How the 'Obama coalition' cost the Democrats the working class

The party fell into a trap set by the Republicans, and now it is paying for it

Barack Obama with Georgia Democrat candidates in October 2022. The 'Obama coalition' is slowly coming apart. EPA
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After Barack Obama’s decisive victory in 2008, Democratic Party strategists fell under the sway of the notion that the future of their party’s dominance was ensured because, as they put it, “demographics are destiny”.

Mr Obama had performed well among a wide range of groups, but what captured the strategists’ attention was that he had won decisively among young voters, black, Latino and Asian-American voters, and university-educated women. Because these groups were growing in their percentage of the overall electorate, the strategists decided that Democrats would continue to win elections well into the future if they focused on the issues that they determined would most appeal to these voters. Hence the phrase “demographics are destiny”.

They referred to their winning cohort as “the Obama coalition” and in the years that followed, the issues they elevated and their extensive voter outreach efforts were directed largely at cultivating and keeping that coalition together. In the process, they appeared to abandon outreach to a substantial number of other constituencies, especially white working-class voters, leaving the field wide open to their Republican opponents.

Back in 2008-2009, the US was reeling from the trauma of the Great Recession. Republicans, in an effort to deflect from their responsibility for the economic collapse, sought instead to exploit many white voters’ feelings of unease and abandonment. Republican candidates preyed on their resentment and fears, often using racism and xenophobia as their weapons of choice. This strategy was embodied in the “birther movement” (claiming Mr Obama was foreign-born) and the “Tea Party” (“claiming Democrats’ ideas about government don’t work for most Americans, but instead only black people, the poor and immigrants).

Democrats fell into the trap that Republicans set for them by focusing on fighting the intolerant Republican messages

In the next three elections, Democrats, relying on their new strategy of mobilising their “Obama coalition” base, lost more than 1,400 state and federal seats, giving Republicans control of both houses of Congress and the majority of governorships and state legislatures. One might have thought that Democrats would have learnt from this comeuppance. Sadly, they did not.

Shortly after the 2014 midterms, I was at a meeting of the Democratic Party’s executive committee when the party’s pollster gave an upbeat presentation of what had been a stunning number of nationwide defeats. He claimed that there was good news from 2014: Democrats had kept their coalition together, winning the youth, black, Latino, Asian and university-educated women’s votes. Adding, “We just didn’t win enough of them”, he recommended that the party commit more resources to getting more of these groups out to vote in future elections.

At one point I objected, saying that he was ignoring white ethnic voters in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin. These working-class voters had always been Democrats, and their rights, prosperity and futures were being damaged by Republicans. Because Democrats had always had their interests at heart and they had been central to our victories, I argued that we needed to pay attention to their needs. His response startled me: “We’re not going to throw money away on people who are never going to vote for us.”

I replied that it’s not either/or. We can be both attentive to the concerns of our new coalition, while also keeping in mind the needs of our old coalition partners. When that “both/and” approach was dismissed, I countered that if that was how we would operate then the Democrats would never be a majoritarian party and we were going to be handing these voters to Republicans on a silver platter. Enter Donald Trump in 2016.

When he was a candidate, President Joe Biden understood the idea of both/and, directing his efforts to winning back these voters. But the apparatus of the party and its paid consultants have not followed suit, with little or no resources being devoted to outreach to white working-class voters and even less to understanding their values and needs.

We have polled these communities, and in 2001 my brother John and I published a book based on our findings: What Ethnic Americans Really Think. We found that white ethnic voters were largely progressive in their attitudes towards government and economic policy but had more nuanced feelings about what are called social issues. They supported federal funding for education, health care and job creation; these were their priority issues. And they were pro-union and for racial equality. They were, however, conflicted about abortion and gay rights. A generation earlier, then president Bill Clinton had captured the general values of these white working-class voters with his slogan “family, community and opportunity”.

Because the interests of white working-class voters are more aligned with the economic and governmental policies espoused by Democrats, the party never should have lost their support. But it did. Democrats fell into the trap that Republicans set for them by focusing their electioneering almost exclusively on fighting the bigoted and intolerant Republican messages and ignoring the economic angst and feelings of abandonment of white voters. When Democrats should be attending to both.

Now polls are showing that Democrats may be at risk of losing even some components of the “Obama coalition”. By viewing black, Latino and Asian-American voters as monoliths, Democrats may be ignoring the complex composition of these groups. For example, studies show that upwards of 15 per cent of black voters are African immigrants and a large number of Latino voters are more recent immigrants as well. Most of the recent arrivals from these groups are from Nigeria, East Africa, Venezuela, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republican. Their attitudes and values are more in line with those of the ethnic immigrants who came from Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Democratic strategists need to adjust their focus or else risk losing these communities’ support.

One more thought: my generation grew up with a strong attachment to party identity. Political parties were organisations to which you belonged. Today, given the weaknesses of the party organisations, being a Democrat or a Republican means nothing more than being on an email or phone-banking list. And the only time one hears from either party is when they call or write for money or urge you to vote. As a result, party identity has suffered – and this is especially true for young voters and recent immigrants.

That’s why the numbers of independents and swing voters have increased. It’s why Mr Trump found it so easy to topple the Republican Party leadership and why Democrats may have trouble winning elections holding on to their “demographics are destiny” mantra.

Published: May 27, 2024, 2:00 PM