Expert Speak Atlantic Files
Published on Sep 17, 2020
While Trump attempts to expand his base from blue-collar whites to suburban white voters, Biden’s courtship of that crucial voting block stands eclipsed by his focus on the progressives  
Understanding Trump and Biden’s courtship of the white voter 

According to census projections, the United States is set to be a majority-minority nation by 2045, with racial minorities emerging as the “primary demographic engine of the nation’s future growth.” However, the electoral relevance of the white voter is expected to hold over the coming years.

The “minority white” scenario of 2045 suggests whites would gradually shrink to 49.7 percent of the US population. However, the “power of white voters” over the Electoral College due to their composition of swing states would continue. Whereas, the diverse multiracial majority (of 24.6 percent Hiics, 13.1 percent African Americans, 7.9 percent Asians, and 3.8 percent Others) may not consolidate cumulatively under one catch-all political agenda. Moreover, they would have a lesser impact on the Electoral College as they are mostly concentrated in urban centres that tend to be liberal anyway. In recent times, whites have also steadily moved away from the Democratic Party in large-parts owing to the Republican Party’s hardening stance on immigration. Moreover, in a sign of there being greater scope for racial polarisation, a study revealed that 64 percent of white Democrats “believe that immigrants take jobs away from Americans” — leaving them open to be courted by continued anti-immigration positions by Republicans.

Both factors were pivotal in the 2016 election, with the five battleground states (Michigan, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Florida) that propelled Donald Trump to the White House being 73 percent white. And, the then-Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton witnessing the further defection of whites with Trump winning the demographic by a 20 point-margin (58-37) — particularly with its working-class subset galvanising around Trump’s linking of the hollowing-out of America’s industrial base to Washington’s globalist pursuit of free trade and immigration.

Trump’s suburban gamble

According to polls from early this year, Trump continued to hold onto his core base of white working-class men “which he won by nearly 50 points” and white non-college-educated women, “who Trump carried by 27 points in 2016.” The prevalence of Trump’s 2016 image as the champion of the 'little guy' seemed to only be reinforced by his administration’s record of renegotiating trade deals like NAFTA for increased market-access, the ‘Phase One’ deal on China increasing its imports by US$ 200 billion, protection of energy and manufacturing jobs under the Energy Dominance and Buy American policies, and executive actions on legal and illegal immigration. However, with the downturn in the US economy and rise in unemployment, recent reports suggest the white working-class could pivot away from Trump.

Nevertheless, Trump continues to campaign in crucial blue-collar states like Michigan, to assert that his Democratic opponent Joe Biden would “outsource American jobs and surrender America's future to China”. However, his campaign’s focus on complementing their appeal across the Rust Belt states with affluent whites residing in suburban areas is apparent. The rationale for courting suburban counties that are two-thirds white also stems from the experience of the 2018 midterm elections, when they broke from their 2016 voting patterns to propel Democrats to take control of the US House of Representatives. Wherein, Republicans lost over three dozen Congressional districts, with sub-urbans backing Democrats by an 11-point margin.

For 2020, Trump’s courtship of the suburban whites, encompasses his promise to protect American suburbs in-line with his “law and order” messaging against violent protests that have ensued recently. In invoking racial anxieties, Trump has even warned that Biden would pursue a “dystopian vision of building low-income housing units next to your suburban house.” Moreover, given the central role of suburban women in the 2018 scenario, Trump has directed his assertion over Democrats wanting to “destroy the beautiful suburbs” at the “suburban housewife”.

This outreach also pertains to Trump’s announced opposition to the “left-wing cultural revolution” — referring to the excesses of the left’s “cancel culture” spurring the defacement of memorials, demand for renaming military bases, etc. On combatting institutional racism, the same has found relevance in the reemergent Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement’s call to “defund the police”, as a means to pursue police reform through redirecting their funds to social security programmes and limiting the scope of police duties. Although this has sparked some warranted discussions, Trump has rallied conservatives by asserting that "Biden wants to defund the police”. This has direct bearing on Trump’s electoral prospects in the suburbs, as 55 percent of whites said that “the anger of the BLM protests was fully justified.” However, 58 percent of “suburban voters opposed reducing funding for police”.

