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The Rise of the Biden Republicans


A Michigan state trooper is facing a felony assault charge after unleashing a… Survivor Quarantine Questionnaire: Darrah Johnson is not the 'quiet… There are unwritten rules that dictate how American politics works. Former presidents shouldn’t weigh in on quotidian partisan squabbles. An incumbent senator shouldn’t support a primary challenger running against a fellow incumbent. If you’re an elected official, avoid directly comparing yourself to Abraham Lincoln — show some humility and instruct surrogates to do that on your behalf. Never try to correct a middle schooler spelling the word “potato.” And if you want to take the pulse of white middle America, go to its de facto national capital — Macomb County, Michigan. © POLITICO illustration/Getty Images, AP, iStock Mag-Stanton-StanGreenberg-ledeEvery four years, as if driven by mainspring, presidents, those aspiring to be presidents and the reporters who cover them, return to the blue-collar Detroit suburbs to try out their messages and make sense of what’s happening in middle America. Presidents will visit the community college campus in Warren — where President Ronald Reagan famously declared, “I’m a former Democrat, and I have to say: I didn't leave my party; my party left me” and where President Barack Obama announced his ill-fated American Graduation Initiative, a planned $12 billion investment in community colleges. And thick in the campaign season, candidates will swing by local factories to make major economic speeches, as Hillary Clinton did in 2016; take shots at NAFTA and celebrate new trade deals, as Donald Trump did in 2020; and hold campaign-debilitating photo ops, as Michael Dukakis did when he donned a helmet and drove around in an M-1 Abrams tank. Reporters will talk to voters at the ubiquitous Coney Island diners, hold televised roundtables with average Joes at local bars and pry political chestnuts from locals wearing cut-offs and playing Euchre. © Bettmann/Getty Images Republican presidential nominee Ronald Reagan (center) holds his beer as he grills kielbasa in the backyard of Emil Petrie (left), a recently laid off steelworker, during a Labor Day barbecue withIt’s been this way since the mid-1980s, when a Yale-based academic and pollster named Stanley Greenberg turned his attention from studying the interplay of class and race in apartheid South Africa to try and explain what was happening in Macomb. In 1960, it was the most heavily Democratic suburban county in the United States. By 1984, it was landslide territory for Ronald Reagan. The population was overwhelmingly white and thoroughly middle class, largely living in tract homes and driving their cars to industrial jobs throughout metro Detroit. They were, by all appearances, Democrats. But they weren’t voting like it. Why not? After convening a series of focus groups, Greenberg coined a term for these voters — “Reagan Democrats” — and a theory of the case. In these voters’ eyes, “the leaders who were supposed to fight for them seemed to care more about the blacks in Detroit and the protesters on campus; they seemed to care more about equal rights and abortion than about mortgage payments and crime,” Greenberg later wrote. “The old politics has failed them. What they really want is a new political contract — and the freedom to dream the American dream again.” Macomb, he said, “is the site of an historic upheaval that has wrecked the old and promises a new volatile kind of politics.” For four decades now, that historic upheaval and the quest for the support of “Reagan Democrats” has defined American politics, from the rise of Bill Clinton’s “New Democrats” — which Greenberg, as Clinton’s pollster, had a central role in crafting — to George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism,” to Barack Obama’s poll-tested evisceration of Mitt Romney’s venture capital experience, to Donald Trump’s white-grievance mongering and tirades against NAFTA. After Obama won Macomb in 2008 and 2012, Trump captured it in both 2016 and 2020. Then something important happened: In leaning too hard into white identity politics — and perhaps being too focused on what he thought Reagan Democrats wanted — Trump accelerated the rise of a new voting bloc that is, in many ways, the mirror image of the Reagan Democrats. Call them the Biden Republicans. Like the Reagan Democrats, they’re heavily white and live in suburbs. But where the Reagan Dems are blue-collar and culturally conservative, Greenberg sees the Biden Republicans as more affluent, highly educated and supportive of diversity. Historically, they identified with the Republican Party as their political home. But the leaders who were supposed to fight for them seem to care more about white grievance and keeping out immigrants; seem to care more about social issues and “owning the libs” than about childcare payments and college tuition. They don’t consider themselves Democrats — at least not yet — but they are voting for them, delivering them majorities in the House and Senate, and making Joe Biden just the