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Progressive Populists account for 44.6 percent of the electorate according to this study. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Progressive Populists account for 44.6 percent of the electorate according to this study. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

What Swings the Swing Voter?

Today,  a similar common denominator unites every identity group with every economic populist: All have much to gain from policies that address rising inequality

Les Leopold

According to conventional wisdom, the Democrats must appeal to middle-of-the-road swing voters in order to defeat Trump in 2020. Supposedly these voters want a moderate who “crosses the partisan divide,” “finds common ground with all classes and income groups,” “removes barriers to advancement,” “builds public/private partnerships,”  “works for the common good against all special interests,” “avoids the extremes of the right and the left,” and “shuns costly pie-in-the-sky programs.”

Wrong.

Mounting evidence suggests that the swing voter is one who faces the stark daily realities of rising inequality and all its related issues -- expensive or non-existent health care, astronomical student debt, unaffordable housing, and a generation’s worth of wage stagnation. As the New York Times recently reports:

The soak-the-rich plans — ones that were only recently considered ridiculously far-fetched or political poison — have received serious and sober treatment, even by critics, and remarkably broad encouragement from the electorate. Roughly three out of four registered voters surveyed in recent polls supported higher taxes on the wealthy. Even a majority of Republicans back higher rates on those earning more than $10 million, according to a Fox News poll conducted in mid-January.

This observation is further confirmed by a fascinating chart prepared by Lee Drutman ("Political Divisions in 2016 and Beyond") based on survey data from 8,000 Clinton and Trump voters compiled by the Voter Survey Group. A significant split emerged around two main clusters of opinion—economic populism and identity politics. (Unlike exit polls this survey is more than 10 times larger a sample and contains many more questions, and therefore should not be dismissed as just another poll.)

The horizontal axis shows the strength of the responses based on economic populism. The further left you are on that axis, the more you worry about inequality and favor redistributive policies.    

The vertical axis measures beliefs on what could be called cultural issues like gun rights, abortion, women’s equality, immigration, LGBTQ rights and attitudes towards African-Americans. The higher you are on that axis the more uncomfortable you are with these kinds of cultural issues.

Let’s call the bottom left quadrant, “Progressive Populists” who want both liberal social and economic policies. The top left are the “Culturally Conservative Populists,” who lean right on social issues and left on economic issues.  The top right contains all “Arch Conservatives” who are both socially and economically conservative. And the bottom right are the media darlings—“Culturally Liberal/Fiscally Conservatives.” (For more about this quadrant see “Beware of the Moderate Democrat.”)

https://www.voterstudygroup.org/assets/i/uploads/reports/Graphs-Charts/1101/figure2_drutman_e4aabc39aab12644609701bbacdff252.png

Here are the 2016 voter percentage breakdowns:

  • Progressive Populists account for 44.6 percent of the electorate according to this study.
  • 28.9 percent are Culturally Conservative Populists.
  • Arch Conservatives account for another 22.7 percent.
  • And a miniscule 3.8 percent for the Culturally Liberal/Fiscal Conservatives.

Dig in or Reach Out?

Jamelle Bouie, New York Times opinion writer, argues that Democrats should not be “fighting on the president’s terrain, trying to cast themselves as the authentic representatives of white working-class America.”

But if the Voter Survey chart is correct, that’s where the swing voters (of all colors) are, and that’s precisely where the battle will be waged again.

Every Democratic candidate will claim to fight both for social and economic justice. But this could become problematic for Biden, Booker, Gillibrand and Harris, who want to maintain their close fundraising ties with corporate Democrats.  As the New York Times puts it:

The left-leaning Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders are all viewed as less business-friendly than Ms. Gillibrand, Mr. Booker and Ms. Harris, who have not made taxes on the rich a centerpiece of their public pitches. In that sense the latter trio is following the example set by Hillary Clinton in the 2016 campaign and President Barack Obama before her, with comparatively establishment-minded thinking on progressive taxation.

It’s painfully obvious what Trump will and must do. There are not enough Arch Conservatives to elect him dog catcher. So he needs win over again the culturally conservative economic populists (top left quadrant). And the only way to do so is by fanning the flames of division, stomping all over social issues, and provoking the Democrats to debate Confederate monuments and bathrooms.  And then red-bait to hell any Democrat who dares propose big economic reforms.

Which way do we go?

The Democratic Party can never, and should never, abandon its deep commitment to the full range of social justice issues. Despite the Trump-led rise of racism, homophobia, and nativism, the rights of women, minorities and the LGBTQ communities have increased enormously over the past half century.  The Democrats should be given significant credit for the promotion and enhancement of these human rights. But the Democratic Party also must become, once again, the party of working people, and this requires taking on Wall Street and the billionaire class with bold economic programs – from Medicare for All to a Green New Deal.  

Those who worry about going too far on economic issues should remember the fire that FDR brought to the Democratic Party when in 1936 he took on the oligarchs:

We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace--business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.

They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.

Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me--and I welcome their hatred.

I should like to have it said of my first Administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match. I should like to have it said of my second Administration that in it these forces met their master.

Today,  a similar common denominator unites every identity group with every economic populist: All have much to gain from policies that address rising inequality, the stagnation of wages, the lack of true universal health care, the obscene levels of student debt and the ways in which both the economy and government are rigged by bankers and billionaires.

Forty years of runaway inequality have taken their toll. We voters are not a happy bunch. We long for candidates with FDR’s passion for fairness and justice, and we are hungry for the big ideas to get us there.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Les Leopold

Les Leopold

Les Leopold is the director of the Labor Institute in New York—working with unions, worker centers, and community organizations to build a national economics educational campaign. He is the author of "How to Make a Million Dollars an Hour: Why Hedge Funds Get Away with Siphoning Off America's Wealth" (2013).

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