Of the many happenings in the 2016 US presidential elections, one has often been overlooked: Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s extraordinary gains among upper middle and ruling class white voters. 

Party strategists wagered that positioning Clinton as the prime defender of the establishment’s interests would allow the Democrats to carry out a historic realignment. The path to a Clinton presidency, they believed, ran through wealthy suburban Republican heartlands. New York senator Chuck Schumer explained the calculation in a televised interview with Washington Post correspondent Dan Balz during the Democratic national convention: “For every blue collar Democrat we will lose in western PA [Pennsylvania], we will pick up two, three moderate Republicans in the suburbs of Philadelphia – and you can repeat that in Ohio, in Illinois, in Wisconsin”.

The manoeuvre almost paid off. Clinton gained 10 to 20 percentage point swings compared to Barack Obama’s 2012 performance in many Republican-held congressional districts around major cities. As Charlie Mahtesian, senior editor at Politico, noted last year:

“Trump … lost the populous close-in suburbs of Chicago, New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., home to the precincts that first heralded suburbia’s arrival as a political powerhouse. That wasn’t the real story, though. He was also defeated in other, later-blooming suburban giants, including Atlanta’s Cobb County and Southern California’s iconic Orange County, both onetime exporters of Sun Belt conservatism that occupy storied roles in the formation of the contemporary Republican Party …

“Never mind the places he lost. He also barely squeaked by in traditional GOP [Grand Old Party, a Republican moniker dating to the 19th century] stalwarts like Richmond’s Chesterfield County – the most populous in the state outside Northern Virginia – and Johnson County, the wealthy Kansas-side suburb of Kansas City. In many of the rock-ribbed Republican suburbs where Trump won easily – places like Waukesha County outside Milwaukee, and Hamilton County, on the outskirts of Indianapolis – he trailed well behind Mitt Romney’s 2012 pace.”

Some of these gains were down to shifting suburban demographics: the multiculturalisation of previously “white bread” districts. But more detailed data show that the establishment swings against Trump were even greater than they first appeared. Recent analysis by Ryne Rohla, a PhD candidate at Washington State University, found an average swing of 20 percentage points to Clinton in neighbourhoods that are at least 90 percent white with a median annual income of $150,000. In white neighbourhoods with a median income of $175,000, the swing was 30 points. In those with a median income of $200,000, it was around 35 points. 

And in the richest areas, she did even better. “The precinct data implies that Mrs Clinton’s gains were concentrated among the wealthiest voters; she carried precincts where the median income was over $250,000 by a 27-point margin, and improved by 39 points over Mr Obama’s performance”, New York Times election analyst Nate Cohen noted.

Clinton won the popular vote by nearly 3 million ballots. Yet she suffered the largest Democratic electoral college defeat since George H.W. Bush thumped Michael Dukakis in 1988 (the last time a non-incumbent Republican won the popular vote). The unexpected result sent analysts and journalists in search of the hows and whys of the Trump-quake. 

Chief among the hows were swings of 10 to 20 points in income-poor white neighbourhoods across the country. According to a 2017 Center for American Progress research report, turnout also increased 3 points among non-college-educated whites – a demographic that has significantly shifted toward the GOP since the election of Barack Obama. In several rust belt states that Chuck Schumer believed were a shoo-in, these two factors, among others, helped Trump get over the line. 

November storm?

The 2016 results are important for grasping the broader orientation of the Democrats to the mid-term elections next month. The party has a longstanding goal of wresting economically conservative but more socially liberal Republicans away from the increasingly far right GOP. “In the Reagan era, nearly every white suburban county outside the South voted overwhelmingly Republican … Democrats have made huge gains in the suburbs since the Reagan years”, Nate Cohen noted in 2014. “Bill Clinton defused old wedge issues by embracing welfare reform and getting tough on crime … Demographic change offered additional help to Democrats in many suburban counties, but Democrats made big gains in the whitest suburban counties as well.”

As Authors Lily Geismer and Matthew Lassiter wrote in a June Times article, the white middle classes targeted by the party are by no means left wing: 

“The political culture of upscale suburbs revolves around resource hoarding of children’s educational advantages, pervasive opposition to economic integration and affordable housing, and the consistent defense of homeowner privileges and taxpayer rights. Indeed, unlike traditional blue collar Democrats, white collar professionals across the ideological spectrum generally endorse tough-on-crime policies, express little interest in protections for unions and sympathize with the economic agenda of Wall Street and Silicon Valley …

“To explain the realignment of American politics and the migration of working class whites to the Republican Party, observers usually focus on how politicians from Richard Nixon to Donald Trump have exploited white backlash against racial and cultural liberalism.

“The flip side of this is the deliberate, long term strategy by the Democratic Party to favor the financial interests and social values of affluent white suburban families and high-tech corporations over the priorities of unions and the economic needs of middle-income and poor residents of all races. It’s no coincidence that the bluer [i.e. more Democratic] that suburban counties turn, the more unequal and economically stratified they become as well.”

While the pitch to the upper middle and ruling class didn’t win Hillary Clinton the Electoral College, the swings show that it was a success in terms of raw numbers. And Mahtesian noted that Trump won only 17 of the 106 wealthier and more diverse “urban suburbs” across the US. By contrast, Ronald Reagan won 92 of them in 1984. The problem for the Democrats, however, was that, while many Republicans shifted to Clinton, most stayed with GOP candidates in down-ballot races, delivering both chambers of the Congress to the conservatives. 

