It’s widely acknowledged that the Democrats have a heavy lift going into the 2014 election, despite the continued decline in Republican Party favorability brought on by the shutdown, their extreme rhetoric and their single-minded devotion to undermining effective governance. However, regardless of the outcome in 2014, it seems likely that the GOP will be increasingly burdened by warfare between its totally intransigent Tea Party faction and “establishment”, business-oriented Republicans in and around Washington.
That’s a recipe for increased unpopularity going into the 2016 Presidential cycle. But a new poll suggests it might be more significant than that: an opportunity for the Democrats to make historic, devastating inroads into the Republican base.
How bad could 2016 be for Republicans? Pretty bad. Start with the likelihood that minorities, who voted 80 percent for Obama, will increase by 2 points to 30 percent of voters. Add to that the continued growth of heavily Democratic Millennial generation voters within the electorate, whose numbers will increase by about 4 million a year. By the 2016 election, Millennials should be about 36 percent of eligible voters and roughly a third of actual voters. That’s quite a tail wind for whomever the Democratic nominee may be.
But what about white voters? That’s where Obama was weakest, especially among white working class voters, whom he lost by 25 points. Won’t those kind of margins prevent a truly crushing defeat for the GOP in 2016?
The increasingly extreme and factionalized Republican party is suffering image erosion across the board, including among white voters. It’s also scaring white seniors and white working class voters, in particular, with its aggressive calls for cutting entitlements. This will likely lead a considerable number of white voters who backed Romney in 2012 to consider switching sides in 2016.
Will the Democrats be able to take advantage of this opening? We can’t say for sure, but consider that Hillary Clinton, the most likely nominee at this point, has a track record of appealing to white working class voters and in early polls has been cutting Obama’s deficit among whites nationally and in key states. That raises the possibility that Democrats could make progress in 2016 toward a decades-long aspiration: a Bobby Kennedy-style coalition that unites minorities, young people, and educated liberals with working class whites.
That progress would not have to be large-scale to create a lop-sided loss for the GOP. If Hillary Clinton simply matched Obama’s modest performance among working class whites (an 18 point deficit) that, combined with expected levels of demographic change, would be enough for her to exceed Obama’s overall victory margin in 2008. And if Clinton could match Obama’s 2008 performance among college-educated white women (a 5 point advantage), for whom her candidacy should have special appeal, she would triumph by 10 points, a huge gap in Presidential elections and the largest margin since Ronald Reagan’s re-election in 1984.
One reaction to this scenario might be: college-educated white women, sure, but how can a Democrat, even Hillary Clinton, reach a white working class split from the increasingly diverse Democratic party by ethnic and class divisions? As it turns out, most of the white working class is much more open-minded than many think.
Take a look at the results from a new survey by CAP and PolicyLink on Americans’ reactions to rising diversity. The poll found that, by and large, positive sentiments about opportunities from rising diversity tended to outweigh negative concerns about rising diversity — even among working class whites.
As the table below shows, Americans overall expressed majority agreement with six of eight statements about these opportunities, though there was considerable demographic variation in level of agreement. But despite this variation, it is nevertheless striking that white working class (non-college) respondents also agreed with every one of those six statements:
Almost two-thirds (64 percent) of the white working class agreed that “Americans will learn more from one another and be enriched by exposure to many different cultures.” The same number agreed that “Aabigger, more diverse workforce will lead to more economic growth.” 62 percent agreed that “diverse workplaces and schools will help make American businesses more innovative and competitive.” 58 percent agreed that “people will become more accepting of their differences and more willing to find common ground.” 57 percent agreed that “with more diverse people working and living together, discrimination will decrease.” Finally, 52 percent agreed that “the entry of new people into the American workforce will increase our tax base and help support our retiree population”.
This does not sound like a demographic whose future lies with the lily-white Tea Party. The point becomes especially clear when you look at younger whites; white working class Millennials are significantly more open to rising diversity than the white working class as a whole. For example, 75 percent of white working class Millennials think Americans will be enriched by exposure to many cultures and 73 percent believe a bigger, more diverse workforce will lead to more economic growth.
These data indicate that there is real potential for a breakthrough among the white working class in 2016. Whether Hillary Clinton (or any other Democrat) can realize that potential remains to be seen. But if they can do so, the GOP could suffer an historic defeat.