A blue wave in 2020?

Only if Democrats address their working-class problem, argues pollster Stan Greenberg

DEMOCRATS AND REPUBLICANS encouraged (or alarmed) by Democratic gains in Virginia and Kentucky in November will want to read the new book by Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg to see if those results, and the previous outcome of the 2018 midterm election, are a harbinger of what’s to come next year.

After reading RIP GOP: How the New America is Dooming the Republicans, I came away only half convinced by Greenberg’s prophecy of a coming political realignment that will bring Democratic hegemony in Washington and in state houses across America. Greenberg explains the trends that favor Democrats and offers a winning strategy to ride these trends to victory, but he underestimates or overlooks some serious challenges.

First his thesis: America is changing fundamentally — culturally, demographically, economically. The Republican wave in 2010, the rise of the Tea Party, and the election of Donald Trump in 2016 were reactionary rages against non-white immigration, rural economic decline, metropolitan dynamism in the global economy, blue-collar economic dislocation, and what Greenberg calls the emergence of “New America” – increasingly multicultural, metropolitan, unmarried, and secular. New America is expanding, while traditional America (white, right and Christian) is shrinking, putting the GOP on the losing side of the future.

In Greenberg’s analysis, the 40 percent or so of voters reliably loyal to Trump have made the party too objectionable to a majority of Americans. The GOP base has shrunk to Tea Party Republicans who cheer Trump on as if he were a character in World Wrestling Entertainment, while jeering his opponents in the ring with dismissive nicknames like “Nervous Nancy” Pelosi. This narrow base also includes evangelical Republicans who Greenberg says knowingly did a deal with the devil in the White House.

RIP GOP likens Republicans’ long-term prospects nationally to what happened to their party in California, where Republican opposition to a rising New America made them a minority party, inconsequential in state politics. What RIP GOP doesn’t say is that America is not California. Democrats can keep winning the popular vote for president while losing the Electoral College. And even if they manage to win back the White House, a majority of US senators could still remain loyal to GOP Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

RIP GOP’s prediction of a realignment echoes The Emerging Democratic Majority, written in 2002 by journalist John Judis and demographer Ruy Teixeira, who foresaw the Obama coalition that won in 2008. But Greenberg qualifies his emerging “New America” majority by saying that evolving racial demographics are not enough to realign US politics if Democrats can’t fashion a winning agenda that can appeal to a broad, diverse coalition that expands beyond the voters who chose Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Greenberg is well suited to show Democrats how to do just that. He became Bill Clinton’s pollster after studying Democratic defeats in the 1980s and what drove the party’s losses of “Reagan Democrats” to divisive racial and cultural wedge issues. The strategy for victory, as Greenberg advised Bill Clinton, is not complicated: When Democrats rise above racial tribalism and unify voters on class, Democrats win. Bill Clinton took that path, most successfully in the 1992 primary in Michigan, where Greenberg made a lucrative business out of studying middle-class voters in suburban Macomb County, outside Detroit.

Obama avoided race conscious appeals to build a winning, multiracial coalition in 2008 and 2012. Hillary Clinton ignored Greenberg’s advice in 2016. The juiciest gossip in the book is where Greenberg tells how he and campaign chairman John Podesta tried to talk sense into the candidate to modify her rhetoric and tactics, to no avail. Greenberg charges Hillary and her campaign manager, Robby Mook, ran an “inept” campaign, and that their data analytics team should have been fired early in the campaign for political malpractice.

Hillary’s gravest strategic blunder, in Greenberg’s eyes, was effectively running for a third Obama term, siding with Obama that the economy was getting better thanks to his administration’s handling of the 2008 financial crisis. That strategy failed, because the Obama years were not good years for working-class Americans, Greenberg reveals with extensive data.

Job creation numbers during Obama’s second term obscured massive losses of working-class jobs with good paying benefits, as well as declining middle class incomes, rising health care costs, shuttered factories, and vacant main streets where functioning communities use to thrive. Against this backdrop, Obama’s treasury secretary Timothy Geithner had rescued Wall Street from its self-induced financial crisis, indulging bonus payouts for executives who created the mess, while millions of Americans lost their homes or home equity.

Furthermore, Obama’s team did little to mitigate the impact of globalization and trade agreements that sacrificed American manufacturing workers for macroeconomic victory, like the infantry Churchill sent into slaughter against Turkish guns at Gallipoli. Democrats who blame the 2016 loss on Comey or the Russians have yet to come to grips with that reality.

It was the Great Recession in 2008 that led to the rise of the Tea Party and the red tidal wave election of 2010. Obama’s response to the Tea Party’s appeal was to form the Simpson-Bowles Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, moving deficit reduction to the top of his agenda. Greenberg scathingly says Obama’s austerity did nothing for working-class Americans.

