Hillary Clinton's support of deferred deportation of millions of undocumented workers might help the Democratic Party's putative presidential nominee win over Latinos in 2016. But among the voters most responsible for the Democrats' midterm wipeout this year, it could very well make things worse—and therein lies Clinton's dilemma.
Support for Democrats among white, working-class voters was especially sparse this year: A measly 34 percent of them backed Democratic House candidates, exit polls found, while they fled in almost equal measure from Senate candidates like Bruce Braley in Iowa and incumbent Mark Udall in Colorado. Democrats still performed relatively well among black and Hispanic voters, but the deficit among whites without a college degree—who constituted more than one-third of the nationwide electorate—was too much to overcome.
One of the central challenges facing a Clinton campaign will be managing to win back enough of those voters, especially in a working-class-heavy battleground like Iowa. But as her quick support of deferred deportations shows, she'll have to do so while also motivating black, young, and Latino voters who formed the core of President Obama's coalition in 2008 and 2012.
At times, the two imperatives will work against each other.
"Democrats, to win regularly, not just the presidency but other levels of government, they need to do better among ... noncollege whites than they've been doing," said Ruy Teixeira, a demographer who has written extensively about the electoral advantages inherent in the nation's changing demographics. "You can't ... just rely on the coalition of the ascendant."
Once the backbone of the Democratic Party, working-class white voters have gradually shifted into the GOP's camp since the 1970s in part because of the alienation they felt toward an increasingly urban, culturally cosmopolitan party. Democrats, meanwhile, have made up for the loss by winning over minorities and a greater share of the upscale white vote.
Clinton doesn't have to win a majority of white voters without a college education—Obama never did, after all. Even during the height of his 2008 campaign, he won just 40 percent of them. Four years later, his share slipped to 36 percent.
But in 2014, the bottom fell out, and it fell out in places where Democrats have performed relatively well with working-class white voters, even recently. The party didn't just lose the white, working-class vote in places like Arkansas and West Virginia, where it has long since stopped being competitive at a presidential level. It also lost the vote in Iowa.
Braley, the Democratic Senate nominee in Iowa, won just 41 percent of the white, working-class vote in an overwhelmingly white state, exit polls showed, on his way to a stunning 9-point defeat in an open-seat race. Precise data was unavailable for Obama's performance among the same group in Iowa in 2012, when he won the state comfortably, but he won 52 percent of voters without a college degree that year.
Other states showed a particularly weak performance among blue-collar whites: In Colorado, Udall got just 34 percent of their vote, to his opponent's 61 percent. For Democratic presidential candidates, most plausible paths to the White House run through winning both of those states.
Democrats do have some reason for optimism. For one, the share of white, working-class voters continues to shrink every presidential election by an average of about 3 percentage points, according to Teixeira, while the share of groups Democrats do better with—racial minorities and well-educated white voters—continues to grow. And Democrats hope that Clinton, as the nation's first major-party female presidential nominee, would be able to win over so-called waitress moms at a greater rate than most Democratic candidates.
The most pressing need for Clinton, however, might be devising an economic agenda and message able to convince some of those voters to back Democratic candidates.
"Are they going to convince the majority of these voters that they have a plan and it'll definitely work?" Teixeira asked. "Well, that's probably not going to happen. You don't have to convince most of these voters. You just have to convince a persuadable part of them."