fourth candidate in the last century to defeat an incumbent president. Now, with the support of Biden Republicans shored up — at least for the time being — Joe Biden is embarking on an audacious gambit that’s gone largely unnoticed, but, if successful, could kneecap national Republicans for a decade: Recapturing the support of the Reagan Democrats. “Biden is very self-consciously campaigning for Macomb County-type, white working-class voters [for whom] race is not the only thing driving their vote, but who went to Trump [in 2016] because of globalization and their belief that Democrats are not fighting for American workers,” says Greenberg, now based in Washington, D.C., where he continues to work in political polling. “‘America First’ rhetoric was a part of Biden’s campaign. It’s still part of ‘build back better.’” And that puts Republicans in a strategically difficult position. “You have this battle kind of in the mainstream between ‘Reagan Democrats’ — who voted for Reagan, came back to vote for Bill Clinton, some voted for Obama — and a whole new set of voters brought in by Trump,” says Greenberg. In both 2016 and 2020, Trump brought in new voters — people animated by “white nationalism and racial resentment, and whose overwhelming motivation is a deep worry that Black people and immigrants will control the country,” and who are “voting straight-ticket [Republican] to ‘save the country,’” says Greenberg. But by courting those votes, Republicans risk pushing the Biden Republicans further into the Democratic ledger. © Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images Democratic presidential nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden walks between pickup trucks before delivering remarks in the parking lot outside the United Auto Workers Region 1 offices on Sept. 9, 2020, in Warren, Mich.Another option, of course, is to try and keep these new Trump voters active — which could be a major political gamble, especially when Trump isn’t on the ballot — and try to run up margins with the Reagan Democrats. One big problem with that: Joe Biden. Biden lacks the cosmopolitan appeal of Obama, but to Reagan Democrats, that’s a feature not a bug. “Obama was pro-globalization, and believed we benefited from it,” says Greenberg. “He would have been embarrassed to go see a company that was bringing jobs back from abroad to build in America. He would have been embarrassed to highlight that. But Biden will.” It’s Trump’s economic populism without Trump’s dog-sees-a-squirrel message discipline. “Trump voters, a large portion of them, want a welfare state that is dependable for working people,” says Greenberg. And Biden’s proposed $1.9 trillion Covid relief package could make a tangible difference in their lives. Do the Reagan Democrats stick with non-Trump Republicans if Biden’s Democrats deliver reopened schools, a strong economy, a huge investment in infrastructure and a $3,600-per-child benefit to families on top of a $1,400 stimulus check? For Republicans, Greenberg sees a reality not unlike the one Democrats faced when he first decamped to Macomb County: “They are going to have to lose a few elections before there can be a new dynamic within the Republican Party — just as the Democrats lost a lot of national elections before Bill Clinton was able to change the party.” How exactly might this all play out? To sort through it, Politico Magazine spoke with Greenberg this week. A condensed transcript of that conversation follows, edited for length and clarity. One of the key insights of your work identifying the “Reagan Democrats” was that these white, blue-collar suburbanites who were traditionally Democrats saw the party as increasingly detached from their political concerns — and instead aligned with people of color, academics and cultural “elites.” Was Donald Trump the endpoint of that shift? It’s hard to imagine a purer distillation of many of those components. You know, I’m not sure we understand all of the dynamics in American politics right now. You have this battle kind of in the mainstream between “Reagan Democrats” — who voted for Reagan, came back to vote for Bill Clinton, some voted for Obama — and a whole new set of voters brought in by Trump. And I don’t know how it’s going to play out. First, there’s one [level of this discussion that’s] about persuasion. If you look at the “Reagan Democrats,” they were dealing with their unions. They were part of establishment networks — you know, they would reject it in particular elections, but in most elections, they were aligned with what the big unions were doing. And Democrats were winning downballot, despite their problems at the presidential level. Then, overlaying the persuasion battle is this engagement and mobilization component. Trump came to lead a kind of Tea Party, anti-government revolt against “elites.” It really began in a revolt against Obama and the idea an African-American president and his coalition were going to govern forever as demographic trends accelerated and we became a younger, more diverse, more immigrant nation. Trump challenged that [assumption] and produced huge turnout [in 2016] by people who had not voted before. But that kind of reversed in a series of historic elections. The 2018 midterms had the highest turnout in the history of midterms, brought out more college-educated voters — suburban college-educated voters, not so much white working-class voters — and Democrats had a good year. And then the election of 2020 had virtually the highest turnout since William McKinley and the Populist Era — just a huge increase. Trump brought in all kinds of new voters in 2016. And I didn’t realize that he could do it again in 2020. In the voter-eligible population, there was like a 1-point decline in the percentage of white non-college voters between 2016 and 2020. Yet Trump increased turnout — their share of the electorate — by 7 points. That was done by bringing in new voters. The difference is [Trump’s] new voters are voting to “save the country” and solve the “demographic problem,” and they are voting straight ticket. Everybody else is kind of in between, [voting for some Democrats and some Republicans]. But they are voting to “save the country” from being this diverse place that has tolerant values and is open to immigration. And they’re voting for every Republican and against every Democrat, top to bottom. We’ve seen these big suburban shifts towards Democrats over the last few elections, but there are lingering questions about how long-lasting that shift is. What’s your read: Are Democrats “renting” these suburban voters, or “buying” them? The shift of college-educated voters toward Democrats has been going on from the election of Bill Clinton in 1992, up through Gore in 2000 and beyond. I had a fight with Rahm Emanuel when he was heading the DCCC: James Carville and I were arguing that the congressional district lines had been drawn with the standard assumption that college-educated and wealthier voters were strong Republicans, but that in fact, that demographic had flipped, and if you went a little bit further than just the races with the most resources being spent, there were many more competitive seats than people realized. We won control of the House in 2006. And we gained seats in 2008 — which surprised people. But that was because of this trend. © Photo by Mark Peterson/Corbis via Getty Images Stanley Greenberg in his office in Washington, DC, on May 18, 1993.Nothing has changed that; that trend will continue. Millennials and Gen Z have a much higher proportion of college [educational attainment], and they’re increasing their share of the electorate. The values of those voters continue to be aligned with Democrats — though I actually think they are more likely to be ticket-splitters. If you look at the midterms versus what happened in 2020, [Democrats] had a drop-off in support with them, but I think they were acting normally — whereas Trump’s new white working-class and rural voters were not. Many of them are new to the electorate and voting with a different kind of energy — voting straight-ticket to “save the country.” Anything short of that [level of support] is going to look like Democrats are just “renting” those suburban voters. But the Democrats’ new voters were being normal people who don’t vote 100 percent [party line]. So, you see that trend continuing? We’re not yet at the highwater mark for the “diploma divide?” I do, at least with those people who are normal voters — that is, who are kind of in and out of elections. But on the white working-class and rural side, what happened in both ’16 and ’20 was this [surge of] new voters who hadn’t voted before. So I have no idea what’s going to happen in the midterms. I can see one scenario where, with the Democrats in control, those voters are motivated even more to turn out in huge numbers to “save the country.” Or they could drop off as they did in 2018 or maybe even like they did in [the Senate runoff elections in] Georgia, where Trump was not on the ballot. Are these voters anti-Democratic Party? Will they reward what looks like it might be a successful Democratic administration in the midterms — which we haven’t had for a while? I have no idea. You’ve mentioned this sense, among certain Trump voters, of needing to “save the country.” Describe that. What animates that existential concern? Is it purely about race? Is it something else? Yeah, racial resentment is a very strong piece. I think we underestimate how powerful a moment it was when Barack Obama won and then got reelected. To this coalition, they view “Obamacare” as simply paying off his base of voters with big government payoffs to ensure a permanent Democratic majority. I think Obama campaigning in every election has given them the rationale that they have to vote. It’s why Trump made reversing Obama’s legacy — reversing everything Obama did — feature centrally in his rallies: Obama represented a whole changed America that they had to stop. That actually sounds a lot like an aspect of the “Reagan Democrat” dynamic you identified in Macomb County, Michigan, in the ’80s and ’90s. You wrote about those focus groups in 1995’s Middle-Class Dreams: These white voters “expressed a profound distaste for Black