What Democrats Need to Understand About the Changing Electorate

How the president’s party can avoid a midterm blowout

A Biden sign outside of a house with an arid, western-looking yard
Cassidy Araiza / The New York Times / Redux

Follow the sun. That’s the advice to Democrats from a leading party fundraising organization in an exhaustive analysis of the electoral landscape released today.

The study, from the group Way to Win, provided exclusively to The Atlantic, argues that to solidify their position in Congress and the Electoral College, Democrats must increase their investment and focus on Sun Belt states that have become more politically competitive over recent years as they have grown more urbanized and racially diverse. “The majority of new, likely Democratic voters live in the South and Southwest, places the Democratic establishment have long ignored or are just waking up to now,” the group argues in the report.

The study, focusing on 11 battleground states, is as much a warning as an exhortation. It contends that although the key to contesting Sun Belt states such as North Carolina, Georgia, Texas, and Arizona is to sustain engagement among the largely nonwhite infrequent voters who turned out in huge numbers in 2018 and 2020, it also warns that Republicans could consolidate Donald Trump’s gains last year among some minority voters, particularly Latino men. “These trends across our multiracial coalition demonstrate the urgent need for campaigns and independent groups to stop assuming voters of color will vote Democrat,” the report asserts.

The study echoes the findings of other Democratic strategists such as Mike Podhorzer, the longtime political director of the AFL-CIO, in arguing that the Democrats’ best chance to avoid the usual midterm losses is to turn out large numbers of those surge voters next year.

“If all the consultants in the Democratic Party do is follow their same playbook, which is talking only to the most likely voters, or really focusing on white voters or white non-college voters, Democrats will likely lose,” says Jenifer Fernandez Ancona, Way to Win’s vice president and chief strategy officer. “The big message for us is that the core strategy of the 2022 midterm [should be] about engineering and expanding enthusiasm among this high-potential multiracial, multigenerational base that is really a critical part of the electorate across the Sun Belt states.”

Way to Win was founded by Fernandez Acona and the Democratic operatives Tory Gavito and Leah Hunt-Hendrix after the 2016 election to channel more funding from Democratic donors into organizations and campaigns that focus on voters of color. Their work, which they say has raised $165 million so far, has centered on Sun Belt states, but has also included investments in diversifying urban and suburban areas in other regions, says Gavito, who now serves as Way to Win’s president and CEO. Among the groups Way to Win has funded are grassroots organizations in Georgia and Arizona that are widely credited for the robust minority turnout that helped President Joe Biden flip both of those states last November.

The key analytical insight in the new report is its attempt to quantify the stakes for Democrats in continuing to engage the infrequent voters who flocked to the polls in 2020.

Using an analysis of voter files by the firm TargetSmart, the report studied the 64.8 million voters who cast ballots last year in the 11 states where Way to Win focused its efforts: a Sun Belt–heavy list that includes Virginia, Georgia, North Carolina, and Florida in the Southeast; Colorado, Arizona, Nevada, and Texas in the Southwest; and Minnesota, Michigan, and Pennsylvania in the Rust Belt.

TargetSmart projects that nearly 41 million of the voters in those states turned out in all three of the most recent elections—2016, 2018, and 2020—and that those dependable voters split almost exactly in half between Biden and Trump. Way to Win sees little opportunity for moving those voters through persuasion efforts, writing that they “are polarized, deeply entrenched, partisan base voters.” Only about one in seven of these habitual voters, the group concludes, might be genuinely persuadable from election to election.

Instead, the report argues that the Democratic Party has greater opportunity among less reliable voters. Despite Trump’s own success at energizing infrequent voters, the study found that in these crucial states, Biden actually generated more support from voters who turn out only occasionally.

Across the 11 states, TargetSmart calculated, nearly 13 million 2020 voters participated in just two of the past three elections, and they preferred Biden 52 percent to 48 percent. Another 11.1 million 2020 voters did not vote in either 2018 or 2016, and they gave Biden an estimated advantage of 54 percent to 46 percent. Looking beyond these infrequent voters, the study found that another nearly 25 million registered adults did not vote in any of the three most recent elections, and they model as more Democratic- than Republican-leaning in all 11 states.

These concentric circles of irregular voters—especially those who have now turned out to oppose Trump or his party in either 2018 or 2020, or both—represent the Democrats’ best chance of expanding their support, and contesting new states, in the years ahead, the report argues. “To expand the Democratic base with a durable coalition,” the report maintains, all of these infrequent voters “must be invited to become more habitual voters who consistently break for Democrats. Democrats cannot afford a scarcity mindset where we only talk to high-frequency ‘persuadable’ voters in 2022.”

