Is the Democratic coalition unraveling?
US President Joe Biden seemed unassailable at the start of his term. But his presidency has since been plunged into a series of crises – from a botched withdrawal from Afghanistan to escalating crime and chaos on the border. His approval ratings started to drop. The 2020 election result also revealed some electoral trends that could make life difficult for Democrats in the future. Although Biden regained some support among the working class in 2020, Democrats are increasingly becoming a party of and for the well-educated. Even voters from ethnic minorities began to look to Republicans.
David Shor is Head of Data Science at Blue Rose Research. He was a pollster for Barack Obama’s re-election campaign in 2012. And he’s built a reputation for telling fellow Democrats what they don’t want to hear. sharp caught up with him in an attempt to make sense of the changing American political landscape.
sharp: Joe Biden has started to slide in the polls. What does this mean for the next Midterms?
David Shor: A really important feature of American politics is the anti-nomination bias in the midterm elections. It’s incredibly strong. Going back to 1932, there were only two midterms – 1934 and 2002 – where the party that controlled the presidency did not lose a share of the vote. On average, between the nomination of a presidential candidate and the midterms, there is a drop of five or six percentage points of support.
The good news for Biden is that while his personal approval rating is lower than water, it hasn’t affected the party’s brand overall. Voting intentions polls show that there hasn’t been as much drop in support for Democrats. And if you look at the national agenda polls that Biden ran, it’s all pretty popular.
sharp: Biden won the popular vote in 2020 by a significant margin. But was the election result any closer than it looked?
Shor: Biden got about 51.3% of the vote. If he had made 0.3 percentage point less, Donald Trump would be president and Republicans would control the Senate. This highlights the structural bias of American institutions.
The structure of our institutions strongly empowers rural areas compared to urban areas. In the past, the urban-rural gaps were much smaller than they are now, so the bias didn’t matter that much. But over the past 10 years there has been a huge increase in the polarization of education – essentially, with college graduates moving to the left and working class people moving to the right. It has happened all over the western world. In the UK and US, because living in urban areas correlates so strongly with education, it has led to a huge gap between the performance of the center-left in cities and those in rural areas. And this led to an explosion in the structural bias of the electoral map.
The structural bias of our electoral institutions is not a fixed amount. It depends on the coalitions that the parties form. The center-left in the United States and abroad has decided to build its coalition around highly educated people who live in cities. This has caused it a massive structural disadvantage.
sharp: In 2020, Republicans increased their share of ethnic minority voters. How to explain this change of allegiance?
Shor: There was a drop of about two to three percentage points in support for Democrats among African American voters in 2020, and an eight or nine percentage point drop among Hispanic voters. Among the roughly 40 percent of Hispanic voters who identify as conservatives, the change was nearly three times greater. Almost all of the changes have occurred among non-white conservative voters who were previously very pro-democracy.
It all centers on ideology. Roughly, around 40% of the population identifies as moderate, 40% as conservative and 20% as liberal. It does not vary by breed. About 80% of white conservatives vote for Republicans and 90% of white liberals vote for Democrats. Democrats generally do well among non-white conservatives. What changed in 2020 is that non-white conservatives started voting more like white conservatives. As the Democratic Party has become more educated and more liberal, it has driven out a lot of people who had previously voted for it and who do not identify as Liberals.
Just 10 or 15 years ago moderates outnumbered liberals in the Democratic Party. Now the Liberals are in the majority. These Liberals changed the party message and kicked out people who disagree with them.
sharp: Did the identity focus of certain democrats and slogans like “Defund the police” scare voters from ethnic minorities away?
Shor: The biggest predictor of the shift from Hillary Clinton support to Trump support was attitude towards crime and the police. If you look at the 2018 Midterms, while Democrats did very well overall, they did worse with non-white voters than they did in 2016 in most high-profile election races. And that made them lose a lot of those races.
It’s not a new trend – it’s been happening since 2016. And it happened again in the California recall election. “Defund the police” was an extreme example. Almost all black and Hispanic elected officials opposed police funding last year, as did the majority of white voters. The only people who supported him were left-wing activists and members of the Democratic Party, who managed to convince a host of mainstream Democratic organizations to change their rhetoric.
sharp: What role does class play in American politics today?
Shor: US policy is based on having working class voters backing you. No one wants to say it out loud but, generally speaking, working class voters have moderate center-left views on the economy and very right-wing views on a variety of cultural issues, particularly l ‘immigration. To attract working class voters, you need to focus the public conversation on the issues they agree with you on.
People trust the center-right on issues like crime, immigration and the reach of government. And they trust the center-left on issues like health, education and improving race relations. If the center-left parties can focus their programs on reasonable and gradual improvements in health and education, they are in a good position. But if the public conversation turns to topics like foreign policy, crime or immigration, then they are at a disadvantage.
sharp: Why are Democrats losing touch with working class voters?
Shor: Republicans relaxed the rules on political donations, which had a massive impact on internal aspects of parties. Militant organizations, funded by the super-rich, now have a bigger voice. They don’t have the same incentives as Democratic leaders, who want to focus on broadly popular economic issues.
The root cause is that the world is much more educated than it used to be. In the 1950s, only about four percent of the population had a university degree. Both the left and the right were led by a very cosmopolitan segment of the population, but they understood that they were very different from the rest of the population. It was understood that even though the leaders of the center-left parties had all kinds of very liberal opinions, they shouldn’t be talking about it – because if they did, they would certainly lose. Since then, the share of the electorate with a college education has risen to 40%. There is much less incentive to limit what you say now.
In a sense, democracy divides the country in two. Working class people and graduates have really fundamental value differences on a whole host of issues. It is not surprising that these divisions have become more prominent as college education has become more prevalent.
David Shor was talking to Paddy Hannam.