Americans, a sentiment that pervaded almost everything they thought about government and politics. Blacks constitute the explanation for their vulnerability and for almost everything that had gone wrong in their lives; not being black was what constituted being middle class.” Is that the same dynamic at play now, decades later? No. There’s a step in this history: In the end, these “Reagan Democrats” voted for Obama. It was competitive in ’08 and ’12, but when you listened to these voters, they decided Barack Obama was not Jesse Jackson: He was not a candidate they saw as running to represent “his people.” They thought he would fight for all Americans, and they ultimately voted for him — which is pretty astonishing. What they were most concerned about was NAFTA, corporations sending jobs to Mexico, CEOs enriching themselves and not investing in their own companies. They were incredibly focused on globalization. They were on the front lines of people angry about what was happening with corporate America, and were voting for Democrats — and for Obama, specifically — because they thought he would take up those issues. That competed with this racial dynamic. Obama benefited from it. But Trump benefited from it, too, because he ran on reversing all these trade agreements, and Democrats were pansies on talking about trade in 2016. Hillary Clinton was really for [the Trans-Pacific Partnership], and Trump was authentically campaigning against NAFTA, against TPP and was depicted as “fighting for working people,” which Democrats hadn’t done for a long time. Trade was key to that. It was a key part of why he was winning these voters — not just because of race, but because “America First” represented fighting for American industry and American manufacturing, and Democrats were about “globalization” and trade and were actually embarrassed to attack some companies for moving jobs to Mexico. That changed with Biden, by the way. Biden, when he came out of the basement — as Trump described it — he very self-consciously went right to these states first, and said, “I hear you. I’m listening. I’m not of that school.” He didn’t say the word “deplorable;” he said, “I’m listening to you.” And when you look at his economic plan, a lot of it was about “America First.” It was about building in America. It was about stopping outsourcing. “America First” rhetoric was a part of Biden’s campaign. It’s still part of “build back better.” Right now, polling shows overwhelming public support for Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus package. I’m curious how you read that. Is it a sign that the Reagan-era consensus about small government is over? I don’t think the Republicans are as disillusioned with Trump as polls suggest, but I do think there’s huge support for the relief package. Trump voters, a large portion of them, want a welfare state that is dependable for working people. The “Reagan Democrats” and these white working-class voters are incredibly pro-Medicaid expansion. Look at what happened in any of any of these Senate races in ’18 in states [with initiatives on] on the minimum wage or Medicaid expansion. The minimum wage and Medicaid expansion won by much bigger numbers [than the incumbents]. I mean, it won in Utah. To put a fine point on it: Do you think that the “Reagan Democrat” era is over? Is it still a useful lens for us to look at U.S. politics? Well, look: There is a kind of suburban, white working-class voter today who faces a lot of competing dynamics that are similar to the Reagan era. It’s globalization and the welfare state, and whether that is going to work for them. But there are also new voters coming in who are responsive to [appeals to] white nationalism and racial resentment, and whose overwhelming motivation is a deep worry that Black people and immigrants will control the country. For these new voters, that’s still issue number one; it’s not competing with trade. It’s the reason they’re voting. It’s the reason why they’re registering. But the Reagan Democrats were not Republicans. That was the piece that was central to them: They did not become Republicans. They were for Reagan, but they wanted to be for Democrats. And I think it’s still true that we still have a lot of these voters who had been voting for Democrats recently — whether for [Bill] Clinton or Obama — who also voted for Trump but aren’t Republicans. Do you see something similar at play now, with highly educated suburban voters who had long thought of themselves as Republicans now voting for Democrats, even if they don’t think of themselves as members of the party? Are “Biden Republicans” going to play a similar role in shaping politics in the 2020s? I think there’s two kinds of Biden Republicans — two trends. One of them is you saw quite affluent, very Republican towns [in suburban counties], and Biden got a very large percentage of votes from those counties. They are more affluent college graduates voting for Biden. Will they stick? They may, given how Trump is defining the Republican Party. And the other piece is that Biden is very self-consciously campaigning for Macomb