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In the News
Polarization of the white working class modestly helps Democrats
Monday, July 13 2015

A quick headline might say, “Democrats are doing a little better with the white working class than they were in 2012,”  though their vote still  hugging 35 percent may give you pause.  A more considered headline would tell you a big gender story.  Hillary Clinton and congressional Democrats (in a named ballot) are running considerably better with white working class women, produced by a sharp pull back from the Republicans.  But amazingly, Democratic gains with working class women are partially offset by losses with white working class men.  With the men, Clinton is trailing Obama's performance by 5 points.

For now, the white working class women are having their say and Clinton and the Democrats are eroding some of the Republicans' working class firewall. 


Based on a national survey of 950 likely 2016 voters conducted June 13-17, 2015 by Democracy Corps, 60 percent cell and national post-election surveys among 3,617 2012 voters conducted by Democracy Corps in 2012.

The Average Joe's Proviso
Tuesday, June 02 2015

Surprising numbers of white working-class voters will support the Democratic agenda—if Democrats promise to reform the government that would carry it out.


By Stan Greenberg



This article is featured in the June/July/August 2015 issue of Washington Monthly. The Washington Monthly and the Democratic Strategist are jointly sponsoring an online roundtable discussion of this article. Please go to for an ongoing compilation of contributions.


Democrats cannot win big or consistently enough, deep enough down the ticket or broadly enough in the states, unless they run much stronger with white working-class and downscale voters. That includes running better with white working-class swing voters, of course. But it also includes winning more decisively with white unmarried women, a demographic group that, along with minority and Millennial voters, is integral to the Democrats’ base in a growing American majority that I call the Rising American Electorate. Working-class whites and white unmarried women are both key to competing in the states where Republicans are pursuing a conservative governing agenda unchecked and to keeping Democratic voters engaged in both presidential and off-year elections.

When the economy crashed in 2008, Obama won white unmarried women by a whopping 20 points (60 to 40 percent) and came within 6 points of winning white working-class women (47 to 53 percent), though he still lost white male working-class voters by 24 points and got only 37 percent of the white working-class vote. But the size of the Democrats’ prospective national majority was clearly diminished by what then happened with these downscale, mostly working-class voters. In his reelection in 2012, Obama won white unmarried women by just a 4-point margin, and in the 2014 midterms, Democrats almost split their votes with the Republicans, getting only a 2-point margin. Hillary Clinton is just running even with the prospective Republican candidates among white unmarried women right now.

After the 2008 wave election that rejected the policies of George W. Bush, white working-class women quickly dialed down their Democratic support to about 38 percent, working-class men to 33 percent. That holds true for Clinton against her potential Republican rivals. There remains an undecided bloc that could allow Clinton to run stronger than this suggests, though she clearly has inherited the problem with struggling, downscale white working-class voters, both inside and outside the Democrats’ base.

These voters, as we shall see, are open to an expansive Democratic economic agenda—to more benefits for child care and higher education, to tax hikes on the wealthy, to investment in infrastructure spending, and to economic policies that lead employers to boost salaries for middle- and working-class Americans, especially women. Yet they are only ready to listen when they think that Democrats understand their deeply held belief that politics has been corrupted and government has failed. Championing reform of government and the political process is the price of admission with these voters. These white working-class and downscale voters are acutely conscious of the growing role of big money in politics and of a government that works for the 1 percent, not them.

It is possible that their cynicism about government is grounded in a fundamental individualism and long-standing American skepticism about intrusive government. And it also may be rooted in a race-conscious aversion to government spending that they believe fosters dependency and idleness—the principal critique of today’s conservative Republicans. If that is the prevailing dynamic, no appeal, no matter how compelling, would bring increased support for government activism.

Yet the white working-class and downscale voters in our surveys do support major parts of a progressive, activist agenda, particularly when a Democratic candidate boldly attacks the role of money and special interests dominating government and aggressively promotes reforms to ensure that average citizens get both their say and their money’s worth. These findings came out of innovative research conducted in partnership with Page Gardner’s Women’s Voices Women Vote Action Fund and David Donnelly’s Every Voice.

In recent years, too many Democrats have presumed that the white working class is out of the party’s reach and that talk of reforming government and the political process simply does not move voters. My contention is that both of those presumptions are wrong. An agenda of reform is the key to Democrats winning the greater share of white working-class and unmarried women votes that will give the party the majorities it needs to govern.

The macro economy is recovering and job growth is robust, yet this hasn’t altered the structural changes that leave all working-class Americans struggling to keep up with the cost of living or struggling just to afford something extra. This includes key segments of the new American majority, like white unmarried women. They are more likely to be raising children on their own; a majority never attained a four-year college degree; and their median income of $37,410 is $13,607 below the national median. It also includes broad swaths of the white working class, both women and men.

