The Death of the Blue Wall and the Return of the Southern Strategy
Where on earth do the Democrats go from here? That’s the big question currently confounding left-wing political strategists, pundits, and elected officials following the Democratic Party’s absolute routing in the 2016 election. The left was defeated not only in the presidency, but also at the Congressional and state levels to such a degree that the Republican Party is estimated to be in its strongest position since at least 1928. Democrats seem unable to reliably win elections anywhere outside of the safest blue states, locking them out of control of every branch of government and the vast majority of state legislatures and governorships.
In the wake of such a dramatic party collapse, it seems remarkable that the same concerns were spreading about the Republican Party eight years ago following the election of President Barack Obama. The GOP, pundits and strategists argued, was becoming increasingly reliant on a narrow faction of older and socially-conservative white voters, a demographic that could only reliably win a smattering of states in the South and rural West. The Democrats, by contrast, would be able to ascend to new heights of power by building a new coalition from America’s changing demographics, most famously described as the “emerging Democratic majority” by Ruy Teixeira and John Judis in their 2002 book of the same name. Growing populations of ethnic minorities, working women, and college-educated professionals, Teixeira and Judis argued, would join the Democratic Party’s existing base to create a nearly-impenetrable electoral alliance. The resounding success of the so-called “Obama coalition” in 2008 and 2012 only reinforced beliefs in an inevitable march towards a permanent progressive majority.
Vital to this theory was the theoretical “blue wall,” a cohort of states from the Northeast, West Coast, and Midwest that had gone Democratic in every election from 1992 to 2012. These states added up to 242 electoral votes, meaning that Democrats would only have to capture a few swing states to win the presidency; Republicans, meanwhile, held only 102 electoral votes in the equivalent “red wall,” far short of the 270 needed to win the White House. The Republican Party would have to run the field, as they managed in 2000 and 2004, in order to win the presidential election – a task made that much harder by growing populations of minorities and college-educated voters throughout the South and Southwest.
The Republican Party was quick to take action after 2008, kicking off strategies to insulate the party against the threat of death-by-demographics. In early 2010, conservative strategist Chris Jankowski launched the Redistricting Majority Project, or REDMAP, as a Republican plan to capture state legislatures and give the party an edge in congressional redistricting after the upcoming 2010 census. Jankowski’s REDMAP plan was wildly successful, enabling Republicans to seize a 234-201 majority in the House of Representatives in the 2012 election despite Democrats winning the popular House vote by 1.4 million votes. Well-funded and well-run Republican campaigns also captured a growing number of governorships and Senate seats after 2008 in spite of the forecasted national Republican collapse, positioning staunch conservatives like Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Michigan Governor Rick Snyder not only in swing states but within the blue wall itself. One by one, local Democratic parties in several states began to fall behind the GOP in terms of fundraising and organizing, especially in industrial Midwestern states that used to be reliably blue.
The Republican National Committee also began efforts to develop a new, modern style of conservative politics following Mitt Romney’s loss in the 2012 presidential election. Under the leadership of Reince Preibus, the RNC released the Growth & Opportunity Project in early 2013, a so-called election “autopsy report” which echoed concerns about the viability of the party’s dwindling core demographic. The autopsy report singled out Hispanics in particular as prime potential Republican voters provided the GOP move beyond the staunchly conservative party line on immigration. The Republican Party’s strategy after 2012, Preibus has said, would have to include newfound emphasis on “tone, inclusiveness, and engaging in [minority] communities” to expand its base and stay competitive with the left. Young, forward-thinking moderates who could win over Democratic-leaning voters were the best hope of the Republican Party at the national level, the conventional wisdom went.
Even after these efforts, fears lingered on the right that the Republican Party was still unprepared to combat the Democratic demographic advantage moving forward. One of the biggest proponents of the might of the blue wall heading into 2016 was Chris Ladd, a Republican columnist for the Houston Times who predicted dire odds for the GOP in the upcoming presidential election despite their success in the 2014 midterms. Ladd anticipated that the blue wall could soon encompass 257 or even 270 electoral votes by expanding to include New Mexico and Virginia, meaning that presidential elections from 2016 onward would, “until a future party alignment, be decided in the Democratic primary.” The Republican Party, meanwhile, had become too deeply entrenched in party fundamentalism and social conservatism to compete against Democrats outside of low-turnout midterm elections. The GOP would have to become a more inclusive party, and quickly, if it wanted any hope of winning the White House again.
