The Democrats’ Coalition Could Fundamentally Change by 2020

The voters who flipped the House aren’t uniformly on board with an ambitious progressive agenda.

Senator Elizabeth Warren is seen in silhouette giving a speech to a crowd in Queens, New York.
Senator Elizabeth Warren is seen in silhouette giving a speech to a crowd in Queens, New York. (Frank Franklin II / AP)

Though they’ve attracted little attention, recent public polls have sent clear warning signals that the ambitious agenda of the rejuvenated Democratic left could strain the coalition that carried the party to its sweeping gains in the 2018 election.

Recent surveys show that such prized progressive ideas as a government-run single-payer health-care system, tuition-free public college, and significantly higher top marginal income-tax rates hold the potential to starkly divide Democrats along racial lines. In polls, these policies have faced substantial skepticism not only from working-class white voters already drawn to President Donald Trump, but also from college-educated whites, whose recoil from him powered last fall’s Democratic wave in white-collar suburbs around the country. Support for these ideas is consistently higher among African Americans and Latinos, though in some cases equivocal even among them.

These findings underscore the stakes in the rolling Democratic debate about the best pathway for the party to oust Trump in 2020, particularly as his job-approval rating ticks up in several polls amid broadening satisfaction with the economy.

Liberals drawn to 2020 contenders such as Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are arguing that Democrats must advance a “transformational” agenda that can ignite higher turnout among minorities and young people while still recapturing some of the disaffected white voters who were drawn to Trump’s promise to disrupt the political system.

“We need an equal and opposite willingness to shake things up, but in the right way,” insists Adam Green, the co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which has endorsed Warren for the Democratic nomination. “Part of the case that progressives will make is not only is there zero tension between electability and bold transformational ideas, but bold transformational ideas that shake up the system are absolutely key to electability against Trump.”

Meanwhile, centrists attracted to candidates such as former Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Amy Klobuchar insist that Democrats must find a nominee and formulate an agenda that holds the support of swing voters, who are contented with the economy and may support some of Trump’s economic policies, but dislike his views on race and culture and find him personally unfit for the presidency. “You will never beat him on just turnout, because he does as good or a better job of [inspiring] turnout,” says John Anzalone, a longtime Democratic pollster who has advised Biden. “So you have to do both. You have to do great turnout with your base and also appeal with independents.”

The 2018 results offered evidence for both approaches. The big Democratic gains were driven by much-improved turnout, compared with the 2014 midterms, among young people and minorities; a substantial improvement in vote share among college-educated white voters, especially women; and a smaller recovery among working-class whites, especially in the key Rust Belt battlegrounds of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. While self-described independent voters narrowly preferred Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016, Democratic House candidates carried those voters by double digits in 2018, according to network exit polls.

The ambitious liberal proposals from Sanders, Warren, and several of the other 2020 Democratic candidates pose the question of how far the party can push its 2018 coalition without breaking it.

The latest Quinnipiac University national poll, for instance, found that a 52 percent majority of Americans opposed plans, which Sanders and Warren have both endorsed, to completely eliminate tuition at four-year public colleges and universities for families extending into the upper-middle class. It probably surprised few in the party that only 40 percent of whites without a college degree supported the idea, even though many of their children might benefit: Since the 1970s, Democrats have struggled to convince working-class white voters that they would profit from almost any new government spending. More striking was Quinnipiac’s finding that eliminating public-college tuition drew support from just 35 percent of the college-educated white voters who moved so sharply toward Democrats in 2018. Fully 70 percent of college-educated white men opposed the idea, as did a 54 percent majority of college-educated white women, the most Democratic-leaning component of the white electorate, according to detailed results provided by Quinnipiac.

In January, polling by the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation found that college-educated and non-college-educated whites converged in their resistance to single-payer plans that would eliminate all private health insurance. Kaiser found that just one-third of both groups said they would back Medicare for all if it eliminated private health insurance, as Sanders and Senator Kamala Harris of California, among other 2020 contenders, have proposed.

The new Quinnipiac poll similarly found that only about one-third of both groups backed raising the top marginal income-tax rate to 70 percent, as Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the progressive leader and freshman congresswoman, has suggested. Even fewer whites—only about one in four with college degrees and one in five without them—backed Sanders’s call to allow incarcerated Americans to vote.