Both groups are almost equally frustrated with the direction of the country, the political class, and government. A striking three-quarters of white working-class Americans now think that the country is on the wrong track, as do two-thirds of white unmarried women from all income levels. A daunting 71 percent of white working-class men and 64 percent of white working-class women disapprove of the job Obama is doing, but so do 55 percent of white unmarried women.

Nearly 60 percent of white unmarried women say that the path to the middle class is blocked because jobs don’t pay enough to live on, and they reject the idea that you can still reach the middle class in tough times through hard work. Unmarried women are the heart of the new majority, yet unmarried white women feel stymied more than any other section of the Rising American Electorate. And they look very similar in attitude to white working-class women, 56 percent of whom say they are prevented from reaching the middle class. A small plurality of white working-class men still thinks hard work can get you there. So the white working-class women and the unmarried women evidently are struggling more and feel more hindered than white working-class men in this low-wage economy.

Given the huge economic changes and challenges facing working people, we should not be surprised that they think government has not been part of the solution for them. In the spring of 2010—a year into the implementation of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act—Democracy Corps asked voters, “Who are the main beneficiaries of the Economic Recovery Act?” Almost half, 45 percent, said that unemployed Americans benefited a lot or some from the act, and a lesser amount, 34 percent, said the middle class was benefiting. But three-quarters said the big banks and financial institutions were the beneficiaries, and 50 percent said they benefited a lot—more than eight times the number who said that for the middle class. White working-class men were particularly outraged, with six in ten saying that the banks benefited a lot. White working-class respondents were the ones most likely to say that they themselves were not benefiting: just one in five said they benefited from the Economic Recovery Act.

After that, they watched the Supreme Court rally to protect the free speech rights of corporations and saw the flood of unregulated and secret campaign donations and TV advertising. This has led to a new level of public revulsion with politics and support for fundamental reforms. Super PACs are not arcane institutions. They are known by more than half of the voters and detested: seven times as many people react to them negatively as positively. The public knew that the Citizens United Supreme Court decision was a sham from the outset and very quickly concluded that the new fund-raising regime of big donors and secret money damaged something fundamental. Two-thirds were convinced that the system “undermines democracy”—54 percent believed that strongly.

For the public, the consequences of this legalized system of secret and unlimited donations are self-evident. When they are asked which of the following has the most influence on members of Congress, the public puts “special interest groups and lobbyists” and “campaign contributors” in a league of their own: 59 percent say the first have the most influence, and 46 percent the second. Those groups are seen to wield the influence in Washington, as political parties pale in power: just 29 percent choose party leaders as most influential. And when it comes to the “views of constituents,” only 15 percent say they matter the most.

While white working-class women are more likely to see campaign contributors and party leaders as having the most influence, white working-class men again cite special interest groups and lobbyists: amazingly, 60 percent say these groups hold the cards in Washington.

Why, then, would working-class voters and lower-income Americans turn to government to bring change? They are not crazy. Everything they have seen says that government is gridlocked and is bought and paid for by big donors and special interests, and politicians rig the system for the most irresponsible companies. Special interests push up spending and lobby for special tax breaks for themselves, and government spends with little thought for the average citizen.

Democrats have run so poorly with white working-class and downscale voters since 2008 that some observers have concluded that Democrats are blocked structurally. Democratic identification with the new American majority presumably puts these white working-class voters out of reach. Trying to win these voters is seen as a fool’s errand.

That conclusion is misguided. First, as we have seen, many white downscale voters in the Democratic base hold similar views about the economy and government as do white working-class swing voters. Second, the conclusion presumes that the white working class is still largely employed in industrial occupations, while, in fact, large portions are lower-paid, service-sector employees, a majority of whom are women. And third, the belief that the white working class is increasingly out of reach for Democrats is to a large degree a story of the South and the rural Conservative Heartland, not the story of white working-class voters in the rest of the country. Democrats still can and do compete for white working-class voters in three-quarters of the country.

A majority—54 percent—of white non-college-educated voters are women. Job growth today mostly comes for customer service professionals, retail and sales clerks, home health aides, and fast food workers—professions dominated by women—and the average wage for those jobs is dramatically below the median income. These women struggle with jobs that don’t pay enough to live on, manage employment and kids without help, suffer from the enduring gender pay gap, and often have to piece together multiple jobs to get to a decent income. They get by without much help balancing work and family obligations from either businesses or government. They may notice that things are quite different for the 1 percent, which gets all the help it needs.

The 19 percent of the electorate comprised of white non-college-educated women is indeed very open to government helping working families with education and college affordability and building a more secure safety net. These lower-income women want their money’s worth, but they are very much within the Democratic Party’s reach.