Now, the Democratic establishment is doubling down on the 2016 strategy, but this time trying to turn suburban Republicans away from the congressional GOP and win the House of Representatives. (The Democrats have only an outside chance of winning the Senate.) Writing in the New York Times in December, national political correspondents Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns noted:

“From Texas to Illinois, Kansas to Kentucky, there are Republican districts filled with college-educated, affluent voters who appear to be abandoning their usually conservative leanings and newly invigorated Democrats … who are eager to use the midterms to take out their anger on Mr. Trump.”

As in 2016, more donor funds are flowing into the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) than the respective Republican committees, according to the US Federal Election Commission. The GOP’s position is far from terminal among the super rich, however. Trump’s tax cuts and the promise of more, the slashing of government regulations and so on, combined with standing party loyalties, have given many in the ruling class something to rally around. 

Yet federal special elections results over the last 18 months have buoyed the spirits of the Democratic voting base. Their endorsed candidates have over-performed expectations by an average of 15 points in the dozen contests to date. Some of those candidates have challenged the GOP in very safe conservative territory. For example, in an April special election in Arizona, the Democratic challenger lost by 5 points in a district Donald Trump won by 21 points in 2016. Dave Wasserman, an elections analyst and editor of the Cook Political Report, tweeted at the time: “There are 147 GOP-held House seats less Republican than #AZ08. It’s time to start rethinking how many of those are truly safe in November”.

The Democratic lead on the generic ballot is 9 or 10 points – although Wasserman estimates that, because of political polarisation and Republican gerrymandering, the party has to win the House elections by about 7 points to claim a majority of seats. 

The possibility of a “blue wave” drowning dozens of Republicans is provoking debate. Why continue trying to win the “moderate” GOP, the argument goes, when there is ample evidence that an enthusiastic coalition of anti-Republican forces can win on a more progressive platform – particularly in wealthier multicultural districts? A September New Republic piece by Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at New America, a think tank, complained: 

“The average median income across districts that voted for Clinton but sent a GOP member to Congress in 2016 is just over $75,000. The average median income across all other House districts is just under $60,000. Arguably then, a simple math holds for the Democrats: to take back the House, they have to win wealthier districts. At what cost? How much will Democrats have to compromise the party’s liberal economic and social principles? …

“[I]n these pivotal suburban swing districts, the party has consistently supported corporate-friendly candidates who can raise tons of money (often because they have personal networks of wealthy friends and business associates) and who present a ‘moderate’ face to upscale suburban voters.”

Ruling class diversity

Drutman’s reference to the party’s “liberal economic and social principles” is dubious. The Democratic Party is a network of ruling class donors, apparatchiks and politicians in which the balance of forces leans heavily to the institutional power of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), the DCCC, the DSCC and other committees and associations, both state and federally based. It strains credulity to think that this nexus of capitalist power – a ruthless political machine that votes to lay waste to entire sections of the planet in imperialist wars, and backs the almost unlimited powers of the US surveillance state – would take a “progressive principles first” approach to winning power. 

However, the party hierarchy still needs to be receptive to public opinion. In the US, where social democracy never gained a solid footing and both parties are vehicles of the ruling class, “coalition building” is the dominant framework of electoral politics. This involves bringing disparate identity groups (often falsely deemed more or less politically homogeneous within themselves) – Blacks, Hispanics, Evangelicals, college educated whites and so on – into enduring yet unstable alliances with blocs of capitalists through a tactical offering of policy suites (and sweeteners) and patronage for “community leaders” who can get out the vote. 

Most parliamentary politics is cynical, duplicitous and opportunistic. But coalition building requires both more duplicitous and more accommodating approaches to draw various constituencies into the circus that is “big tent” Democratic electoralism. So there is space for left of centre politicians to build a following and force their way into a legislature. But unlike social democratic parties, there is, by design, no membership or union bloc with constitutional rights to discipline either the elected representatives or the party powerbrokers. 

The party hierarchy in 2018 is not shutting the space to a minority of candidates rallying the party’s progressive constituencies through calls for legislated higher wages, universal health care and other things, to be paid for by higher wealth and corporate taxes. Some of this is beyond their control. “Recent elections are bringing the largest crop of self-described socialist candidates in nearly a century”, Duke University law professor Jedediah Purdy noted in September. Several establishment figures have lost primaries to progressives building on, or riding the wave of, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders’ challenge to Clinton in 2016. 

Some of it is tolerated – the leadership understands that there is significant public support for more left wing policies and sees the value in the left finding a home in the big tent. The Democratic establishment is happy to have some left cred candidates mobilising support for the B-team of US capitalism. Indeed, the progressive left is one of the most important constituencies to mobilise: an asset for the party hierarchy banking on a wave of voter enthusiasm to lift them to congressional control. There are clear limits, of course, to what is tolerated. Bernie Sanders is a case in point. His was a New Deal Democrat challenge, not a serious left insurgency. But even that was a little too much for the DNC to bear. He faced internal sabotage from the moment his campaign gained momentum.

Heading into November, the Democrats have their broad coalition across the country. But under the cover of the tent, the party machine is building a new, elite metropolitan alignment to dislodge the Grand Old Party, become the A-team of US imperialism and reshape US politics for a generation. That might seem far-fetched, particularly at a time of political polarisation. But realignment has slowly progressed over the last several decades. With Trump in office, the Democratic establishment believes it has a chance to hasten and solidify its gains.