Can the Democratic Party Reconcile Two Divergent Economic Visions?

In the party’s bid to regain power, centrists and Bernie Sanders’s allies offer seemingly incompatible strategies—that target wildly different voters.

Senator Bernie Sanders among supporters at last summer's Democratic National Convention (Bryan Woolston / Reuters)

The distinctive pattern of public reaction to President Trump as he approaches the end of his first 100 days in office is sharpening the choices facing Democrats over the party’s road to recovery.

Though Trump’s agenda has unified Democrats in near-term opposition, clear fault lines have quickly emerged about the party’s long-term strategy to regain power. On one side are those—largely affiliated with Senator Bernie Sanders—arguing for a biting message of economic populism, which is intended largely to recapture working-class white voters that stampeded to Trump in 2016. On the other are party strategists who want Democrats to offer a more centrist economic message, aimed primarily at reassuring white-collar suburbanites drawn to the party mostly around cultural issues.

Sharp public polarization about Trump looms over this debate. As he approaches the 100-day milestone, a wide array of public polls shows that he retains an intense, even visceral, hold on the coalition of older, blue-collar, non-urban and evangelical whites who elected him. In the most dramatic expression of that connection, this week’s ABC/Washington Post poll found that 96 percent of adults who said they voted for him in November do not regret their decision.

But the same surveys also make clear that Trump is facing unprecedented resistance beyond that ardent base. National surveys consistently show his approval rating stuck at around 40 percent. That’s far lower than any other newly elected president at this point. His numbers are especially anemic among Millennials and minorities and far below the usual Republican performance with college-educated whites. Polls also show most Americans oppose many of his key policy initiatives, from building a border wall to repealing former President Barack Obama’s climate-change regulations.

These numbers suggest that Trump, who carried only 46 percent of the national popular vote, faces enormous headwinds in ever building sustained support from a majority of Americans. Indeed, he’s the only newly elected president in Gallup’s polling—since it started tracking presidents during the Truman era—who never reached 50 percent job approval in his first 100 days. Absent a perception-reshaping performance in a major crisis, Trump is likely to operate as, at best, a plurality president.

The Democrats’ post-election debate has mostly focused on how the party can win back blue-collar and older whites who defected from Obama in 2012 to Trump, particularly in the Midwest. But given Trump’s inability to expand his support, the more relevant question may be how Democrats can consolidate the roughly 55 percent of Americans who have consistently expressed unease about him. That question points the party away from Trump’s working-class base toward those white-collar whites (especially women), minorities, and Millennials expressing the most discomfort about his performance, qualifications, and agenda.

Whenever a political party faces an “either/or” choice, the right response is almost always: “both/and.” This Democratic crossroads is no exception. Geographically that means the party, in the races for both Congress and the White House, must regain ground in the working-class Rustbelt states where Trump outperformed other recent GOP nominees and the more diverse, younger Sunbelt states where he slipped. “In the long term, the future for the Democratic Party is Florida, Arizona, Georgia, eventually Texas ... and maybe Ohio goes the other way [toward Republicans],” said Democratic pollster Andrew Baumann. “But given the map for 2018, and even 2020, I think relying on just that and not fighting in those Midwest states is a mistake.”

Yet even while Democrats acknowledge the need to contest both fronts, they face genuine choices about where to place their largest bets. Matt Bennett, senior vice president at the centrist Democratic group Third Way, said the party’s principal opportunity is with white-collar suburbanites alienated from Trump. He points to the previously solidly Republican House district in suburban Atlanta where neophyte Jon Ossoff faces a June runoff election, after approaching 50 percent in a recent primary. “The obvious opportunity is in places like Ossoff’s district,” Bennett said. Those places “can deliver majorities [for Democrats] in the House and Senate and … the White House if we have a message that really lands.”

The Sanders camp envisions a very different road map. Ben Tulchin, Sanders’s 2016 pollster, said Democrats are less likely to recover by trying to court ordinarily Republican-leaning, college-educated suburbanites than by energizing Millennials and recapturing working-class whites with Sanders-style economics. “It’s much harder to win over someone who votes Republican consistently than someone who voted for Obama twice and voted for Trump once as an FU to the system,” Tulchin said. Sanders, tellingly, has mustered only minimal enthusiasm for Ossoff, who’s run a centrist, if not bland, campaign.

The risk in Sanders’s approach is that higher-octane economic populism may fail to dislodge Trump’s hold on working-class whites, while simultaneously alienating white-collar whites that Trump is otherwise driving away from the GOP. In 2018, Democrats can straddle this divide by nominating edgy populists in blue-collar districts and reassuring centrists in white-collar ones. But the choice looms much larger for 2020.

Any Democratic nominee will need to do better than Hillary Clinton at motivating the minorities and Millennials most hostile to Trump. But beyond that, the party’s next presidential primary could diverge between populists best suited to reconstruct a blue-collar coalition (think Senators Sherrod Brown or Elizabeth Warren) or choices more acceptable to white-collar suburbanites (perhaps Senators Cory Booker or Mark Warner). With Trump still connecting so deeply with much of working-class white America, despite all his administration’s upheavals, a strategy centered on rallying white-collar, younger, and diverse voters might seem the path of least resistance for Democrats in upcoming elections. But that, of course, is what Hillary Clinton also thought in 2016.