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.