County-type, white working-class voters [for whom] race is not the only thing driving their vote, but who went to Trump [in 2016] because of globalization and their belief that Democrats are not fighting for American workers. Biden is fighting for those voters, too. It’s interesting to see how Republicans are trying to respond to this political dynamic in the suburbs. Certainly, the GOP push on school re-openings right now seems directly like a play for suburban voters. Do you see that as a promising gambit for them? Let’s see how this plays out over time. I mean, if you listen to what they said at CPAC, the reason they think it’s wrong for Democratic states to get this aid [in Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus plan] is because they’ve been following health protocols and opening up their economies in a paced way to reflect where they are on dealing with the [coronavirus] crisis. These Republicans are Covid deniers who want to open up the economy. But what does this look like at the end of 2021? What does it look like after these places get their state aid? After schools are fully back in-person in the fall? Particularly if the economy is fairly strong — if Biden’s going forward with his infrastructure plans; if he’s going forward with his tax cuts and credits to working people; if there’s more affordable health care. What will politics look like when the schools are open and it looks like Biden’s been successful? You’ve noted that many of the new voters Trump brought out are people who see an existential battle for America — who see this as cultural and race-related. And that seems to be a real bind for Republicans: To win back some of these suburban districts, they may need to adopt a posture that’s less driven by white grievance politics. But if they do that, they risk turning off this segment of new Trump voters who might otherwise stay home. How do they navigate that? It’s like squeezing a water balloon — you get a grip on one part, and it gets bigger elsewhere. If you look at the trends in this election, [Trump’s campaign] was able to, like, wage a race war with a massive increase in turnout in the rural areas and among white working-class voters. But the percentage of eligible voters who are older than Millennials dropped by 8 points. So for Republicans to be successful with this strategy while going against that demographic trend, you need a continually animating and increasingly intense and effective effort to turn out the vote. [In 2020,] the percentage of millennials and Gen Z voters went up, I think, 6 points. About two-thirds of that was from the natural trend [of demography], but about one-third was from increased turnout compared to the midterms. And that’s a very diverse, more college-educated, group. And the Biden won them. There’s no way that’s not going to be a bigger bloc in the [next] midterms and, certainly, presidential election. How do you win if you don’t compete at all for those voters, and you animate their turnout — and do the same for college-educated voters who want a more open country? It’s just in contradiction. It’s interesting, when you look at last weekend’s CPAC straw poll, only 55 percent [of respondents] said they’d vote for Trump if the 2024 Republican primary was held today. People underestimate his [level of] insecurity about his hold on the Republican Party — which meant he had to command absolute loyalty and punish anybody who wasn’t for him. That will obviously continue. This battle is going to carry on within the Republican Party. He’s going to lead the party as long as he is alive and breathing — even if he’s under indictment or bankrupt, [he’ll blame it all] on the IRS and FBI; he’ll be a victim. They are going to have to lose a few elections before there can be a new dynamic within the Republican Party — just as the Democrats lost a lot of national elections before Bill Clinton was able to change the party. On the racial resentment component: You were Nelson Mandela’s pollster. Before your work in Macomb County in the ’80s, you were polling in South Africa during apartheid. How does that experience frame the way you see the politics surrounding race in the U.S.? Initially, I was an academic doing polling — but not on elections — and wrote very obscure books. I wrote a book [in 1980] called “Race and State in Capitalist Development” that has a cult following. When I started the book, it was supposed to be equally about Alabama and the American South, as well as South Africa, Israel and Northern Ireland. I got hooked on South Africa, ended up writing many more chapters about it. I interviewed business leaders, trade union leaders and leaders of farm organizations during the apartheid era trying to understand what they were bringing to the market. I was arguing that the decisions they were making were not leading to a breakdown of apartheid. The normal assumption was that if you had industrial development, capitalist development, it would lead to less racial division. I was arguing that, in fact, it will, for some period, exacerbate racial divisions before it undermines them. What I was trying to