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The 2010s Were A Complicated Decade For Democrats And White Voters

There’s an aphorism I like, that we are entirely new people from one day to the next, let alone a year or a decade. Whether, say, a novelist writes their critical scene on Tuesday or Wednesday could make a world of difference. Our minds change by absorbing images and things people say. We float back and forth between what choices are best — the human race wears a shade of gray most of the time.

That piece of wisdom has come to top of mind lately as I cover the 2020 presidential race. The beginning of this decade was also the still-early days of the tenure of America’s first black president. Barack Obama’s victory was made possible in large part by winning the Iowa caucuses; by clinching an early victory in the lily white state, his campaign proved to the rest of the party, and to black voters in particular, that white America was ready to vote for a black man. The decade is ending as a Democratic presidential primary begins, and though the field has been historically diverse, the contest looks more and more likely to produce a white nominee. Democrats seem to have changed their minds about something in the last decade. They absorbed new words and images (often pretty ugly ones) that made them think the country isn’t in the place to have a person of color in the White House. (Or at least none running in 2020.)

In the summer of 2017, seven months after President Trump was sworn into office, I wrote about something I’d observed among Democrats since his election. While there was talk about promoting candidates that share the life experiences of the voters of color who anchor the Democratic base, the politicians who were actually seeing real momentum were youngish white men. Among the rising stars that I singled out was the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg, who had made waves with his run for DNC chair in the months following Trump’s election. There seemed to be two distinct sides to the debate over how to win back the presidency: appeal to whites who voted for Obama and later Trump, or turn out those who stayed home in 2016, namely black voters. The former strategy seemed to be winning out, given the “safeness” of the young male candidates. They had fashioned themselves rhetorically after Obama, but their whiteness made them inherently less threatening to Trump voters. For what it’s worth, black turnout in the 2018 midterm elections was up 11 points from where it was in the 2014 midterms.

Two years later, it strikes me that Democrats are in the midst of an even deeper moment of preoccupation with white America. The party’s voters have expressed a preference for the most “electable” candidate, which has become a euphemism for a moderate who could win back Obama-Trump voters, many of whom are white. And you can see why.

Wisconsin, the tipping point state in the 2016 election, is 86 percent white. Whites make up over 76 percent of the country’s total population. And the Democratic Party bled white voters during the Obama years: In 2007, Pew Research found that whites were just as likely to identity as Democrats as they were to identify as Republicans. By 2010, a year into Obama’s tenure, whites were 12 points more likely to call themselves Republicans. The inflection point is hard to miss. Democrats have looked to states with large minority populations like Georgia and Arizona as a way to change their Electoral College fortunes, but forging a new path is never a sure bet; the old “blue wall” states filled with white voters must seem within grasp to many Democrats, if only they could find the right candidate with the right kind of campaign.

Sen. Kamala Harris was not that candidate and did not have that campaign. Her exit from the race last week was met with some surprise; in the wake of her announcement, Sen. Cory Booker and Julián Castro, imperiled but still in the running, raised the alarm about the potential for an all-white field.

In other words, it’s been another moment to talk about electability and who the best candidate to beat Trump might be. The good feelings about diversity and social progress that the initial field evoked — more women than ever before, more nonwhite faces — have soured. Candidates of color have struggled in the field, including with voters of color. Perhaps that’s because Democrats are worried that candidates of color might put off white swing voters.

And yet, as New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie pointed out last week, there has been a narrative that “wokeness” — often pejoratively used these days to mean an excessive focus on political correctness — rules the roost of the Democratic electorate. Candidates of color, with their very presence, seem to evoke this sentiment. By Bouie’s judgement, though, the “wokest” candidates have left the race (Sen Kirsten Gillibrand, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, now Harris) and the left-leaning Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders focus their progressivism on economic justice rather than social justice.

That the woke narrative has taken hold is unsurprising, though. First and foremost, there has been an actual movement of activists on the left seeking to shove the party to align with more progressive values on race, immigration and all manner of social reform. But there’s perhaps another reason for all the attention paid to wokeness, and it might have to do with another shifting political aspect of white identity: the increasingly leftward tilt of college-educated whites. And not just any college-educated whites — the ones that dominate the media.

A year into the primary race is as good a point as any to pause and reflect on the surprise we in the media have seemed to express about the strong showings of moderates like former Vice President Biden and Buttigieg. The media was prepped for a new kind of candidate — a woman or a person of color perhaps — but Democratic voters seem consistently behind white men. (Though Warren has seen her own strong showing at times in the race.)

Perhaps that’s because the media is so white — and so well educated. In 2018, Pew Research found that 77 percent of newsroom employees across newspapers and digital outlets were white. The overwhelmingly white industry is also largely college educated (though poorly paid).

If we use education as a proxy for social class (even though class is far more complicated than that), white Americans are in the midst of a radical political realignment along class lines. The conventional wisdom for much of the 20th century was that whites with a college education were more apt to vote Republican, and whites without a college education were more apt to be Democrats. But things have changed. Pew Research surveys show that as recently as 2009, white voters with a high school degree or less were evenly divided between Democratic and Republican affiliation. But in 2017, that same group was 58 percent Republican, 35 percent Democratic.

That realignment is discussed in “Identity Crisis,” John Sides, Michael Tesler and Lynn Vavrek’s book about the 2016 election. In it, they talk about the shifts of white America and argue it was informed by a greater awareness of the Democratic and Republican parties’ views on race. Trump’s campaign, which centered around nationalistic immigration views, only helped accelerate white Americans’ ideas of which party their views on race fit into. Pew Research shows that in the past decade, white Democrats are far more likely to call themselves liberal than black Democrats, and that whites in general have rapidly gotten more liberal on issues of race. They got woke, in the non-pejorative, original sense of the phrase: They were awakened to the way racial disparities play out in American life.

Add all these factors together, and the media’s surprise at the prominence of moderate white candidates in the race seems to make more sense; the changing world views of college-educated whites hold outsized sway because they occupy positions of power.

The 2020 Democratic primary won’t be the end of voters’ and the media’s preoccupation with what appeals to white Americans. The shifting racial consciousness of white Americans will perhaps dominate the next couple of decades of American political life. This may not be the 2020 primary that many in the Democratic establishment wanted, but it is the one that their voters have presented them with. A lot has changed since 2008.

FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast: Democratic primary, according to the early states

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.