As a result, Mark and Patricia McCloskey, a white couple who recently courted controversy for brandishing guns at BLM protesters outside their home in St. Louis, were given a prominent speaking slot at the Republican National Convention. With their address over safety of suburban neighbourhoods also seeping into the conservatives’ long-standing defence of the Second Amendment and citizens’ right to defend their property, the expansion of Trump’s base into the suburbs seems to be at the heart of the incumbent’s reelection strategy.

Biden’s misplaced priorities

One would have hoped for the Democratic ticket in 2020 to have learnt its lesson from 2016, of not being dismissive of the white working-class, as with Hillary Clinton’s infamous labelling of Trump’s hinterland supporters as “a basket of deplorables”. Commentators often attribute that comment to have been perceived as embodying a "disdain for the white working class" underscored by urban Democrats' cultural arrogance. Arguably, this cost Clinton the presidency as about one-third of the nearly 700 working-class counties that twice voted for Obama defected to Trump.

However, the Biden campaign, instead of focusing on not repeating that mistake, seems to be consumed by the so-called “young voter problem”. Wherein, a concern of being unfavourable to the young progressive stems from scepticism over Biden being a 77 year-old presidential candidate, despite the fact that Sen. Bernie Sanders — the poster-boy of the progressives, is 79 years old. The source of tension between the American youth and Biden is also attributed to his political legacy of emphasising centrist positions over progressives ideas. Wherein, Biden’s voting record from his time in the US Senate does not sit well with the young voter.

Some cases in-point being, his vote in favor of a 1994 crime bill that disproportionately impacted minorities and his vote for the Iraq War. Moreover, recent instances like Biden urging Democrats to not be "too woke", dismissing the backlash against his handling of the Clarence Thomas hearings, and allegations of sexual misconduct have only contributed to this youth disconnect. Hence, the Biden campaign has been focusing on courting this “Whole Foods bubble” — a loose section of the electorate that is young, college-educated, and are most often products of socio-economic privilege. While this demographic could account for nearly 40 percent of the electorate, the youth has consistently underperformed when it comes to actually casting votes. Moreover, they are concentrated in states like California and Massachusetts, where they constitute over half of the electorate. Whereas, in battleground states like Florida and Pennsylvania, they account for about a third, and in Wisconsin and Michigan less than a fifth of the electorate.

As a result, even if young voters come out in full-swing to vote for Biden, it won't be enough to secure the Electoral College. Whereas, the white working-class form the backbone of the Electoral College. Hence, Democratic strategist James Carville recently said, “If you want to win back loggers in northern Wisconsin, stop talking about pronouns and start talking more about corruption in Big Pharma”.

However, at the Democratic National Convention, Biden’s speech on accepting the Democratic nomination did not cover issues plaguing the white working-class, like the opioid epidemic, outsourcing of jobs, and China’s unfair trade practises hurting businesses. This disconnect between Democrats and the white working-class is relatively nascent, as until the mid-90s, they found common cause with Democrats because they viewed the Republicans as the party of “rich people” and “Bible thumpers”.

Now, despite there being evident political sore-points against Trump, like his trade war hurting America’s argo-industry or his tax cuts for the wealthy, Biden seems to be squandering the opportunity by focusing on courting progressives who seem to be less enthusiastic to rally behind him despite consistent efforts. Hence, the 2020 election for Democrats could once again be a matter of a white backlash, or “whitelash”.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


Kashish Parpiani

Kashish Parpiani

Kashish Parpiani was Fellow at ORFs Mumbai centre. His interests include US-India bilateral ties US grand strategy and US foreign policy in the Indo-Pacific.

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Prithvi Iyer

Prithvi Iyer

Prithvi Iyer was a Research Assistant at Observer Research Foundation Mumbai. His research interests include understanding the mental health implications of political conflict the role ...

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