The hurdles to reaching the white working class look so daunting because of the success of Republicans in building up huge margins with those voters in the South, the plains, and the Rocky Mountain region. Obama won only 25 percent of white non-college-educated voters in the South and 33 percent in the Mountain West. And Democrats have been losing ground in political support and party identification with the most religiously observant, racially conscious, and rural white working-class voters in those regions. Voter attitudes about blacks and Hispanics, the role of women, traditional marriage, abortion, and religion there pose very different challenges that do indeed put most of these voters out of reach.

It is important to remember, however, that three-quarters of American voters live outside these conservative Republican strongholds. In the rest of the country, the battle for the swing white working-class and downscale voters is very much alive. In the East and the Midwest, support for the two parties is split down the middle, and since 2000 this identification with the two parties has remained very stable. On election day in 2012, Obama won 40 percent of the white non-college-educated voters outside the Republicans’ regional bases. That number still poses a problem, but it would not take major gains with these voters to change the Democrat Party’s fortunes in these areas.

Voters in the midterm elections of 2014 were ready to rally to candidates who would attack this corrupt system. Precious few candidates understood that voters had moved far ahead of the politicians.

Three-quarters of voters in the twelve most competitive Senate battleground states in 2014—states flooded with campaign money—support a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United ruling. Three in five of those voters support “a plan to overhaul campaign spending by getting rid of big donations and allowing only small donations to candidates, matched by taxpayer funds.” The American citizenry has become progressively more supportive of barring big donors and corporate mega-contributions and using public funds to empower small donations. Even in the face of charges that public funding is “welfare for politicians,” voters in the midterms said that they would rally to a candidate who argues that “we need a government of, by and for the people—not government bought and paid for by wealthy donors.”

Democrats lost badly in the Senate battleground states, located primarily in the South and most rural areas of the country. Yet one of the most effective campaign attacks we tested linked big donations to politicians advancing the interests of wealthy donors who used unlimited, secret money to make sure that billionaires’ and CEOs’ taxes remained artificially low and their loopholes stayed protected.

The power of this attack comes from the central role of the corrupt Washington and Wall Street nexus in the new economy. While working-class men struggled, the Republican candidate was helping government work for big corporations and special interests.

When Democracy Corps tested this attack in Louisiana, North Carolina, Georgia, Iowa, Colorado, and the other Senate battleground states, it was among the most powerful attacks on the Republican candidates.

Of course, none of the Democratic candidates ran that ad.

We asked presidential-year voters to react to a battery of bold initiatives that could form a Democratic economic agenda for 2016. They include policies to protect Medicare and Social Security, investments in infrastructure to modernize the country, a cluster of policies to help working families with child care and paid leave, and new efforts to ensure equal pay and family leave for women. Voters embraced these initiatives, and they tested more strongly than a Republican alternative.

Yet most important for our purposes are the results for white unmarried women and working-class women. These groups both put a “streamline government” initiative ahead of everything except protecting Social Security and Medicare. They want to “streamline government and reduce waste and bureaucracy to make sure every dollar spent is a dollar spent serving people, not serving government.” They gave even greater importance than white working-class men to streamlining government. For these women, being on the edge means feeling more strongly that government should pinch pennies and start working for them.

At the outset of the 2016 presidential election cycle, I tested a middle-class economic narrative that ended with a call for an economy that works for working people and the middle class again. The narrative begins with the recognition that people are drowning, jobs don’t pay enough, and people are struggling to pay the bills despite all their hard work. At the heart of the narrative is an intention to use government to help, including assistance with making college and child care affordable and ensuring equal pay for working women. It also includes tax credits for low-wage workers and the middle class and a promise to protect Medicare and Social Security.

When we tested this narrative among likely 2016 voters in January 2015 in a poll conducted for Democracy Corps and the Women’s Voices Women Vote Action Fund, over 70 percent of presidential-year voters said that they found it convincing, and almost 40 percent responded with intense support. More important in the context of the national elections, that narrative tested about 20 points more convincing to voters than an alternative conservative economic narrative that faulted Democrats for leaving so many people struggling and offered instead a small government route to growth; it similarly outperformed a conservative Tea Party narrative that pushed back against government overreach.

This narrative speaks to all members of the Rising American Electorate. Fully 78 percent of the growing coalition of young people, unmarried women, and minorities said the narrative was convincing—dramatically higher than the vote share they gave to Democrats even in the best years. Unmarried women, in particular, were moved. A stunning eight in ten found it convincing, and nearly half chose “very convincing.” The narrative got its strongest generational support from the Millennials, but it was nearly matched by the enthusiasm of the Baby Boomers.