So when Donald Trump barged into the Republican presidential primary in June of 2015, he stood in stark opposition to a party mainstream that had spent years trying to move beyond its reputation as racist, exclusive, and out-of-touch. Bipartisan ridicule of Mitt Romney’s advocacy of “self-deportation” during the 2012 election seems quaint in contrast with a candidate whose kick-off speech vocally denounced Mexican immigrants as drug dealers and rapists. Trump also went far beyond the usual Republican party line of being “tough on crime” and national security, ringing the alarm on a nonexistent crime waveseizing America’s inner cities and promising Muslim bans and war crimes as part of his plan to wipe out ISIS. And in spite of his obvious disregard for Republican leaders’ vision of a more inclusive and diverse Grand Old Party, Trump quickly barreled to the front of the Republican primaries. His message – economically populist on its face but underscored by a tone of racial animosity – was particularly resonant among white voters in the rural Rust Belt, who eventually proved enough to hand Trump the Presidency via the Electoral College. Donald Trump’s victory clearly didn’t rely on bringing members of the “emerging Democratic majority” into the conservative fold; exit polls showed Hillary Clinton winning women by the biggest margin of any candidate since Bill Clinton in 1996 along with little evidence for Republican gains among minorities and college graduates. Instead, Trump won by destroying the Democratic Party’s advantage in supposed “blue wall” states including Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.
Donald Trump’s strategy in the Midwest in 2016 was in many ways strikingly similar to the Republican Party’s “Southern Strategy” from 50 years ago. Starting in the 1960s, white Southerners who once made up the loyally-Democratic “Solid South” became increasingly resentful of integration and civil rights legislation being forced upon them by liberal Democrats in the federal government. Republican candidates began to campaign in the South on platforms carefully crafted to avoid embracing blatant racism while still speaking to racial fears felt by many white voters. By tackling issues like busing and welfare with arguments based on “states’ rights” and economics, Republicans allowed themselves plausible deniability while still distinctly feeding into their voters’ deeply-felt racial animosities. In a 1981 interview, Republican strategist Lee Atwater succinctly described the Strategy:
“You start out in 1954 by saying, “N*****r, n*****r, n*****r.” By 1968 you can’t say “n*****r”—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is blacks get hurt worse than whites. …obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “N*****r, n*****r.””
Parallels can easily be drawn between the Southern Strategy attacks on social welfare policies and Trump’s aggressive “America first” rhetoric of today. His pledged Mexican border wall and crack down on immigration into the United States have often been justified as consequences of “economic anxiety,” a reaction to a hollowing out of inner America chronically ignored by the political establishment. At its core, this argument isn’t wrong: the parts of the country that swung the most towards Trump and away from the Democrats are mainly areas in the rural Midwest with the greatest number of blue collar jobs vulnerable to outsourcing or automation. But at the same time, 2016 exit polls showed Hillary Clinton winning voters who named the economy as their top concern by significant margins in states like Michigan and Wisconsin, implying that support for Donald Trump has to do with more than pure economic interests.
Donald Trump’s militant anti-crime and anti-terrorism rhetoric, too, seem more seated in stoking racial anxiety than addressing actual issues. Despite Trump’s repeated claims to the contrary, crime is at a 20 year low in America, and his botched “refugee freeze” on certain majority-Muslim countries largely targets countries with no history of terrorism in America while giving a pass to others with significant terrorist pasts such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Further, a University of Massachusetts study found a strong relationship between white voters’ likelihood of voting for Trump and how strongly they deny the effects of racism, a pattern that didn’t occur with John McCain in 2008 or Mitt Romney in 2012. It appears evident that Trump, intentionally or not, employed a sort of “Midwestern Strategy” to win over working-class white voters in the Midwest who once were loyal Democrats and voted for Barack Obama four years ago, much as the Republican Party captured the Solid South half a century ago.
It’s unlikely that either Republican leadership or Donald Trump could have done such intensive damage to the blue wall on their own in 2016. Years of effort by the RNC served to undermine the Democratic Party at the state level in the Midwest, sticking them with a mediocre selection of candidates and massive deficits in funding and staff despite the national party’s continuing confidence in the region. In turn, Donald Trump’s incendiary racial rhetoric and laser-precise populist appeal on economic issues gave him the needed edge to rip into Democratic margins among working-class whites in the rural Rust Belt. The alliance between Republican Party officials and their popular nominee was at best unsteady and at several points outright hostile, but ultimately proved to be the political “odd couple” necessary to deliver 2016 for the Republican Party at every level of office.