RIP GOP largely avoids a more recent problem for Democrats: identity politics on the left and right. Greenberg advises Democrats to steer clear of identity politics in 2020 by steering clear of it in his book, where he gives the topic just a couple of paragraphs. His warning is too subtle for progressives more excited by racial inequity than class or regional inequality. The idea that the story of America can be reduced to one of unbroken oppression of many tribes by another is not a unifying national creed. It repels voters who did not go to college, who are proud of their country and who say political correctness has gone too far. Here, Greenberg’s book lacks the directness of an article he authored for the American Prospect in 2017, when he faulted Hillary’s campaign for “the decision to focus on the rainbow base and identity politics at the expense of the working class.”

Driving up turnout of the rainbow base alone fell flat for Hillary in 2016 in the battleground states of Florida, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, where she bested Obama’s margins in metro Miami-Dade, Philadelphia, and Columbus, and still lost all three states. In 2018, the rainbow base proved too small by itself to elect black candidates governor in Georgia and Florida.

On immigration, the issue that animates Trump’s base most, Greenberg argues for Democrats to seize the middle ground. Hillary’s mistake, he told her, was appearing to favor non-citizens over citizens. Between the polarized extremes of “no immigration” on the far right and “no immigration enforcement” on the far left, most Americans in Greenberg’s analysis want immigration to be better managed. Assimilation may have become a dirty word for progressives, but it remains the ideal for the vast majority of Americans, particularly in battleground regions like the northern Virginia suburbs that will determine which party wins the White House and the Senate.

None of the leading Democratic presidential contenders fits Greenberg’s criteria for winning in 2020. Joe Biden would turn back the clock to the Obama years. Elizabeth Warren, who calls for decriminalizing border crossings, and Bernie Sanders, who would abolish ICE, would be vulnerable on immigration. Pete Buttigieg wins middle Americans in South Bend, but can he excite African Americans on the South Side of Chicago?  South Side native Deval Patrick is more at home in Milton than Milford or Millis.

If there is a segment of the electorate that Greenberg could analyze more, it is rural and Christian swing voters. The pollster’s bias tilts secular and urban, like today’s Democratic base. Greenberg grew up in a Jewish family in a nearly all-black neighborhood in Washington, DC. He is married to liberal Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro of New Haven, Connecticut, and has a savvy understanding of Catholic voters, whom he divides into “Fox News Catholics” (solid supporters of Trump) and “Pope Francis Catholics,” whose faith informs their more open attitudes about immigration and the power of government to lift low income people.

Like too many Democrats, however, he sees all evangelical Protestants as the same. John Kerry won nearly a quarter of white evangelicals against George W. Bush in 2004. Fifteen years later, Millennial evangelicals see themselves as a counterculture in a modern secular society, which makes some of them open minded enough to question policies that deny climate change and run counter to the Gospel. Democrats will never win most of these voters, but the right kind of candidate can peel away enough of them to tip the scales where it matters.

If Democrats are to win regions of the US other than the secular coasts, they cannot come across as hostile to religion, as Beto O’Rourke appeared to be before his candidacy fizzled, or dismissive of religion, as Hillary’s campaign was in 2016.

That year, her aides declined an invitation for her to speak at the University of Notre Dame, the geographic center of Irish Catholic America. As one post-mortem of the campaign by New York Times reporter Amy Chozick recounted, “Clinton’s campaign refused the invitation, explaining to the organizers that white Catholics were not the audience she needed to spend time reaching out to.” Barack Obama won a majority of Catholics in 2008 and almost half of them in 2012. Hillary Clinton lost 63 percent of them in 2016.

Greenberg offers smart advice to Democrats, even if his prophecy of a broad realignment seems too optimistic and far-fetched. If he is wrong that the future of American politics is written in California, where “New America” has swamped a dwindling GOP, then America is more like Ohio: evenly divided, north and south, urban and rural, secular and religious, swinging like a pendulum between the parties from one election to the next.

Hillary’s campaign lost the rural vote 70 to 30 percent. Two years later, Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown kept his losses in rural Ohio to under 60 percent while boosting turnout of the rainbow base in Cleveland. As Brown told Fortune magazine, in rural Ohio “the majority of people disagree with me on gun laws and abortion and marriage equality, but I go in there with a strong economic message and they listen.” How did Brown do statewide in 2018? He won Ohio by seven points.

Meet the Author

Even if “New America” does not doom the GOP as Greenberg predicts, the formula for assembling a winning Democratic coalition in closely contested states will be found in his book.

CommonWealth contributor Carter Wilkie wrote the 1992 campaign memo that conceived of Bill Clinton’s famous first bus trip that followed the Democratic National Convention that summer, through rural towns in swing states along the Ohio River Valley, from Pennsylvania to Missouri. Clinton won every state on that journey except for Indiana, where he ran competitively.