The middle-class economic narrative got the attention of white working-class voters, too. They have not been great fans of government activism in recent decades, to put it mildly, and they have only been giving Democrats about a third of their votes. Yet an impressive 71 percent of white non-college-educated women embrace this narrative when it is presented to them; 41 percent do so strongly. In a head-to-head comparison, white working-class women find the Democrats’ middle-class economic narrative slightly more convincing than the Republicans’ conservative, small government economic narrative. While white working-class men responded less intensely to this middle-class economic narrative, 62 percent still found it convincing—and that is only 5 points below their support for the competing conservative small government narrative. 

Independents also gave a slight edge (60 to 55 percent) to the Democrats’ middle-class economic narrative that places government activism on behalf of the working and middle class at its core.

What really strengthens and empowers the progressive economic narrative, however, is a commitment to reform politics and government. That may seem ironic or contradictory, since the narrative calls for a period of government activism. But, of course, it does make sense: Why would you expect government to act on behalf of the ordinary citizen when it is clearly dominated by special interests? Why would you expect people who are financially on the edge, earning flat or falling wages and paying a fair amount of taxes and fees, not to be upset about tax money being wasted or channeled to individuals and corporations vastly more wealthy and powerful than themselves?

We have arrived at a tipping point at the outset of the 2016 election cycle, where the demand to reform government is equal to or stronger than the demand to reform the economy. More accurately, reform can make it possible to use governmental policies to help the middle class. In short, it is reform first.

In a straight test, the presidential electorate is as enthusiastic about a reform narrative as the middle-class economic one. The first part of the narrative focuses on big business and special interests that give big money to politicians and then use lobbyists to win special tax breaks and special laws that cost the country billions. The second part emphasizes how special interests and the bureaucracy protect out-of-date programs that don’t work. The bottom line of the narrative is that government reform would free up money so the government could work for middle-class and working families rather than big donors.

Most importantly, when voters hear the reform narrative first, they are then dramatically more open to the middle-class economic narrative that calls for government activism in response to America’s problems.

Among voters who heard the reform message first, 43 percent describe the middle-class economic narrative as very convincing—11 points higher than when they hear the economic message first. Among white working-class voters in particular, this effect produced a 13-point jump in intensity for the Democrats’ middle-class economic message (from 27 to 40 percent).

Clearly, these white working-class and downscale voters are open to a bold Democratic agenda and prefer it to a conservative Republican vision for the country. To win their support, however, voters are demanding, with growing ferocity, that Democrats battle against America’s corrupted politics and for a government that really works for the average citizen. This is the route to a stronger result with white working-class and unmarried women voters and more sustainable victories for Democrats, in 2016 and beyond.


A New Formula for a Real Democratic Majority
Tuesday, April 28 2015

By Stan Greenberg


This article appears in the Spring 2015 issue of The American Prospect magazine. 

What is the biggest obstacle to Democrats truly winning a national election and pursuing a progressive agenda? What is the biggest obstacle to Democrats winning big enough, geographically broad enough, and deep enough to overcome the constitutional barriers to a governing majority in America?

I posed that first question in The American Prospect in a piece titled “From Crisis to Working Majority,” which I wrote at the time Bill Clinton was preparing to run for president. Focusing on the Reagan Democrats who lived in middle- and working-class suburban communities like Macomb County, Michigan, I came to the conclusion that Democrats needed to address disaffected white industrial workers. Many of them were union workers, frustrated that Democrats had failed to identify with their struggles and values. They were very open to a Democratic economic agenda that raised taxes on the rich, penalized CEOs, promised health care as a right, and cut middle-class taxes. That openness to government activism, however, required a Democratic Party that would lead the reform of a welfare system that did not reward work, and the reform of a government that did not work for the middle class. That allowed Bill Clinton to run as the candidate of the “forgotten middle class.”

Bill Clinton’s formula for winning the national vote and the Electoral College lay in reclaiming enough support of the declining white industrial male workers and combining that with the votes from the Democrats’ growing liberal cultural coalition—a product of the civil rights and women’s movements, the influx of immigrants, and the protests against the Vietnam and Iraq wars.

President Clinton and some in the Democratic Leadership Council described this formula as “running to the center,” though as a pollster and strategist for Clinton, I never did. I described it as a formula for building a progressive majority from the bottom up—and it did allow Democrats to win again in the industrial Midwest and run better in some parts of the South.

Democrats today have won the most votes in five of the last six presidential elections and are formidable favorites to win the presidency in 2016, yet Republicans hold large majorities in the U.S. House and Senate and have total partisan control in 24 of the states. At the heart of that deeply frustrating contradiction is the 36 percent of the vote Obama won with white non-college-educated voters nationally. He did get 40 percent of the votes of white workers outside the South and in most rural states, yet that number still limits the scope of Democratic gains.

