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. T