“For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia, and you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin.”
Since he made it four years ago, Chuck Schumer’s failed prophecy has become perhaps the most infamous summation of liberal hubris during the Trump era. Uttered with a confidence so ironclad it extended to particular states and voter proportions, the Democratic senator’s pronouncement would fall flat come election day: Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Ohio all fell to Donald Trump, as did Michigan, a longtime Democratic stronghold. Even deep blue Minnesota nearly turned red thanks to the very suburban voters in whom Schumer and Hillary Clinton had placed their faith.
Though Clinton did manage to win some more affluent suburban counties, the gains proved nowhere near adequate to offset her losses elsewhere. It was, quite simply, a calculated gamble that pivoting towards a traditionally right-leaning constituency would yield electoral success — and it delivered the presidency to the former host of TV’s The Apprentice.
The calamity of 2016 has not appeared to cure Democratic elites of their obsession with well-off suburban voters. In 2017, former Chicago mayor and Obama administration alumni Rahm Emanuel told the New York Times: “If you look at the patterns of where gains are being made and who is creating the foundation for those gains, it’s the same: An energized Democratic base is linking arms with disaffected suburban voters.” Earlier this month, he even predicted that 2020 would be “the year of the Biden Republican.”
Those working at the highest level of the Joe Biden campaign evidently agree with him. Much of last week’s Democratic National Convention (DNC) essentially read as a pitch to right-leaning suburbanites — many of whom have traditionally voted Republican. Both Colin Powell and Michael Bloomberg (who also addressed the DNC in 2016) were given prime speaking slots, and the party even dedicated a segment to the late Senator John McCain. John Kasich, who as Ohio’s governor attacked unions, abortion rights, and public education, was fittingly wheeled out on the first night to reassure viewers: “They fear Joe may turn sharp left and leave them behind…I don’t believe that…No one pushes Joe around.”
Kasich’s words, clearly addressed to conservatively minded voters, were part of a wider effort to pitch the Democratic nominee to Republicans the party hopes to peel away from Trump. Notably, as Jacobin’s Branko Marcetic observed, that effort came at the expense of messaging that might appeal to more traditional left-leaning demographics and constituencies — an imbalance which reflects the Biden campaign’s current strategy of securing victory by winning over disaffected conservatives.
Though it has certainly reached an apex during the Trump era, the Democratic orientation toward would-be Republican moderates wasn’t pioneered by Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine. Democratic strategists have been trying for years to carve out a slice of conservatively inclined suburban voters who they calculate can be won over with center-right economic policies and messaging. A 2017 Times report succinctly summed up the essence of this strategy:
“Democrats have dreamed for years of peeling away the rings around major cities, separating suburban voters who favor conservative tax and economic policies from a Republican Party that also champions harder-right positions on abortion, guns and gay rights.”
In a notable addendum, the authors observed: “So far, that effort has gained Democrats few seats.”
Since 2016, the Democrats’ wealthy suburbanite electoral fetish has taken on a new valence thanks to the so-called Never Trump conservatives, who have earned a prominent place in the liberal mediasphere with their superficial condemnations of the president. The seductive fiction of a righteous Republican opposition in exile has become one of liberalism’s foundational myths during the Trump era, and may serve to bolster a strategy that has already once failed spectacularly to achieve its intended result.
The inherently conservative nature of pitching the Democratic Party to traditionally right-leaning constituencies notwithstanding, 2016 should be reason enough to doubt the electoral merits of such outreach. Recent polling should also give Democratic strategists pause. According to a survey published this week by CBS, Trump made gains in six critical swing states in the immediate aftermath of a DNC pitched explicitly to suburban and Republican voters.
As progressive strategist Waleed Shahid pointed out, the same poll found that the proportion of Republicans planning to support Biden (5%) is currently lower than the number who voted for Clinton (7%) or Obama (8% and 6% in 2008 and 2012, respectively). In another ominous development, Biden’s support among independents has also fallen in CBS’s polling since July.
Some liberals are liable to dismiss these developments given the national lead Biden maintains in the same survey and the (relatively small) margins he apparently commands in states like Florida, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. But as in 2016, the chosen Democratic strategy is betting heavily that an influx of right-leaning and affluent suburban voters will take the party’s ticket over the line. And, as in 2016, there’s cause to believe the desired swing will never come — and that it may demoralize and demobilize more essential Democratic constituencies in the process.
The Democratic elite’s suburban obsession ultimately reflects the essential contradictions of a party that for too long has awkwardly tried to fuse centrist managerial politics with progressive branding, and cobble together coalitions of voters whose values and interests are fundamentally opposed. In 2020, the raw and well-deserved hatred of Donald Trump throughout the country may be enough to secure victory in spite of them. Democrats did recapture the House in 2018 (and 2006) in wave elections, and some of America’s affluent suburbs did flip blue.
But make no mistake: the Biden strategy of appealing to Republicans to beat Donald Trump has already been tried once at the presidential level and failed. By attempting it a second time, Democrats may well be courting disaster.