The same contradiction could bedevil a Hillary Clinton election in 2016. In a simulated run, she won comfortably against Mitt Romney, yet she was getting 32 percent of the white non-college votes, about the same as Obama got with those voters in his last run. That would be insufficient to produce a Congress with a governing majority.

Some have argued Democrats need to repeat the Clinton formula of proposing more “moderate” policies, running to the “center,” and downplaying and toning down the appeal to the Rising American Electorate and the new majority of blacks, Hispanics and new immigrants, millennials, unmarried women, and seculars. They also mean toning down the progressive agenda those voters are demanding.

Those who advocate such “centrism” could not be more wrong. The key to both winning today’s white working-class voters and building overwhelming majorities with the Rising American Electorate is a robust agenda of progressive reform and government activism.

The old formula, to be honest, has been made irrelevant by the seismic economic and cultural shifts that are transforming American politics. On the one hand, Republicans have successfully nationalized every presidential and off-year election because they are waging an ever-more-intense and polarized counter-revolution against the country’s national trends. On the other, Democrats are the beneficiaries of these inexorable trends, but Democrats have not addressed the profound wage stagnation and the special-interest corruption of government that leave the middle class out in the cold. That leaves Democrats’ potential majority without a reason to stay consistently engaged—and leaves Democrats short on white working-class votes as well. The key for the Democrats now is a bold reform agenda relevant for these new times.

The Defining Republican Dynamic

The seismic transformations happening in America today—increasing racial diversity, rising immigration, growing secularism, evolving family structures, and swelling metropolitan centers—are not simply economic and demographic changes. They matter so much because they are tied to revolutions in America’s values, particularly the values held among millennials and those living in the cities. These revolutions have produced a furious counterrevolution and battle for America’s values—though it is a counterrevolution that cannot prevail. 

Those battling against these seismic transformations in values honor an individualism that is grounded in personal responsibility, self-reliance, self-restraint, and self-discipline. In their view, an individual who is not encouraged to learn self-direction and self-reliance will become idle and dependent. Accordingly, they value industriousness, conscientiousness, and a strong work ethic. Their beliefs are grounded in their faith. They seek purity before God and admire those who live a sanctified life, uphold faith-based moral absolutes, and respect traditional authority. They honor marriage and the traditional family in which the man plays the breadwinner role. They value patriotism, love of country, and those who defend us from our enemies. U.S. citizens come first. And they deride those who fetishize diversity and multiculturalism, and suffer from misplaced compassion. They abhor secularists who cannot understand the primacy of faith in making moral judgments.

These revolutions and the counterrevolution are producing an increasing cultural and political polarization in America, but the polarization is hardly symmetric. History is on the side of the ascendant revolutions, and thus the opponents believe they must never let up. Indeed, they must engage the forces of change with increasing intensity if they are to forestall the Armageddon. When we look back and ask how America became so polarized and gridlocked, we will likely focus on 2004. This is when Karl Rove decided to join the culture war so as to build Republican support with religious and evangelical voters.

Defenders of traditional values have been able to wage a counterrevolution of increasing ferocity by encamping in the 20 states of the South, the Appalachian valley, and parts of the Great Plains and Mountain West. These are the most race-conscious, evangelical, religiously observant, and rural parts of the country. From this base, conservatives have fervently joined the culture war to reassert endangered values and warn of the high risks of the new mores. For them, all elections are national.

To stop the revolutions, Republicans are attempting to restrict access to abortion and even contraception, and are fighting demands for equal pay for women. They are defending the institution of traditional marriage as more states accept the legality of same-sex marriages. The Republican Party continues to resist voting rights for blacks and Latinos, and is battling to reverse Obama’s actions to give legal status to undocumented immigrants, including even the Dreamers who came to the United States as minors. They work to end unemployment benefits and Obamacare subsidies, which they view as welfare undermining the incentive to work.

This is producing a profound, asymmetric ideological polarization, as reflected in the important Pew Research Center study “Political Polarization in the American Public.” Instead of using voters’ self-placement on a liberal-moderate-conservative scale, Pew measured ideology according to people’s responses to a range of defining political choices on a variety of values issues, including government wastefulness and regulation, corporate profits, helping the poor, racial discrimination, immigration, use of the military, environmental regulation, and homosexuality. The Pew study views ideology as an expression of political value choices, though those choices are clearly expressions of deeper attitudes about morality, community, and way of life.

In that context, the battle over values is translating into real-life choices about where to live—what kind of neighborhood with what kind of people—and whether to accept the country’s new diversity and multiculturalism.

A stunning two-thirds of “mostly conservative” people and three-quarters of the “consistently conservative” want to live in a community where the houses are larger and farther apart and schools, stores, and restaurants are several miles away. Less than a quarter of consistent conservatives say being near an art museum or theater is important to them. These responses are flipped for the ideologically liberal, whose views reflect the growing preference for urbanism and metropolitan centers. More than three-quarters of the consistently liberal prefer to live in communities where houses are smaller and closer together, with schools and stores in walking distance. Nearly three-quarters of consistent liberals also say living near art museums or theaters is important to them.

