Winning White People in the States

The last few weeks, the political discourse has been focused on a school of thought now referred to as “popularism,” a theory that Democrats can and should win by focusing on issues that appeal to broad majorities of the population, particularly the electoral middle, and by de-emphasizing other less popular and less salient issues. This framework has attracted two types of detractors: those who think that this approach prioritizes the wrong voters and those who think that talking about issues has little influence versus the emotions and values of voters who think little about policy in their daily lives.

As an organization dedicated to helping Democrats win in the states, we agree with Washington Post Dave Weigel’s contribution to the discussion. In a tweet, he indicated that these conversations about what Democrats should do and who they should seek to win rarely take the different demographics of the key states into account.

One of our greatest frustrations is that analysts and pundits seem to be talking past each other without looking at the specific states and state legislative districts where we need to win. Over the last four years, we have dug deep into the demographics of the must-win state legislative districts across the country. Here’s the simple fact: in order for Democrats to gain power in this country, we have to win more white people in the states. This article is the short story of that case. Over the next few articles, we will marry this demographic analysis with how a set of structural approaches and strategic campaign approaches can help us do that and help us engage and turn out our Democratic base more successfully.

Why It Matters

We have a bit of a bias. We think that state legislatures are pretty important. They are the center of American political power, determining voting rights, district lines, and, as 2020 showed, whether Americans’ votes will actually be counted. They are also the center of American policy. As policymaking on Capitol Hill has remain sclerotic, thousands of bills are passed in the states every year. Since Republicans control 62 of the 99 state legislative chambers, it means that Republicans broadly control policymaking in this country.

Our pathway toward building a more just and inclusive society depends on doing better. For every year we do not, the consequences are new voting restrictions, abortion bans, and economic policies that gut social programs to the benefit of the wealthiest few.

And let’s be clear, the last four years of renewed Democratic activism at the state level have been a disappointment. In 2020, Democrats lost seats and chambers on net, even in the most competitive states. So, we need to do something different to win. But who do we need to win?

The Data from the States

In 2020, five states at the center of the election who crossed the line for Democrats were Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. These five states represent, at once, the history and the future of the Democratic Party, spanning the Upper Midwest and the Sun Belt. But despite their differences in overall demography, the must-win state legislative districts share a few common features that define who Democrats need to engage to win.

Across the five states, Democrats need to win 23 senate and 44 house seats to take all ten chambers. Looking at the closest senate races from 2020 in those chambers, we see some clear demographic trends emerge.

Table. Demographic Trends in the 23 Closest State Senate Seats in Five Trump-Biden States

Districts with a Democratic Registration Advantage12 of 23 (52%)
Districts that are >70% White17 of 23 (74%)
Districts that are Majority Non-White1 of 23 (4%)
Districts where Non-College Whites Outnumber College Whites14 of 23 (61%)
Districts where College Whites Outnumber Non-College Whites by a 2-to-1 Margin2 of 23 (8%)

With just this simple chart, a few trends emerge. While there are Democratic votes to be had in these districts, the overwhelming whiteness of the districts cannot be ignored. In 2020, 72% of the electorate nationwide was white. The vast majority of these senate districts, and the must-win state legislative districts more broadly, are predominantly white. Unfortunately for Democrats’ reliance on shifting vote preferences among college-educated whites, there are more non-college whites in most of these districts, too. This bias toward non-college whites means that even in the districts with Democratic registration advantages, many of the voters are veering away from us.  

While the lines of these districts are set to change shortly, those changes will largely continue to entrench Republican incumbents, if not further gerrymander the states. So, the terrain is becoming less favorable, not more, generally speaking, and the challenge to win these sort of voters remains. We’ll need to win more of these voters, in more places, to regain power in the states.

So How Do We Do It?

We have established the need to win more white people in the states and that, winning in a relatively targeted universe of those voters could help us take power of perhaps the five most crucial states for Democratic power moving forward. If anyone has a theory about how to win, they should explain how we win in these districts in these states with these voters.

How do we think Democrats can do it? Over the next three articles, we will lay out what our work with over 200 campaigns across the country tells us are some paths to greater success in 2022 and beyond.