The Democratic Party Hits a Fork in the Road

Democrats can dodge a decision in 2018 over which voters they should prioritize. But by 2020, they'll need to make a choice.

The California senator Kamala Harris raises her right fist at an immigration rally in Los Angeles
The California senator Kamala Harris (Willy Sanjuan / Invision / AP)

LOS ANGELES—The brilliant sunshine that bathed last weekend’s immigrant-rights rally here also illuminated one of the central strategic choices facing the Democratic Party.

Almost halfway through Donald Trump’s tempestuous first term, Democrats are divided between two visions of how they can dislodge the Republican dominance of Washington and most state governments. One camp believes the party’s best chance will come from targeting mostly white, Republican-leaning voters who are recoiling from Trump on personal, more so than policy, grounds. The other camp believes the biggest opportunity is to turn out more voters from the groups most intensely hostile to Trump, in terms of both his style and agenda: Millennials, nonwhites, and white women who are college educated or unmarried. One camp bets mostly on persuading swing voters, the other on mobilizing base voters.

In practice, Democrats inevitably will need to do some of both. It’s a truism that whenever a political party seems to face an either/or choice, the right answer is usually both/and. That’s especially true in the 2018 midterm election. This fall, the party will be fielding dozens of candidates who subscribe to each theory, largely (but not completely) sorted between nominees who focus on persuasion in mostly white, Trump-leaning, or purple areas, and those emphasizing mobilization on more Democratic-leaning and racially diverse terrain.

But in the selection of their 2020 presidential nominee, Democrats will face a genuine crossroads. Few, if any, potential candidates would be equally effective at both energizing the party base and reassuring swing voters. Candidates who tilt mostly toward reassurance might include former Vice President Joe Biden, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. Those best positioned to mobilize could include Senators Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey, two younger lawmakers who embody the party’s growing racial diversity, as well as Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, two graying lions of the left.

Among Democratic political professionals, there’s probably a narrow majority that favors focusing on ordinarily Republican-leaning voters repulsed by Trump. However, the L.A. immigration rally was revealing because it showed the potential strength of the alternative strategy of mobilization.

Held on a cloudless Southern California day, the rally against Trump’s now-suspended policy of separating undocumented children and parents at the border buzzed with energy from the outset. The crowd roared when speakers denounced Trump’s agenda, not only on family separation, but also on other immigration issues, as a violation of American values and an open expression of racism. (“This is not about national security,” declared one local Muslim cleric who spoke. “This is about racial purity.”) Hand-lettered signs bobbing above the crowd captured both the antipathy and urgency that Trump has stirred in much of urban America. “Free the Children, Deport the Racists,” read one. “This is what fascism looks like,” insisted another.

Especially striking was how many young people the rally attracted. In the 2016 general election, Hillary Clinton saw a critical slice of young voters drift away to the minor-party alternatives of Gary Johnson and Jill Stein. And lately, Democrats have fretted about 2018 election polls showing Millennial voters displaying much less interest than older generations. But the rally drew a large contingent of young people. Virtually all of them whom I spoke with described Trump’s victory, and the support he has sustained in office, as a sobering wake-up call.

Having reached political awareness during Barack Obama’s administration, Emma Tehrani, a 23-year-old law student from Phoenix, thought the United States was on an irreversible path toward greater tolerance of differences in race, religion, and sexual preference. Then, the election happened. “I think a lot of people my age viewed the progress of the country as linear,” she said. “So it was definitely somewhat shocking.” Vanessa Guerrero, a 28-year-old from Los Angeles working in customer service, was equally blindsided. “I didn’t think people would actually believe him,” she told me. “I’m just in shock, and months later it hits home even more because I’m Mexican and my parents are immigrants.”

Tehrani and Guerrero, like other young adults I spoke with, said they feel more motivated to work against Trump now that he has viscerally reopened debates over equality and inclusion that they thought American society had settled. That determination could turbocharge Democrats: By 2020, the Millennial generation will exceed one-third of eligible voters, substantially surpassing the Republican-leaning Baby Boomers as the largest block of eligibles. Millennials also remain preponderantly estranged from Trump: In the latest Quinnipiac University poll, over two-thirds said he does not share their values. At the same time, the grudgingly slow improvement in Millennials’ voter-turnout rate continues to dilute their political impact.

It may well be the safest course for Democrats to choose a 2020 nominee whose primary strength is their ability to reassure older and mostly white Americans who vote reliably, but do not reliably support Democrats. A strategy focused on mobilizing less consistent, but more liberal, younger and nonwhite voters would likely require Democrats to accept some vanguard policy positions that could rattle swing voters. Signs at the L.A. rally, for example, called for abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, and speakers occasionally railed against the “imperialist, white supremacist … patriarchy.” That’s not a program, or tone, designed to soothe suburban voters outside Philadelphia or Charlotte.

But it was impossible to miss the kinetic energy at the rally when Harris delivered a short, dynamic speech that had the crowd chanting, “We are better than this!” as she denounced Trump’s immigration policies. Reassurance may be the path of least resistance for Democrats against Trump in 2020. But that doesn’t mean mobilization might not represent a better bet.