Op-Ed

The best way forward for Democrats: Target well-educated voters

In the last two months, two paths for Democrats to regain national and statewide majorities have emerged. The first is to engage with the rising American electorate at the grass-roots level — increasing turnout and margins with communities of color, millennials and unmarried women. The other is to rebuild a past connection with working-class white voters, reducing the two-decade drift of non-college-educated whites to the Republicans.

Neither recommendation engages with the most important change occurring beneath the surface of partisan politics, which President Trump will only accelerate. Democrats won voters of all races with a bachelor’s degree or higher by the largest margin since exit polls began tracking this information — and likely since college attendance exploded in the post-World War II decades (+4% margin for those with bachelor’s degree; +21% margin for those with a graduate degree). Support for the Democratic Party among well-educated voters has risen steadily since 1992, when Bill Clinton made new strides in the suburbs.

This development is as radical as the so-called populism reshaping the GOP, and it already has led to surprising Democratic victories from Orange County in California to Gwinnett and Cobb counties in suburban Atlanta. As Republican margins decline in former strongholds, including outer Chicagoland, greater Phoenix, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Oklahoma City and the Kansas City suburbs, Democratic margins are hitting new heights in New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, Minneapolis and Boston.

The addition of college-educated voters to the Democratic base could lead to a powerful and sustainable coalition. Just as people of color and millennials represent a growing share of the electorate, virtually every community where educated voters reside is growing at a rapid clip.

Democrats need to stop the bleeding with working-class whites. But that’s only a small piece of the equation. To confront demagoguery and “populist” conservatism, Democrats should create a coalition that combines a diverse electorate with increased margins among college-educated voters. This approach could solve the party’s geographic problems and lead to victory in future elections.

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Running up the score with college-educated voters could help Democrats win Rust Belt states that were pivotal in 2016.

Let’s compare two counties in the Detroit suburbs: Macomb, where only 23% of the population has a bachelor’s degree, and Oakland, where 44% of the population does. Hillary Clinton maintained Barack Obama’s 8% margin in Oakland County, a historically Republican suburb, while Macomb went from a 4% edge for Obama to a 12% advantage for Trump. Post-mortems of the presidential campaign focused on the drift away from Democrats in Macomb. But about a decade ago, Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg pointed out that the future for Democrats lies in Oakland. Because the county is far more populous than Macomb, a mere 2% increase in Clinton’s margin there would have erased her 10,704 statewide deficit, and put Michigan in her column.

We can find similar examples in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Some Democrats may believe they have to rethink their Pennsylvania strategy entirely, but there’s plenty of low-hanging fruit. Clinton won Montgomery County and Chester — both well-educated suburban areas — by 21% and 9%, respectively. A future Democratic presidential candidate, cognizant that Pennsylvania can swing to the GOP, could widen those margins.

Inversely, Republicans still dominate the Milwaukee suburbs, but Trump’s victory margin in Waukesha County — 26% — was lower than Mitt Romney’s. If Democrats put resources into the area, they could chip away at that number and improve their chances to take back the state.

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Although the Republican Party has control of the White House, both houses of Congress and a strong majority of state houses, its dominance almost certainly won’t last because its coalition is impossibly fragile. The tea party and Trump have radically altered the ideology and constituency of the GOP. The famous GOP big tent, which now includes neo-conservatives and isolationists, free marketeers and protectionists, social conservatives and libertarians, can’t handle the strain. It is too big not to fail.

Before that happens, gerrymandering may insulate the GOP from Democratic incursions in the House of Representatives. Even there, however, there is still a path forward for Democrats if they court well-educated voters. Consider that Clinton won or made massive improvements in Republican-held districts in Chicagoland, suburban Dallas, suburban Atlanta and Orange County. In the past, the Democratic Party hasn’t invested in these districts with real resources, but it clearly should.

Although a wholesale conversion of well-educated voters to the Democratic Party will take time, energy and resources, Democratic leaders won’t need to sacrifice any of their core values; on the contrary, the party is in line with these voters ideologically. Both the party, and these voters, are socially liberal. They both embrace diversity. And they both want to promote economic opportunity by reducing the cost of higher education, healthcare and child care.

But what the Democratic Party really has going for it is the opposition. As Republicans embrace Trump’s nationalistic policies, they will drive educated voters into the arms of the Democrats.

Matthew Rey is a partner at Red Horse Strategies, a political consulting and communications firm that specializes in empowering emerging communities.

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