are a number of cultural issues on which cultural traditionalists and extremists align, and Republicans have become adept at exploiting them. He defines them as: pride in their culture, background, and community; respect for tradition; love of freedom; belief in personal responsibility, character, and hard work; and respect for law, strict law enforcement, and the right of individual self-defense.

In other words, they express the same sensibility as the women in Barefoot’s group who wanted to teach their children a positive history of the United States. One suburban Black woman in his group put it this way: “Our kids should be taught about slavery and all of that awfulness but America is also a good country and that’s what I want my kids to learn.”

Few people read the full 1619 Project put out by the New York Times in 2019, which is a rich tapestry of thoughtful essays and reporting about the role of slavery in the development of the United States. Instead, to the extent it has seeped into the public consciousness, it has done so around the notion of rejecting 1776 as the date of our birth and supplanting it with 1619 as our “true founding,” in a phrase that became so controversial it was deleted.

1619. It is not a year that most Americans know as a notable date in our country’s history. Those who do are at most a tiny fraction of those who can tell you that 1776 is the year of our nation’s birth. What if, however, we were to tell you that this fact, which is taught in our schools and unanimously celebrated every Fourth of July, is wrong, and that the country’s true birth date, the moment that its defining contradictions first came into the world, was in late August of 1619?

That section too has since been edited, blunting some of its edge, and creating another situation where supporters of the project at once say that there was nothing off-base abou… (Read more)

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