Almost 40 percent of Obama-Trump voters (mostly rural, non-college-educated whites) are sticking with Republicans. But a significant share of those voters (44 percent) say they are undecided. Most likely, this means they just won’t vote, but if they do, they’ll probably break toward Republicans.
Consistent with Virginia, many of the Clinton-Romney voters are sticking with Democrats, with half saying they will vote for the party’s candidate.
Perhaps most significantly, half of the Obama-Other voters are committed to voting for the Democrat in 2018; half are undecided (presumably between voting and not voting at all). Based on my analysis of Voter Study Group data, these voters tend to be much more nonwhite, poorer and less educated than the overall electorate. They’re the marginal voters Democrats need to mobilize to win.
The next graphic measures voters’ attitudes toward economic and cultural issues.
The Obama-Trump voters who plan to stick with Republicans are more consistently conservative on both economic and cultural dimensions, but particularly on the latter (they are still broadly left of center on the economic dimension).
The Republican-voting Romney-Clinton voters don’t differ too much from Democrat-voting Romney-Clinton voters — this group might include those who have always voted Republican; maybe some old liberal Nelson Rockefeller-style Republicans; or maybe some voters who don’t follow politics very closely and don’t realize that the Republican Party is more conservative than them. In the Obama-Other category, the undecideds look a lot like the Democratic voting decideds, squarely in the liberal camp.
Since most of the voters are in all three subgroups (and the national electorate, too) lean left economically, a strong progressive economic message would almost certainly help Democrats. Moving right on economics, by contrast, will not help Democrats with any of these voters and could even risk losing some, demoralizing an energized base, especially younger voters.
On culture, there’s also not a whole lot to be gained by triangulating, particularly if Democrats want to mobilize the Obama-Other category of voters. Besides, if the racially tinged campaign of Mr. Northam’s opponent, Ed Gillespie, is indeed a preview of how Republicans plan to run in 2018, Democrats are going to have a hard time neutralizing cultural issues, and they’re going to struggle to win over rural voters who are motivated by these issues.
Their best bet will be to offer a sharper economic message, which offers at least some possibility of gain among Obama-Trump voters and Obama-Other voters, with little risk of alienating Romney-Clinton voters.
The Virginia results suggest Democrats still might also be able to expand their base without attempting to reach these voters with a new economic populism — results that will certainly give comfort to the donor class of the party that gets nervous every time Bernie Sanders begins talking. The inevitable pendulum swing against the Republican Party, Mr. Trump’s deep unpopularity, an energized electorate and the wave of Republican congressional retirements — and the slow but steady demographic shift toward a younger, more diverse electorate — will all give Democrats an advantage that they can ride mostly just by being Democrats and not doing stupid things.
Project this trend forward, and perhaps a just-out-of-reach suburban Atlanta House district that a Democratic nominee, Jon Ossoff, narrowly lost this year becomes a narrow Democratic pickup in 2018.
Still, the better bet for Democrats would be to present a sharper economic message, which offers at least some possibility of gain among Obama-Trump voters and Obama-Other voters, with little risk of alienating Romney-Clinton voters.
It’s also better for our politics. The more Democrats rely simply on upscale voters’ cosmopolitan cultural values and corresponding revulsion to Mr. Trump, the more our political system becomes organized around zero-sum culture issues and locked in increasingly no-compromise polarization. Economics, after all, you can bargain over. Identity and culture, not so much. The good news for Democrats is that running on a stronger economic vision is not only good for the country, it’s also good for the Democrats’ long-term fortunes.
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