Politics / June 17, 2024

Democrats Must Change Their Whole Approach Toward White People

Most of them are with Trump, and that’s not going to change. Instead, Democrats should target a far more winnable group of voters.

Steve Phillips
Former President Donald Trump attends a rally June 9, 2024 in Las Vegas,

Former president Donald Trump attends a rally on June 9, 2024, in Las Vegas,

(Eric Thayer / The Washington Post via Getty Images(

Democrats need to realize that if Donald Trump’s felony conviction won’t weaken his support among most white voters, then nothing will.

In the days after Trump’s conviction on 34 counts of falsification of business records, white leaders from coast to coast rushed to microphones and social media to pledge their allegiance. Polls show no meaningful erosion of backing for Trump among voters (a New York Times/Siena survey found just 3 percent of his supporters saying they plan to switch their vote after the conviction).

None of this should be surprising. In a country that is growing increasingly racially diverse, the Republican Party remains disproportionately white (83 percent of GOP voters are white, according to Pew Research analysis of exit polls). White rage has always been the rocket fuel powering Trump’s ascendance and continued political relevance. Most have forgotten that when he entered the 2016 presidential contest in the spring of 2015, he languished in the polls with the support of just 5 percent of Republican voters. Then, in his presidential announcement in June of 2015, he demonized Mexicans as rapists and murderers and clearly sent a signal that he would be the defender of white people and the culture he claimed immigrants of color threatened to destroy.

The political fruits of the speech were instantaneous. Trump rocketed to the top of the pack in a matter of weeks and has never looked back. He infamously marveled at the fervor of his (overwhelmingly white) supporters when he commented in January 2016: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters.”

Now, Trump stands alone as the first former president impeached twice by Congress and criminally convicted of a felony (well, 34 felonies to be exact, but who’s counting?). One would think that if anything would dampen the enthusiasm among members of a political party that once embraced law and order and the criminal justice system as core to its identity, it would be that criminal justice system rendering 34 guilty verdicts. But that has not been the case.

Even former Trump critics and ostensibly moderate voices such as former Maine senator Susan Collins have quickly come to Trump’s defense, saying, “The district attorney, who campaigned on a promise to prosecute Donald Trump, brought these charges precisely because of who the defendant was rather than because of any specified criminal conduct.”

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Why are Collins and other Republicans being so craven? Simple: The evidence has been clear for decades for anyone who cared to look. From a quantitative standpoint, championing white nationalism in this country has always been good politics.

In 1968, unapologetic white segregationist governor George Wallace of Alabama ran for president and won five states. Twenty years prior, South Carolina leader Strom Thurmond—who infamously conducted the longest filibuster in US history when he tried to block the Civil Rights Act of 1957—ran for president on the overtly segregationist platform of the Dixiecrats, and won four states. And 88 years before that, the entire presidential contest turned on the question of whether white people could legally buy, sell, and own Black people—48 percent of the voters backed pro-slavery candidates (the slave states couldn’t agree on a single candidate and divided their votes, making it possible for Abraham Lincoln to prevail with just 39 percent of the vote).

The implications of this history for Democrats are profound. The dominant strategic focus of the Democratic Party has been and remains to woo white voters, but in my 30 years in national politics, I have seen precious few examples of empirical data and research guiding this quest to win white support.

To address this gap, I have spent the past year working with the groups Showing Up for Racial Justice and the Working Families Party to conduct a study on what the data really shows about white voter behavior over the years. We just released the resulting report titled “Expanding the White Stripe of Our Multiracial Coalition” this week (“white stripe” as in how to broaden the white stripe of the multiracial rainbow that is the Democratic electorate). In conducting the report, we analyzed decades of electoral data, Census reports, and field experiments by a wide range of social change and political organizations.

With the clarity that Trump’s conviction won’t dislodge his white supporters, the findings in the White Stripe Report are more timely and urgent than ever. The report offers three top-line calls to action. They are:

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Target the right white people

Much of the media and too much of the Democratic focus has primarily centered on trying to change the minds of voters inclined towards Trump. But there are millions of progressive-leaning whites who are infrequent voters but would likely support Democrats if they did come out and vote. This pool of people is a far more promising demographic to target. Political strategist and former political director of the AFL-CIO Mike Podhorzer has described the necessary shift in approach as pulling back the lens to look at the working-class female food servers pouring the coffee for the white guys in those stereotypical Midwestern diners that so many reporters flocked to in the wake of Trump’s win in 2016. That woman is far more likely to vote Democratic, especially in the wake of the Supreme Court’s all-out assault on reproductive rights over the past year.

Our analysis of the nonvoting population among registered voters in 2020 identifies 26.9 million whites who didn’t cast votes but would probably have backed Biden. A far better use of funds this year will be making sure that those white people vote, instead of spending millions of dollars on endless television ads trying to get Trump supporters to switch allegiances.

Spend proportionately

There comes a point where Democratic spending on white people results in diminishing margins of returns. The results of every presidential election over the past 32 years show that white support for Democrats remains in a narrow band from 39 percent to 44 percent.

Having a realistic expectation of what percentage of white voter support the party is actually seeking will be key heading into November, as will be setting a limit on the amount of money, time, and effort that will be spent trying to exceed that limit. Saving money in this fashion will free up funds to invest in mobilizing voters of color who support Democrats at much higher rates.

Run toward—not away—from racial issues.

Though this may seem counterintuitive, it turns out that being explicit about race doesn’t diminish support among white voters. In fact, it could increase support by activating those millions of progressive nonvoting whites.

The default impulse of most white people when it comes to issues of diversity, racial justice, and equality is to change the topic. In the research we examined, the data shows that pushing back on these attacks and summoning people to be their highest and best selves actually works. Democrats received their highest share of the white vote in the past 24 years when they challenged America to elect a Black man as president, and Obama secured 43 percent of the white vote in 2008.

In the Kentucky gubernatorial election last year, the Republicans backed Daniel Cameron, an African American Trump follower who had defended the notorious police killing of Breonna Taylor in 2020. In his 2023 campaign, Cameron deployed the divisive tool du jour of attacking transgender youth, but the incumbent governor Democrat Andy Beshear, a white man, fought back, vetoing a bill targeting transgender children, saying, “My faith teaches me that all children are children of God.” Beshear handily won.

What this moment is showing all of us is that there is virtually nothing that will change the minds of the tens of millions of whites who support Trump. If Democrats want to win, they need to embrace this reality and turn their attention and resources to doing what works to get the maximum number of realistically attainable white votes possible.

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Steve Phillips

Steve Phillips is a best-selling author, columnist, podcast host, and national political expert. He is the author of the New York Times bestseller Brown Is the New White and How We Win the Civil War. He is also the founder of Democracy in Color, a political media organization dedicated to race, politics, and the multicultural progressive New American Majority.

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