The evidence is in from the 2017 elections, and the verdict is clear—the constituencies that twice voted to put a black man in the White House remain the majority in this country. Democrats spent a year wailing and navel gazing as they tried to figure out how to woo Trump supporters, but it turns out that the way to win is to mobilize the New American Majority—people of color and progressive whites.
In the elections on November 7, Democrats carried the day in contests across the country. From Virginia and New Jersey to Montana to California—and myriad races in between—Democratic candidates swept to victory. What was the secret to all this success? Inspiring and mobilizing those people who are with us rather than trying to persuade those who support Trump that they made a mistake. In Virginia, 91 percent of those who approve of Trump’s performance voted Republican, but Ralph Northam nonetheless trounced his Republican opponent, Ed Gillespie. In New Jersey, 87 percent of Trump supporters stuck with the Republicans, but Democrat Phil Murphy cruised to a landslide victory.
In Virginia and New Jersey, it was the “Obama coalition” of people of color and progressive whites—what I call the New American Majority—that propelled Democrats to victory. In both of those states, the Democratic candidates for governor lost the white vote but won the election because 80 percent of people of color supported them, providing the same kind of cornerstone that Obama enjoyed.
Despite 12 months of worried think pieces, high-profile initiatives, and expensive, poll-driven campaigns designed to appeal to the white working class, the levels of support for Democrats from that constituency barely budged. In Virginia, Northam received 26 percent of the white working-class vote, as compared to the 24 percent Hillary Clinton received in 2016. It is worth noting that Northam and Murphy both received a higher percentage of the white college-educated vote than Clinton did last year, but that could just be a statistical quirk reflecting a higher number of white Democrats turning out to vote than white Republicans. If that uptick is real, it was nonetheless among college-educated whites; in other words, not from the constituency that Democrats have obsessively focused on. The ceiling with the white working class is what it is.
The ability to win without picking up significant additional support from Trump supporters lays bare the fundamental fallacy underlying most Democratic and progressive strategy—the notion that Trump won and enjoys majority support. He didn’t, and he doesn’t. What happened in 2016 was not a mass defection of Democratic voters to Trump. What happened was a dramatic decline in black voter turnout (because of voter suppression, grossly insufficient investment, and overall lack of inspiration from the all-white Democratic ticket), combined with a splintering of the Obama coalition that saw statistically significant numbers of Democratic voters defect to the third- and fourth-party candidacies of Gary Johnson and Jill Stein. Not only did Trump lose the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes; he also failed to garner a majority of the vote in the states that tipped the Electoral College vote—Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.