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Since Clinton left the White House, the Democratic decline among older and blue-collar whites has continued, even accelerating under Obama. But Obama triumphed twice anyway by assembling a more consistently left-leaning coalition centered on millennials, minorities, and socially liberal whites (especially college-educated and single women). I've called that alignment the "coalition of the ascendant," because its groups are all growing within the electorate, boosting Democrats.
These changes have recast the party. In 1992, white voters without a college education, usually the most socially conservative voters, made up 60 percent of all Americans who identified as Democrats, according to surveys by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center. By 2014, Pew found, those noncollege whites represented just 35 percent of Democrats. Over that same period, college-educated whites grew from 15 to 20 percent of Democrats, and minorities soared from about 25 percent to 45 percent of the party.
This reconfigured Democratic coalition has tilted left since Bill Clinton's day, especially on social issues. In Pew polls, the share of Democrats who think immigrants benefit American society more than they burden it jumped from 32 percent in 1994 to 68 percent by 2014; likewise, the share of Democrats who say society should accept homosexuality rose 20 points over that period (almost double the change among Republicans).
This new party consensus has allowed—and even required—both Obama and Hillary Clinton to replace Bill Clinton's cultural centrism with reliably liberal positions on social issues, including immigration and gay rights. "On virtually every cultural issue, Democrats have staked out very clear positions in ways that Bill Clinton had to do much more gingerly in 1992," says Matt Bennett, senior vice president at Third Way, a centrist Democratic group. "He had to pick his way very carefully through a minefield in ways that she just doesn't." The shift extends throughout the party. In 1996, 32 Democratic senators supported the Defense of Marriage Act; last year, no Democratic senator voted against legislation guaranteeing equal workplace treatment for gays.
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With its buoyant images of same-sex and interracial couples, young parents, and Hispanic brothers speaking in Spanish, Hillary Clinton's announcement video could have doubled as a class photo for the coalition of the ascendant. "There is nothing in that video that says she is going to do the [Bill] Clinton bridge back to culturally conservative whites," says Simon Rosenberg, founder of the Democratic advocacy group NDN.
By contrast, on Tuesday at her first formal campaign event—tellingly held at a small-town Iowa community college—Clinton telegraphed an economic agenda (including expanding access to education and easing the work-life balance) that could appeal to working-class whites. Even today, Democrats can't entirely cede those voters. They remain the decisive voting bloc in aging, preponderantly white Midwest battlegrounds like Ohio, Iowa, and Wisconsin. Obama captured those critical states only by running slightly better among blue-collar and older whites than he did nationally.