In the months since President Trump's victory, Democrats have been debating whether we must focus on our party's demographically diverse base or redirect our attention to the white, working-class voters who defected in historic numbers to Donald Trump.
This is a false choice. To be successful in 2017, 2018 and beyond, Democrats need to persuade and motivate all of these voters. And there is early evidence that the two groups share enough concerns about their economic futures — and the risks of the Trump presidency — that Democrats can forge a unifying message and reassemble a winning electoral coalition..
Over the last month, Priorities USA commissioned an extended survey of two key categories of voters whose behavior was decisive in the 2016 election. The first was "swing" voters — specifically, Trump supporters who had previously voted for Barack Obama at least once. The second group consisted of traditional Democratic voters, largely African Americans and Millennials, who simply failed to show up this time.
As might be expected, the latter group of voters was most surprised by Trump’s victory and most vocal in its fear about what Trump’s presidency will bring. But the “swing” voter group had serious concerns, too. Fully half of these voters said that they voted for Trump with reservations. Of these “soft” Trump supporters, only 35% have confidence he will be a good president.
The basis for concern among these two sets of voters was strikingly similar. Both groups said they are worried that Trump’s temperament will get us into a war. Both are very concerned that he might make cuts to important government programs, including Medicare and Medicaid.
Most importantly, both groups are concerned that a Trump-Republican agenda may end up favoring the wealthy, rather than people like them.
These voters — swing voters and turnout targets alike — are deeply concerned about their economic situation. They cite, for instance, how their income is falling behind the cost of living. As they continue to struggle, they have serious questions about whether the “establishment,” including the Democratic Party, will do anything to improve their lives.
But these voters are still not convinced Trump will make good on his promises to prioritize the working and middle class. They fear Trump and the Republicans will put the interests of wealthy Americans and corporate executives first. Soft Obama-Trump voters even raised concerns about the proposed tax on imports that would raise the costs of products that Americans buy.
All of this leaves an opening for Democrats to re-establish themselves as the party of the working and middle class. To capitalize on this, Democrats should work to position themselves against the agenda Republicans in Congress are set to advance. This means fighting to protect Medicare and Social Security from privatization efforts, and fighting for tax reform that prioritizes the middle class, rather than the wealthiest.
Democrats should also lean into infrastructure investment and paid leave for new parents. Both groups of voters we analyzed named these as among the policies they most want to see enacted. Both were Trump campaign promises, so spotlighting Republican inaction on these issues presents another opportunity to show how Trump is betraying these voters.
Nor should Democrats shy away from talking about the Republican bind on the Affordable Care Act. Repealing the law with no replacement at the ready is a real concern. Ensuring all Americans have access to affordable insurance is a top priority of these voters, and nearly half (46%) of Obama-Trump voters with mixed feelings say repealing Obamacare without a replacement in place is a major concern about Trump.
Of course, identifying a message that resonates with these voters is only part of our challenge. We must also have the discipline — and commit the resources — to wage sustained persuasion and turnout efforts that reach voters where they live. That is harder than ever in a digital age, when more and more of these swing voters rely on social media for their news and can curate their feeds in ways that create an echo-chamber effect. We must find ways to break through these information filters.
Ultimately, our politics should be about addition and inclusion. We can't treat voters as a series of demographic boxes to check three months before the next election.
In 2017 and 2018, Democrats face an electoral map of challenges in red-state Senate contests like North Dakota, Missouri and Indiana, as well as enormous opportunities in gubernatorial and state legislative races. We must be fully committed to comprehensive campaigns that reach out to working and middle class families, whether they are traditional swing voters or part of the Democratic base. Our success depends on both groups. And more important, the heart and soul of our party requires both.