understand was: What were the rational decisions that people were making, coming out of this racial history that they all live with? How do you use that history? That meant [exhibiting] understanding and empathy when I’d go to interview the trade union leaders — some of whom negotiated and built into the employment structure a racial structure very similar to Alabama. They were making kind of rational decisions as trade unionists to limit competition [for their jobs]. But then in other industries, like government, unions were broader and more inclusive and tried to bring nonwhites into the unions. I had an empathy, trying to understand working people and the history that they live with when they make decisions, but also how their leaders made decisions — not just political, but within civil society and the economy. I think it’s part of why I was able to listen to Macomb County workers. I was arguing: If you bring them a thing they’ll agree with, like universal health care, these voters aren’t done with Democrats. They’re not done with Democrats if you are talking about universal issues that they can gain from. Even though [some of these voters] were clearly racist, I was not willing to say that there’s not something that lies behind that that we need to understand and that enables us to find a broader coalition and draws on their better nature. When I presented my stuff at the Democratic National Committee [meeting in Chicago in 1985], I was ostracized because I was saying that these voters had to be part of our Democratic coalition. That was a time when Jesse Jackson was competing [for leadership] within the Democratic Party. I was ostracized. It’s why I ended up working for the Democratic Leadership Council: They were willing to hire me, but not the DNC. [Greenberg’s work for the DLC ended up leading to his work for then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, who implemented the Macomb County findings in his messaging during his quest for the presidency.] How does the racial resentment you saw in studying South Africa compare with the racial divide you see in the U.S. right now? During the apartheid period, their fear was existential: the fear that only by maintaining this apartheid system could they maintain their way of life — and that, no, we couldn’t do this in pieces, because you once do, you began to chip apartheid away. I don’t want to put all the Trump voters in that world. There are a lot of them who haven’t been involved at all. They’ve been politically disengaged. But Trump has brought a segment of white nationalists in. That’s very real and that [apartheid-era fear in South Africa] does look like their world. But that isn’t true of all Trump voters. Prior to the 2020 campaign, you wondered whether Democrats were “ready to use government after this decade of anti-government tyranny.” Based on what you’ve seen so far, are they? Absolutely, yes. I’m actually stunned by how much consensus there is around using the government to really deliver for people. I think the Biden administration buys that. The gap between the progressive wing and the Biden wing — if that is a wing — is small. You look at the relief package, and there’s like one piece they’re arguing about. But if you look at what they’re agreeing on, introducing a child benefit— not just child care, but also a child benefit, which is more of a European kind of safety net — combined with a great expansion on health care, I think you’re dealing with a big change. [Full disclosure: Greenberg’s wife is Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), a leading proponent of the child benefit.] Right now, everyone thinks that government needs to deliver in a big way. I think that scares Republicans. And it will be interesting to see. People are going to see real benefits, not just the $2,000 stimulus piece, but something more enduring. If you look at the proposed $3,600 per child; that’s delivered [in installments] monthly into people’s checking accounts. That not only reduces child poverty; it’s virtually every middle-class person that we are talking about. Biden is willing to say, “I’m fighting to do this.” We’ve not had a Democrat… I mean, when Clinton ran in ’92, [his message] was very much about fighting for the middle class. It had a very populist and nationalist component to it. But [that was not the case] further into his administration, when [the virtues of] free trade was more part of the Democratic assumptions about the world. Obama was pro-globalization, and believed we benefited from it. He would have been embarrassed to go see a company that was bringing jobs back from abroad to build in America. He would have been embarrassed to highlight that. But Biden will. We’re looking at a very different time. At the start of every focus group, you ask people to fill in the blank in this sentence: “I feel ___ about the way things are going in the country.” How would you, Stan Greenberg, fill in that blank? I feel deeply, deeply uncertain and foreboding. I think we’re in a battle for democracy whose outcome is uncertain.


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