Vox Populi

A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature

Robert Kuttner: Note to Democrats — stop chasing centrist suburban voters

Biden believes that centrism is the way to defeat Trump – but the numbers don’t necessarily bear that out.

As Elizabeth Warren pulls ahead of the pack, commentators are beginning to ask if she is electable. Biden supporters have contended that a centrist will do better than Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren with swing voters, especially moderate Republicans. They claim Biden’s portrayal of Trump as an anomaly, and his call for a “return to normal”, are reassuring to non-ideological voters. They also claim Biden can get black voters to turn out in force because he served as Obama’s vice president.

Both of these arguments are overstated. There are good reasons to conclude that Warren would be the better candidate to face Trump in the general election.

Biden is a lot weaker than he seems. A new Marist poll for PBS and NPR, released in mid-September, compared overall approval ratings for the major Democratic candidates. Warren led the field with 75 percent favorable and just 11 percent unfavorable, for a net positive rating of 64 percent. Biden lagged well behind with 22 percent unfavorable and a net positive rating of only 49 percent.

By early October, Warren was leading the Democratic field. Biden’s ground game in the key early states of Iowa and New Hampshire is inferior to Warren’s. Though they are only six years apart in age, Warren often seems a whole generation more youthful.

Should we be concerned that Warren’s far-reaching economic proposals are too expensive or too radical for swing voters? That depends: which swing voters are we talking about? There are basically two kinds up for grabs.

If Democrats have to choose between winning over moderate Republicans in the suburbs, or winning back working class defectors in the Midwestern heartland, there is simply far more pay dirt in the latter strategy. Hillary Clinton lost the white working class vote (defined as white, non-college-educated) by a margin of 67 to 28 – a staggering 39 percentage points. Those voters used to be the heart and soul of the Democratic Party. But even white working class women voted for Trump by a margin of 27 percent, and white women as a whole voted for Donald Trump.Advertisement

Some of these people can be won back. The practical question is whether Biden, as the guy you’d like to have a beer with, or Warren, with her powerful narrative and concrete policy plans, is the better bet to win them back.

Why did Hillary Clinton suffer such an epic loss? Life chances for ordinary working people have been in decline for at least three decades. Under Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, the Democrats seemed to care more about Davos than Dubuque. Hillary Clinton, hoping to continue this regime, epitomized the sort of Democrat who was in bed with Wall Street.

The large speaking fees from big banks destroyed her credibility as any kind of populist — and she tried to make up for it by going left on identity politics. That combination was toxic to socially conservative working class voters.

And those voters are distributed with great electoral efficiency. In states where Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election to Trump — Michigan, Iowa, Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania — white working class people make up more than half the electorate.

In assessing the appeal of Warren, it’s too simple to view it in terms of left or right. The practical question is whether her narrative resonates with people whose life experience is indeed that “the system is rigged” against them by big banks, insurance companies, and multinational corporations with no loyalty to their workers.

When Biden calls for a return to normal, Warren’s rejoinder is that normal isn’t good enough. Normal meant decades of declining living standards. The revolt against normal brought us Donald Trump.

And while Biden is currently ahead with black voters, largely because of his association with Obama, that could change as voters take a closer look.

Biden was less than stellar on school integration, and he was a hard-liner on the move to longer prison sentences. Warren, meanwhile, did heroic work to limit the damage of the mortgage collapse for black homeowners, and speaks about race and the need for a coalition based on common class interests better than any candidate in the field, black or white.

In 2016, when Clinton lost to the piggish Donald Trump, many commentators including some feminists concluded that America was just too hopelessly misogynist to ever elect a woman. But perhaps America was just unwilling to elect Clinton.

There could be a pent-up gender gap that could play to Warren’s advantage. She is unmistakably feminist, in the issues she champions and the way she talks about family, but Warren doesn’t wear her feminism on her sleeve. That could also be a big strength against Trump, with both female and male voters, and even in the moderate suburbs.

Finally, there is the crucial question of turnout. Democrats were able to flip 43 Republican House seats last November because they mobilized millions of voters and set a record for increased turnout in a mid-term election. Total participation soared from just 37 percent in the previous mid-term of 2014 to just under 50 percent in 2018.

Democrats need a candidate in 2020 who will galvanize and mobilize voters. Does that sound more like Biden, or Warren?


  • Robert Kuttner’s new book is The Stakes: 2020 and the Survival of American Democracy. He is co-editor of The American Prospect and teaches at Brandeis.
  • First published in The Guardian. Included in Vox Populi with permission.
‘If Democrats have to choose between winning over moderate Republicans in the suburbs or winning back working class defectors in the midwestern heartland, there is more pay dirt in the latter.’ Photograph: David R. Frazier Photolibrary, I/Alamy

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