Even as it flags that opportunity, the Way to Win study echoes other Democratic analysts who have seen signs through Biden’s first months that Republicans may be preserving the unexpected gains Trump recorded among Latino voters, particularly men, and even (though fewer) Black voters. “In some ways this is a clarion call and a warning sign because it means that we need more investment and more work to figure out what is happening in these communities,” Gavito says. One lesson that’s clear already regarding Latinos, she says, is that emphasizing “a traditional Democratic message that’s centered on racial justice” without delivering improvement in material day-to-day conditions is “falling on deaf ears.”

The Way to Win report arrives amid another spasm in the perennial Democratic argument over whether the party’s future revolves more around the emerging electoral opportunities in the Sun Belt or restoring its strength in Rust Belt states such as Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, and Iowa that have moved toward the GOP in the Trump era. That geographic argument also functions as a proxy for the party’s central demographic debate: whether Democrats should place more priority on recapturing non-college-educated white voters drawn to Trump or on maximizing support and turnout among their more recent coalition of young people, racial minorities, and college-educated white voters, particularly women.

On a national basis, white voters without a college degree for years have been supplying a shrinking share of Democrats’ total votes, both because those voters are declining as a percentage of the overall electorate (down about two percentage points every four years to roughly 40 percent now) and also because Democrats are winning fewer of them, especially in the Trump years.

But that national trend still leaves room for plenty of regional divergence that, in practice, commits Democrats to relying on both strategies, rather than choosing between them.

In the Rust Belt, party candidates have understandably devoted enormous effort to maintaining support among white voters without a college degree. That’s partly because in these states, minority populations are not growing nearly as quickly as in the Sun Belt, and those blue-collar white voters remain about half the electorate or more. But it’s also because a history of class consciousness and union activism has allowed Democrats to historically perform slightly better with working-class white voters in these states than elsewhere, even if that ceiling has lowered amid Trump’s overt appeals to racial resentment.

In the Sun Belt, non-college-educated white voters are both a smaller share of the electorate and more resistant to Democrats, in part because more of them than in the Rust Belt are evangelical Christians. (Although exit polls showed Biden winning about two in five non-college-educated white voters in Michigan, Wisconsin, and even Iowa, he carried only about one in five of them in North Carolina and Georgia and only about one in four in Texas.) Conversely, the opportunity for mobilization is greater in the Sun Belt—where people of color constitute a majority of the population turning 18 each year in many of the states—than in the Rust Belt. Given those political and demographic realities, most Democratic campaigns and candidates across the Sun Belt believe their future depends primarily on engaging younger and nonwhite voters—and the registration and turnout efforts led by Stacey Abrams in Georgia is the model they hope to emulate.

Fernandez Ancona says Way to Win isn’t calling for Democrats to abandon the Rust Belt, or to concede more working-class white voters to the GOP. Rather, she says, the group believes that party donors and campaigns must increase the resources devoted to “expansion” of the minority electorate so that it more closely matches the greater sums already devoted to the “persuasion” of mostly white swing voters.

“I don’t think it’s expansion versus persuasion: It’s that we have to prioritize expansion just as we have historically prioritized persuasion,” she says. “We saw that in 2020. It’s very clear: We needed it all.”

In fact, both Fernandez Ancona and Gavito argue, the entire debate over whether to stress recapturing more white voters or mobilizing more nonwhite voters obscures the party’s actual challenge: finding ways to unify a coalition that is inherently more multiracial and multigenerational than the Republicans’. Even with Trump’s gains among some minority voters, white voters still supplied almost 92 percent of his votes across these 11 states, the analysis found. Biden’s contrasting coalition was much more diverse: just under 60 percent white and more than 40 percent nonwhite.

“Sometimes we are missing the whole and we are not grasping that the multiracial coalition includes white people and people of color, and we have to hold that coalition together,” Fernandez Ancona says. “Thinking about the whole coalition [means] we have to find messages that unite around a shared vision that includes cross-racial solidarity.”

One of those messages, Gavito says, is boosting economically strained families of all races with the kind of kitchen-table programs embedded in the Democrats’ big budget-reconciliation bill, such as tax credits for children, lower prescription-drug prices, and increased subsidies for health- and child-care expenses. Those “programs are very important at this stage,” she says, to give Democrats any chance of avoiding the usual midterm losses for the president’s party, “that’s for damn sure.”

On that point, Biden and almost every Democrat in both the House and the Senate agree. But unless they can also persuade Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona to pass the bill, debates about the Sun Belt versus the Rust Belt, or white versus nonwhite voters, may be washed away by a tide of disapproval from all of those directions.