The most dramatic cultural difference brought out by this unique national survey is whether you prefer to live with people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds and whether you prefer to live with people who share your religious faith. Those factors are at the heart of America’s accelerating racial diversity and rising secularism, as well as the conservative reaction. Just a fifth of consistent conservatives say they are looking for that kind of diversity in the communities where they live; almost 60 percent, however, are looking for communities where many people share their faith. In stark contrast, three-quarters of the consistently liberal are looking to live in racially and ethnically diverse communities, but finding those who share their faith is not important to them at all.

That alignment is taking place in a country that is increasingly diverse, immigrant, secular, young, and living in metropolitan centers, which is why conservatives are under siege. Half of consistent conservatives say, “It’s important for me to live in a place where most people share my political views”—15 points higher than for consistent liberals. And even more, 63 percent, say it is important that “most of my friends share my political views”—14 points higher than for consistent liberals. Conservatives unhappy with these national trends are looking for solidity of friendship and community.

Those numbers do not quite capture the swelling stakes for the supporters of each of the national parties. Increasingly, they think that if the other party gets to advance its values agenda, the country is at risk, though it is Republican conservatives who are leading the country to the edge of this perceived national crisis. Now, 27 percent of Democrats say Republicans “are a threat to the nation’s well-being”—but 36 percent of Republicans say that about Democrats. Half of consistently liberal Democrats say Republicans are such a threat, but they are outdone by consistently conservative Republicans, two-thirds of whom say the Democratic Party’s pursuit of its values and agenda puts the country at risk.

Supporters of both major political parties have become ever more hostile to the other party and fearful of where it would take the country, though Republicans and consistent conservatives are in a league of their own on the perceived threat. A stunning 72 percent of consistent conservatives have an unfavorable view of the Democratic Party, and that has jumped almost 20 points since 2004. A majority of consistent liberals—53 percent—are none too fond of the Republicans, but the growth in hostility is half the rate it is for conservatives, and the level of negativity about the other party is 19 points lower.

The launch of the culture war in 2004 brought the thoroughgoing ideological polarization of the two parties. A nearly complete 99 percent of Republicans are more conservative than the median Democrat, and that measure has reached 98 percent for Democrats with respect to the median Republican. That level of partisan ideological unanimity has jumped more than 10 points for the partisans of both parties since 2004, after remaining fairly steady in the prior decade.

The revolutions and counterrevolution have produced political parties that are ideologically polarized expressions of the emerging values conflict, though the shifts in underlying attitudes and fears are hardly symmetrical. Republicans are more alienated from what they see as the revolutions’ ascendant values, living styles, and multiculturalism, and they want to live in communities where more people share their faith and political views. They are more hostile to the Democratic Party and much more likely to believe the country is at risk if the Democratic Party wins elections.

That asymmetry, and the political mobilization that it stimulates, has allowed Republicans to over-perform in off-year elections since the election of Barack Obama, and to build their base in the more rural states. Republicans sustained high off-year turnout in 2010 and 2014 by constantly raising the specter of Obama and the grave risks to the country’s traditional values if Democrats hold office. They raised the stakes in order to build turnout among their base, and the predictable consequences played out after the GOP won control of the House of Representatives in 2010. They have also helped produce an off-year, white working-class voter who is older, more religiously observant, more socially conservative, and anti-government.

By winning big in the South and in Appalachian, Plains, and Rocky Mountain states, the Republicans are able to compete for control of the Senate and govern in at least 40 percent of the states, even though the population there counts for only a quarter of the nation. 

Their success in mobilizing and governing with this conservative model only makes winning national elections more difficult. After 2010, the actions of the Tea Party–dominated House sent Republican poll ratings plummeting. Even so, Republicans managed to gain control of both houses of Congress in 2014. After that sweep, Republican leaders promised their base supporters that they would block Obama’s executive action on undocumented immigrants and his efforts to limit coal pollution, and they will still battle to repeal Obamacare. And it has taken just a few months for the party’s brand to get badly tarnished and for Democrats to regain their presidential-year advantage.

The more Republican strategies succeed in animating and motivating their voters to win off-year elections, the more they alienate their party from America’s burgeoning new electorate. Democrats enter 2016 as the favorites to win the popular vote and perhaps an Electoral College landslide.

However, Republicans can also slow the progressive project nationally, with the full electoral advantages that come from having a rural base and a constitutional system that favors ruralism over urban density, as well as a conservative Supreme Court that blunts both popular liberal initiatives and the expanding new electorate. The GOP holds on by fighting ferociously to block government spending for the poor, to stop uncontrolled immigration, to prohibit abortion, and to defend traditional marriage. 

