Democrats Can Win by Running Against Trump's Racism
It's the right thing to do — both morally and electorally.
By Steve Phillips
Mr. Phillips is the author of "Brown Is the New White: How the Demographic Revolution Has Created a New American Majority.
President Trump's tweet attacks on members of Congress of color, from "the squad" to Representative Elijah Cummings, have made it clear that fanning the flames of white racial resentment is central to his politics and re-election strategy.
For decades, some left-leaning strategists stifled their candidates' response to dog whistles for fear of alienating whites who they thought might otherwise support Democrats. Today, there is still great ambivalence about making the fight against racism a defining issue in the 2020 election.
But the cold hard truth is that our elections are already racialized — and have been ever since Congress codified the concept of racial equality in the 1960s by passing the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
With every attack, Democrats are now speaking out. And decades of election data on voter behavior show that Democrats are on firm ground in making the president's overt racism a prominent campaign issue. That data shows that there are enough white voters for Democrats to defeat a president stirring racial resentment. It might, in a tight race, be barely enough — but enough. And the math gets more promising in 2020 when the electorate will be more racially diverse than at any previous time in United States history.
In every presidential election for the past 50 years, a majority of white voters have voted against the Democratic nominee, and the overwhelming majority of people of color have sided with the Democrats.
But there is a determined and consistent core of whites who always vote Democratic. Since the advent of exit polling of racial groups in 1976, no Democrat has received less than 34 percent of the white vote (that was Walter Mondale in 1984, losing 49 states in a landslide to Ronald Reagan). The historical average of white support for Democrats is almost 40 percent, and Hillary Clinton, up against Mr. Trump's thinly disguised call to Make America White Again, garnered the support of 37 percent of white voters.
What we learned in the 2016 election is that 37 percent of the white vote is enough to win the popular vote by nearly three million people. Obviously something went wrong in three critical states — Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania — where Mr. Trump prevailed by nearly 80,000 votes, tipping the Electoral College in his favor. But many progressives are drawing the wrong conclusions about what happened in those states.
It's true that the requisite amount of white support for a Democrat to win in those three states is approximately 3 percent higher than the number necessary to win the national popular vote. The exit poll data from 2016 shows two major realities that are important for current political analysis and strategy. Mrs. Clinton came exceedingly close to winning those states. Had she secured just 0.5 percent more of the white vote, she would be president.
But perhaps even more important, Mrs. Clinton's diminished white support was not primarily a result of Democratic defections to Mr. Trump (the now near-mythical "Obama-Trump voter"). The increase in white support for the third- and fourth-party candidates — from 2012 to 2016 — was greater than the increase for Mr. Trump. In fact, in Wisconsin, he got fewer votes than Mitt Romney received four years earlier, disproving the notion that waves of disaffected Democratic voters swelled the Republican ranks. If everything else holds steady in 2020, and Democrats win back just the Obama-Jill Stein voters, they will take Michigan and Wisconsin.x
xWhich raises the obvious and clearest point — there are not only white people in those states. The number of voters who stayed home in 2016 in Detroit, Milwaukee and Philadelphia was far larger than the margin of Democratic defeat in those states. As people of color become a bigger portion of the voting population, the number of white votes required to win steadily shrinks. In fact, a group of think tanks released a report last year showing that if all of the country's racial groups replicate in 2020 their voter turnout and partisan preferences of 2016 — essentially a "do-over" — the Democrats would win Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, just because of the demographic changes over the past four years.
By doubling down on racial diversity and standing strong against racism, Democrats would align with population changes and be able to expand the electoral map by credibly contesting the key Southern and Southwestern states of North Carolina, Georgia and Arizona, among others. (Mrs. Clinton lost Arizona by 91,000 votes; 500,000 eligible Latinos in that state didn't vote.)
America is getting browner by the hour, given that every single day, as of 2016 data, the United States population increases by 8,000 people and 90 percent of that growth comes from people of color. Moreover, an additional seven million teenagers of color will have turned 18 since the 2016 election. With this demographic revolution transforming the country, Democrats do not actually have to increase their level of white support — they just need to hold it steady, as the core of whites who vote Democratic have done for 40 years.
Beyond the morality of the matter, the mathematical reality means that standing strong against racism is a good electoral calculus for Democrats.
I'd like to see Paris before I die... Philadelphia will do.