The Democrats’ Failed Suburban Strategy

Every Democratic presidential nominee this century has had trouble relating to rural and exurban swing voters.

Every Democratic presidential nominee this century has had trouble relating to rural and exurban swing voters in battleground states. So, rather than bother with this small and shrinking segment of the electorate, Democratic presidential campaigns have doubled down on college educated, suburban swing voters in America’s largest metro areas.

Combining affluent suburban voters with core Democratic constituencies was believed to be the way to build a new electoral majority, a “Suburban Strategy” that would realign the country for Democrats the way Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” realigned the South for Republicans.

This formula wins the popular vote at the national level, where demographic trends favor Democrats. But by writing off rural and exurban voters in battleground states, the strategy has cost Democrats the electoral college in three of the last five presidential elections. It also cedes too many down ballot races across middle America to the GOP. By these measures, the Suburban Strategy has been an epic failure.

Look at how the strategy fell flat in the battleground states of Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida, where Hillary Clinton bested Barrack Obama’s margins in Philadelphia, Columbus and Miami-Dade, all to no avail.

By writing off rural voters, the strategy has cost Democrats the electoral college in three of the last five presidential elections.

Democratic campaign strategist James Carville famously described Pennsylvania as Philadelphia at one end, Pittsburgh at the other, and Alabama in the middle. Middle America – middle class, working class and white ― crushed Democrats in 2016. The challenge for the party’s next presidential nominee is to become competitive again among middle Americans while holding the Democratic base.

On the economic side of the platform, Donald Trump’s appeal to middle America proves that the path to victory is straightforward: Stop being the party of Wall Street and get back to being the party of Main Street. Here, Bernie Sanders supporters can tell the Democratic donor class, “We told you so.”

When it comes to winning on cultural issues, however, Democratic instincts are not as clear. As Hillary Clinton admitted a day after the election, “our nation is more deeply divided than we thought.”

Trump’s campaign was divisive in ways that could harm American society for years. “Love Trumps Hate” we shouted in reply. “Build bridges, not walls.” Serious soul searching, however, must force Democrats to confess how the party’s tactics have divided America in less obvious ways when it comes to race, immigration and religion.

First, race. How can Democrats be surprised when their championing of identity politics among minorities on the left ultimately invites a backlash of white identity politics on the right once whites begin to realize they are just another minority voting bloc in a new, multicultural America?

To middle America, the Democratic party has become the champion of every aggrieved or vulnerable constituency in the U.S. except the largest: white working class Americans, “the forgotten middle class” left behind by the global economy and denigrated as “a basket of deplorables” and people who “cling to their guns or religion” when embittered.

More shocking to me than Trump’s victory are East Coast intelligentsia who say they really didn’t understand the hurt among non-college educated white people in the heartland. When Democrats need to read a best-selling book, Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance, to understand the plight of white working people who live beyond the economic reach and cultural influence of metropolitan America, something has gone wrong with the party of the people. One of my former colleagues from the 1992 Clinton campaign says every future campaign worker should be required to get out of zip codes with a Starbucks and live for a while among middle America in zip codes with a Wal-Mart.

Identity politics has so far proven to be a zero sum game of defend one group and blame another. To become a majority party again, Democrats must give up racial tribalism that fosters divisions of “us” and “them.” As Bill Clinton at his best would say: In America, there can be no “them.” There is only “us.”

On Immigration, this means Democrats must once again become the party of assimilation, as Progressives were in the early 20th century, when a tidal wave of immigration invited a nativist backlash. It is not enough to be the party for open borders. Assimilation must cease to be a dirty word among the politically correct.

The Democratic party has become the champion of every aggrieved or vulnerable constituency in the U.S. except the largest: white working class Americans.

The founders of our country chose the motto, E Pluribus Unum ― out of many, one. In defending Latino immigrants and Muslim Americans from bigotry on the right, Democrats rightfully champion pluribus. But Democrats are too timid to articulate and defend a national creed that binds us together, for fear of sounding judgmental when it comes to values. As America becomes more and more balkanized, Democrats need to modify their vocabulary, dropping an overreliance on the term “diversity” in favor of more “unity” and “inclusion,” words laden with symbolism that can appeal to a broader coalition.

It may be too much to expect most Democrats to get religion, but to become a majority party again, Democrats must shed the kind of cultural hostility to religion that was revealed in emails from DNC staffers to Clinton campaign officials.

New York Times reporter Amy Chozick’s post mortem of Hillary Clinton’s campaign turned up a surprising unforced error: Clinton aides declined an invitation for her to speak at Notre Dame, the citadel of Irish Catholic America. As Chozick recounted, “Clinton’s campaign refused, explaining to the organizers that white Catholics were not the audience she needed to spend time reaching out to.” According to the Pew Research Center, Barrack Obama won a majority of Catholics in 2008 and 47 percent of white Catholics in 2012. Hillary Clinton lost 63 percent of them in 2016.

In 1992, I was with her husband, then Governor Clinton, when he delivered a campaign address at Notre Dame. The speech was written largely by his chief speechwriter David Kusnet, who is Jewish and from Brooklyn. (As a graduate of a Jesuit university, I may have contributed bit parts.) Bill Clinton surrounded himself with aides who understood the intersection of religion and politics, from Bruce Reed, author of Clinton’s “New Covenant” platform in 1991, to Catholics Paul Begala and Mark Gearan, and George Stephanopoulos, the son of a Greek Orthodox priest. That appearance at Notre Dame helped to bring many Reagan Democrats home to the Democratic Party in 1992. There was nothing said then that could not have been said this year.

Among Protestants, younger Evangelicals are uncomfortable with the Republican establishment’s devotion to a winner-take-all economy that is contrary to the gospel. This rift opens a path for Democrats to inject moral arguments into economic debates, as the Rev. William Barber has done to great effect through “Moral Mondays” in North Carolina. To paraphrase Christian blogger Rod Dreher, of The American Conservative, Jesus had a lot more to say about greed than transgender bathrooms.

Hillary Clinton ended her long campaign by closing her concession speech with Scripture, from Paul’s letter to the Galatians: “Let us not be weary in well doing, for a new season we shall reap if we faint not.” (Gal 6:9). The language evoked the long struggle of America’s civil rights movement. It is a verse her husband was fond of quoting and bears the influence of Taylor Branch, their friend from the 1972 McGovern campaign and the biographer of Martin Luther King. Democratic candidates would do well to read King’s sermons that changed American history, along with the faith filled speeches of Robert F. Kennedy.

For Hillary, this expression of her faith came too late to do her candidacy any good. For the next Democratic presidential nominee, this is only the beginning.