The success of these tactics has serious consequences for Democrats and a progressive agenda. It enables the Republicans to pursue a full-throated conservative agenda in the 20 states of the “conservative heartland” and to block major portions of any Democratic president’s agenda in Congress. But those successes come with a huge price tag. They raise the odds that Democrats will win the presidency, executive branch, and eventually even the judiciary.

Confronting the Contradictions of the New America 

Barack Obama fully identified with the new America’s growing majority and its values, and that was his formula for Democrats winning national elections in 2008 and 2012. It is a formula that will be available and even more potent for Hillary Clinton in 2016. 

The Rising American Electorate of African Americans, Hispanics, millennials, and unmarried women will constitute 54 percent of the electorate in 2016. If you also include the seculars with no religious affiliation, this rising share of the electorate will increase to 63 percent. Each of these groups is steadily growing and, as of early 2015, nearly two-thirds of them intend to vote for Hillary Clinton, assuming she is the nominee.

The metropolitan areas are indeed a cauldron for these economic and cultural revolutions, making the metropolitan revolution a political one too. A majority of the country now lives in large metro areas, and Obama won 77 percent of votes in the urban core and 62 percent in the inner suburbs. In 2012, Obama won 27 of the 30 most populous cities, and nine of the ten cities with the highest GDP per capita.

The revolutionary changes captured in the large metro areas are moving states out of their traditional Electoral College column and restricting the national Republican Party to the core conservative states. The dramatic changes in metropolitan areas have moved Virginia, Colorado, and perhaps Florida beyond purple-state status and put North Carolina in play, though voter suppression weakened that trend.

Obama embraced the new diversity and changes in gender roles and the family, which builds the Democrats’ electoral support among America’s new majority. Obama could get by with just 36 percent of white working-class votes in 2012 because increasingly, Obama’s Democratic formula depends on the two-to-one support the party gets from minority voters, new immigrants, millennials, and unmarried women, as well as the party’s big majorities among professional women and the college-educated.

Obama’s big election victories in 2008 and 2012 were, in the end, the political triumph of the ascendant trends, even though he was propelled across the finish line in 2008 by the economic distress and slowed in 2012 by the limp economic recovery. The huge crowd in Grant Park in 2008 celebrating the election of a young, mixed-race president was celebrating a changed America.

But any new Democratic president will very quickly discover, as Obama did all too soon, that the American mood can easily darken. Two-thirds will very quickly say the country is headed in the wrong direction. This was Obama’s experience by 2011. Whether that occurs again will depend on how the new president decides to address the growing economic and cultural contradictions facing the country—a project Obama did not undertake as the defining challenge of his presidency.

When Obama assumed office after the economic collapse of 2008, he did not view it as a Roosevelt moment, when a Democratic president might have educated the public on the fundamentals of the new economy and advanced a bold reform agenda. But again, that was not his project. He sounded visionary on the campaign trail, but less so as a governing chief executive.

The American citizenry and new majority celebrate the ascendant trends, values, and changing way of life, but they live the contradictions. They struggle daily with the pay gap and work that doesn’t pay enough to live on, piecing together several part-time jobs and participating in the freelance economy while managing work and kids, many of them as single parents. The majority live with the social consequences that arise from more and more households being unmarried; from the reality that working-class men today face a dimmer future than their fathers did; and from the lack of public policies that support women who are fully in the labor force. All the while, they are watching the one percent use their money to influence political connections and rig the system so the economy works in their favor, not for that of the working and middle class.

With those problems unaddressed, the public simmers, waiting for political leaders who get it and who will reform government and bring real changes.Large percentages of the new American majority—the progressive base for change—believe the country is headed in the wrong direction and still give Obama high disapproval ratings.  So while Republicans are deeply engaged in a battle against the changing trends, the new American majority is much less engaged because they see politics failing them. The Rising American Electorate could be the Democrats’ salvation—but that electorate first has to be engaged and motivated to vote.

The formula for a real national majority does not depend on winning the “Reagan Democrats” or the “forgotten middle class.” But we now know that identifying with the emergent trends and joining the battle for American values will still leave the Democrats short of the momentum they need to bring change. Democrats have to show they get it and finally join the battle over the central contradictions of our times. Then, they will have a majority that defends its gains year in and year out.

I conducted a national survey for Democracy Corps at the outset of the 2016 presidential cycle, which confirmed the public is ready. A large majority of the country embraces a bold reform narrative that demands leaders confront the special interests’ hold on government and puts the problems of the middle class center-stage. People get excited by leaders who understand their lives. The new American majority is hungry for leaders who know how hard it is for people to piece together multiple jobs to make ends meet—and so is calling for drastic improvements in wages and employment rights. Voters want leaders who appreciate the horrific cost of college and will make college more affordable, and they want leaders who understand how bewildering and difficult it is to balance work and have a family and will therefore offer adequate social supports.