The Future of the Parties
The result of the 2016 election pose major challenges for both parties moving forward, most critically the Democratic Party which just a few months ago was growing worried that a GOP collapse could leave them without robust opposition. Democrats have to quickly come up with an alternative to the “blue wall” in time for 2018 and 2020, as they can no longer count on historical loyalty in the Midwest and also lag behind in supposed emerging Democratic Sun Belt states like North Carolina and Arizona.
The Democratic Party could make an effort to recapture the Rust Belt states that turned against them over the course of the last eight years, a tactic that would likely require the party to recalibrate its national platform to appeal more to white working-class voters. Democrats may have pulled off a victory in the Electoral College if, as some Bernie Sanders loyalists have argued, they had spent more time promoting their own populist economic polices and less time on divisive social issues like reproductive rights and immigration. However, this theory doesn’t explain why, for the first time in history, every single state voted for the same party for President and Senate in 2016, resulting in decisive defeats of Midwestern progressives like Russ Feingold in Wisconsin and Ted Strickland in Ohio. In addition, even if the left had scraped together a victory in 2016 by holding on to the Midwest, it’s possible they would just be delaying the inevitable. As Sean Trende and Derek Byler have documented in their RealClearPolitics series “How Trump Won,” the Democratic Party pulled even in rural and urban areas in 1988, but since then has become increasingly concentrated in metropolitan areas while falling out in rural areas and small towns. Odds were going downhill for Democrats in the rural Midwest long before Donald Trump threw his hat in the ring.
Democrats could also try to attempt a reverse of the Southern Strategy of 50 years ago by targeting diversifying, vote-rich states throughout the South and Southwest including North Carolina, Arizona, Georgia, and Texas. While these states are all Republican leaning to some degree now, growing populations of Hispanic, African-American, and college educated voters in coming years could make them vulnerable to pick-ups by Democrats in the future. Even in 2016, Hillary Clinton performed considerably better than previous Democratic nominees in many of these states, giving the left something to hope for in future elections. A “Sun Belt Strategy” would impose its own problems for the Democratic Party, however. The fact that Donald Trump was still able to win these states in spite of his inflammatory racial and sexist rhetoric indicates that capturing the Sun Belt will be a harder battle than Democrats anticipated. In addition, rhetoric that appeals to minorities and well educated voters in the Sun Belt could further alienate white working-class voters in the Rust Belt and vice versa, putting Democrats in the tricky position of either trying to balance two very different demographics or choosing just one region to concentrate their efforts in.
Republicans, though having an obvious advantage over the Democrats right now, will also have to grapple with major rifts within their own party soon. If the Trump administration fails to deliver on its economic promises and ends in political disaster, as many anticipate, voters in the Midwest and elsewhere could turn against the Republican Party as quickly as they came to support it. But if Donald Trump starts to show returns for American workers and remains popular among the Republican base, the GOP will have to deal with a de facto leader whose policies and ideology are in sharp contrast with their own.
Traditional conservative values like interventionist foreign policy and free-trade economics remain priorities for most Republican members of Congress, even though such policies are at odds with the beliefs of both President Trump and a growing number of Republican voters across the country. Donald Trump’s warm relationship with Russia and Vladimir Putin puts the GOP in a sticky spot, for instance, considering that just four years ago their presidential nominee vocally denounced Russia as America’s “number one geopolitical foe.” Similarly, recent polls show self-described Republicans as the most distrustful of free trade’s effects on American workers, while Democrats are the most trusting, potentially threatening congressional Republicans’ current economic goals. In order to work with President Trump and maintain support from voters, conservative politicians will likely have to bend on at least some parts of their platform – a move which, in turn, could push certain demographics including educated whites and humanitarian Christians towards the Democratic party.
At any rate, the next four years and beyond are bound to see dramatic upheavals in the voter coalitions on both sides of the aisle. The theory of the “blue wall” has clearly been blown open, and the “emerging Democratic majority” also seems far more dubious than it did a few months ago. At the same time, we shouldn’t underestimate how quickly the Republican Party’s current national coalition could fall out; after all, if you’d told pundits in 1984 that solidly-Republican California and Vermont would soon be among the bluest states in the country, they’d have laughed you out of the room. Depending on the successes and failures of the Trump administration, we could be looking at a very different electorate by the next presidential election – it remains to be seen what theory we’ll be using to predict how Americans vote in 2020.