All of these policies consistently drew much more support from the African American and Latino voters central to the Democratic coalition. In the Quinnipiac polling, about two-thirds of both groups backed free public college; about half of each supported a 70 percent top tax rate; and nearly three-fifths of African Americans and more than two-fifths of Latinos said prisoners should be allowed to vote. Support for a single-payer plan that eliminates private health insurance was also greater among these Americans than among whites, but still only modest: Just over half of Latinos and two-fifths of African Americans endorsed the proposal in the Kaiser survey.

That divergence—between generally strong minority support for these vanguard liberal ideas and much greater resistance among not only blue-collar but also white-collar whites—illuminates a fundamental fault line in a modern Democratic coalition that’s more and more dependent on upscale white voters, who are drawn to the party more for its views on cultural than economic issues. Those well-educated whites have moved further toward Democrats under Trump and express widespread doubts about his values, racial attitudes, and commitment to the rule of law—concerns that Trump may exacerbate as he escalates his blanket defiance of House Democratic oversight of his administration. But many of them, especially the men, remain dubious of expanding government too far.

Green, like others on the left, says that polls showing resistance to any particular liberal idea miss a larger dynamic. Big proposals, he says, will allow Democrats to do what Trump did effectively in 2016: convince voters that he will disrupt the political system on their behalf. “The issues become proxy for that larger shake-up-the-system sentiment,” Green says. “This idea of being ‘too far to the left’ on anything that takes on unpopular powerful interests, like Big Insurance and Big Pharma, is just a canard.”

But the Republican pollster Gene Ulm says that if Democrats veer left, they are taking a risk, particularly with well-educated suburban voters. Those voters are already cross-pressured between their personal “reticence” about Trump (Ulm’s phrase) and their satisfaction with the economy. Adding a historically ambitious liberal agenda to the scales, he argues, could tip those conflicted voters toward choosing Trump for a second term, especially if they conclude that the Democratic proposals will threaten the strong economy. “These types of issues definitely will decide where the suburbs will go, where white college-educated people will go,” he says.

Trump and other Republicans, Ulm adds, face a mirror-image threat. While many voters may feel that some of the solutions emerging from the revivified Democratic left go too far, he says, they do see the policies responding to legitimate problems that Republicans sometimes appear to discount. “Voters oppose the Green New Deal because of this crazy price tag and wacky stuff that it’s going to do, but it doesn’t mean they are against the environment,” Ulm says. “They oppose Medicare for all, but that doesn’t mean they are against people being able to have access to health care. They are against free college for everybody, but that doesn’t mean college ought not to cost less.” Voters, he adds, give Democrats “some credit for good intentions here.”

And indeed, other ideas emerging from the Democrats’ 2020 field have drawn consistent support across racial lines in recent polls. A majority of college-educated and non-college-educated whites, as well as preponderant majorities of blacks and Latinos, backed extensive student-loan forgiveness in the Quinnipiac poll. Lopsided majorities of all four groups in the Kaiser survey supported allowing more adults to buy into Medicare, as Biden, former Representative Beto O’Rourke, and other 2020 candidates have proposed.

Democrats are also on relatively more solid ground in proposing to rescind or restructure Trump’s tax cut: In a March Pew Research Center poll, about three-fourths of African Americans, nearly two-thirds of Latinos, and a slight majority of college-educated whites said they oppose it (although only about one-third of blue-collar whites said the same). And in contrast to the mostly negative response to the 70 percent top income-tax rate, Warren’s proposed wealth tax on the largest fortunes drew support from three-fifths of all adults in the Quinnipiac survey, including significant majorities of college-educated whites, Latinos, and African Americans, and a narrower majority of non-college-educated whites.

Voters have repeatedly demonstrated that if they believe presidential candidates care about their lives, they are willing to overlook disagreements over important components of their agenda—or even, as in Trump’s case in 2016, serious doubts about their character and temperament. But in choosing between candidates offering incremental change (such as allowing more Americans to buy into Medicare and reducing student debt) or revolutionary transformation (such as a government takeover of the health-care system and free four-year public college), Democrats will still be placing an implicit bet about the coalition they hope to assemble against Trump.

White voters in these new polls—including the well-educated ones moving away from Trump’s insular definition of the GOP—are flashing an unambiguous yellow warning light about Democrats’ most ambitious and expensive ideas to expand government’s reach. If Democrats barrel through that signal in 2020, they will be wagering that they can beat Trump with a very different coalition—that relies more on enhanced minority and youth turnout—than the one they marshaled to recapture the House in November.