They are ready to see deep investments to rebuild American infrastructure and modernize the country—if it is serious in scale, long-term, and independent of a Congress dominated by special interests and self-seeking politicians. And they understand that this is one way that government can produce good-paying jobs.

And the American people are ready to tax the richest and disrupt that group’s special deal with government. They bring to this period a special disdain for overpaid CEOs and the crony capitalism that makes government work for big business and special interests. The rich paying their fair share is nearly a first principle in economic reform and getting to a good society.

They are ready for government to help—if the stables can be cleaned. The government today is bought and sold to the biggest donors, and it wastes hundreds of billions of dollars at the behest of special-interest lobbyists. They are excited when leaders begin with reforms that restore democracy and get government to work for the middle class again.

So, what is the biggest obstacle to Democrats truly winning a national election and pursuing a progressive agenda? It is failure of Democrats to seize the moment and define an appeal that champions the interests of both the Rising American Electorate and the working middle class. Creating and communicating a reform agenda needs to be the Democrats’ top priority. 


"Middle Class Economics" Popular with White Working Class and Unmarried Women
Wednesday, February 04 2015
Download this file (DCorps SOTU FullMemo.pdf)Memo[ ]898 Kb65 Downloads

As reported by Thomas Edsall in the New York Times, Democracy Corps conducted dial testing during the 2015 State of the Union address with white swing voters and follow-up online focus groups of two groups critical to the Democrats in 2016 – white working class voters and white unmarried women.  These dials suggest that key demographics:

  • Appreciate the President’s empathetic narrative in identifying with the tough times that millions of Americans continue to endure
  • Balk at Obama’s assessment of a recovered, ‘strong’ economy and his confidence in its direction
  • Endorse the President and Democrats’ forward-looking, middle class-focused economic agenda, including bold plans for free community college, closing tax loopholes, investing in innovation and modernizing our nation’s infrastructure, paid sick leave, and affordable childcare

Swing voters respond to the idea that, like the Erler family whom the President cites frequently, this nation faced a monumental struggle, endured tough times, and has clawed its way back. But, they do not accept the idea that the State of the Union is strong – that the nation’s economy is robust and that they are sharing in it. They don’t think middle class economics has worked yet.

Nonetheless, these voters embrace the President’s agenda for middle class economics in the future. In particular, the President’s proposals to take on issues facing working families hit home.  This agenda appeals greatly to voters across party lines, resonating especially well among white unmarried women and white working class voters, groups which are among the main strategic targets for Democrats for the next several years and who share a set of priorities for middle class prosperity.

Voters’ main concerns with this agenda regard its potential cost implications and the reality that a gridlocked government makes it unlikely many of these policies will come to fruition. Moving forward with a bold and aggressive agenda that calls for real reforms on waste in government and closing loopholes for special interests that can help middle and working class families turn the page to a new economic prosperity will be crucial in attracting these voters in 2016.

Read the Full Memo Here

If Democrats hold the Senate, here’s why.
Wednesday, October 29 2014

Reason #1 African American turnout surprised everyone.  Black voters are now high turnout voters even in off-year elections — we saw this in Virginia last year and James Carville says it will happen in Louisiana this year. There and elsewhere voter suppression is a visible, ugly race-motivated effort to deny African Americans and Latinos the right to vote and they noticed.   


Reason #2 Democrats in Senate and Governor’s races ran on economic issues that affected unmarried and working women and these notorious non-presidential year drop-off voters decided the election matters.  Women’s Voices Women Vote Action Fund and the House and Senate Democratic leaders have been pressing just such an agenda and Ron Brownstein just spotlighted where they are making the difference in the National Journal.  Republican opposition to equal pay for women has been the strongest attack against GOP candidates.


Reason #3 The conservative Republican governing model that swept the states in 2010 is deeply unpopular, and conservative governors are immensely unpopular.  We see this in North Carolina, Florida, Louisiana, Kansas, Pennsylvania and Maine.


Reason #4 Latino voters notice that Republicans are running as the anti-immigrant party, and they begin to emulate African Americans who see important reasons to vote. They may notice ads from the RGA  that accuse Democrats of favoring welfare for illegal immigrants or that the Republican House voted to rescind President Obama’s executive order on the ‘Dreamers.’


Reason #5 The Republican party brand and Republican Party priorities both deeply unpopular with voters – mattered more than President Obama in the contested states. The national coverage centered on President Obama, but successful Democratic candidates in the states were using paid media to remind voters each day what today’s GOP really believes.   

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