Bad News and Some Good From a New 50-State Poll: Third Party Candidates Are Hurting Clinton
We are all of us drowning in polls, but The Washington Post’s poll of each of the individual 50 states, posted online on Tuesday and presented in a special section of the paper’s print edition Wednesday, is something else again. The survey of 74,000 voters, compiled from August 9 through September 1, offers us two things that most national polls don’t: A window on the broader future of American politics, and a clear picture of how the third-party candidacies of Libertarian Gary Johnson and Green Jill Stein are affecting this year’s race.
First, to this year’s election and the curious role of the third parties: By presenting numbers for all the states, the Post poll makes clear that the Johnson and Stein candidacies pose a bigger problem for Clinton than they do for Trump. In nine swing states—Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas (whose voters, in the Post poll, are evenly split between Clinton and Trump), and Virginia—Clinton’s share of the vote in a four-candidate race declines from its level in a two-candidate race by a bigger margin than Trump’s does. In those nine states, her share drops by 1, 2, or 3 percentage points more than his. In three other swing states—Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin—the two candidates’ percentages decline by equal amounts. In not a single swing state does Trump’s decline exceed Clinton’s when the other two candidates are factored in.
In every one of those dozen swing states, Johnson is polling roughly three times the percentage that Stein is getting—on average, about 12 percent to her 4 percent. In every one of those states, Clinton’s decline exceeds the percentage of pro-Stein voters, meaning some number of Clinton’s supporters when she’s pitted only against Trump go not for Stein but for Johnson when the field is expanded. It’s reasonable to infer that she’s losing those votes not for reason of ideology but because some voters have doubts about Clinton’s conduct and character—at least, as the media have presented them for several decades—and see Johnson, who is largely a tabula rasa to most voters, as a non-ideological alternative (which by any measure he’s not) to both Clinton and Trump. For that matter, we can’t assume that some Stein supporters don’t have similar motivations—that their reluctance to vote for Clinton may be less about Stein’s progressivism than about their distaste for Clinton’s persona.
Indeed, one oddity of this race is that the two candidates of the presumably fringe parties on the left and right are receiving much of their support less because voters are flocking to them for their programs and policies, and more because they dislike the temperaments and characters of the two main candidates. Trump’s temperament isn’t going to change, any more than the leopard will become spotless. Clinton’s image may improve somewhat as a result of her debate performances, but the media’s magnification of her flaws is unlikely to abate between now and Election Day.
There is only so much Clinton can do to win the support of those who’d back her were it just a two-candidate race. So far, her pronouncements on domestic and economic policy reflect the decidedly progressive platform that the Democrats adopted at their convention, many of its planks coming straight from Bernie Sanders’s campaign. Clinton clearly understands that these positions—a higher minimum wage, opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, free public college tuition, and the like—play well on both the middle and the left of the spectrum, and may give her a shot at reclaiming some voters who now support Stein. To the extent that she’s played to the center since the convention, it’s been on foreign policy, contrasting both her positions and her experience with Trump’s. The Republicans who have publicly endorsed her have come chiefly from the GOP’s foreign policy shops, and she’s probably right if her assumption is that their backing makes it more acceptable for college-educated professionals who normally vote Republican to cross over to back her. She may well be right if she also assumes that she’ll win over more of those voters by taking those positions than she’ll lose on the left.
But staunching defections on the left probably hinges less on any policy, and more on progressive voters’ fear of a Trump victory. In the 1948 election, early polling showed that Progressive Party nominee and former FDR vice-president Henry Wallace would take a sizable chunk of votes from Democratic President Harry Truman, but Wallace’s numbers shrank as Election Day approached, and he eventually claimed just 2.4 percent of the vote. If Clinton is to pull votes from Stein and Johnson’s columns—something that the Post poll makes clear she needs to do—it will chiefly be due to the completely rational terror that a looming Trump presidency inspires in voters as the day of electoral judgment draws nigh.
Now to the future: The most striking aspect of the Post’s state-by-state polls is the degree to which racial composition—and by extension, the level of immigration—is shaping and likely will continue to shape American politics. When Michigan and Wisconsin—longtime Democratic strongholds but also Rust Belt states with few immigrants and a disproportionately high share of white working-class voters—give Clinton a mere two-point edge, something is happening. When Texas (in which more than 5,000 people were polled) and Arizona—longtime Republican bastions, but with massive numbers of Latino residents and immigrants—comes in with numbers all but identical to Michigan’s and Wisconsin’s (Clinton has a one-point lead in each), something even more remarkable is happening.
The Texas figures in particular are mind-boggling. To be sure, Texas and California had the identical share of Latino residents last year (38.5 percent), but Texas is the anchor state of the GOP’s Electoral College bloc, just as California anchors the Democrats’. California Latinos, however, vote in greater numbers than their Texas counterparts and vote more Democratic as well—partly because the state’s labor movement has done massive political outreach to the Latino community, while Texas barely has a labor movement to speak of. California is also home to far more Asian Americans than Texas, and its white voters, particularly in the Bay Area and Los Angeles, are well to the left of Texas whites (it’s almost impossible to be to the right of Texas whites, Austin to the contrary notwithstanding).
But if we’re to believe the Texas polling is even within five points of being accurate, the specter of a Trump presidency has apparently roused Latino voters as never before, while also alienating college-educated whites who customarily vote Republican. Moreover, Texas is just one of a number of Southern or Southwestern states with sizable minority or immigrant populations that are surprisingly close in the Post’s survey. Arizona, Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina all either give Clinton a tiny lead or are tied, while Mississippi (!) gives Trump just a two-point edge. All four of those other states (not Mississippi) have seen substantial immigration and, in the case of Georgia and North Carolina, sizable growth in the college-educated populations in their major cities. As for Mississippi, the state is 37.6 percent African American, a bloc that, like Latinos in Texas, has apparently heard the alarm bell in the night.
Taken as a whole, the Post’s numbers seem to confirm the thesis of John Judis and Ruy Teixeira’s 2002 book The Emerging Democratic Majority (which was initially excerpted in the Prospect). Judis and Teixeira predicted—correctly—that the rising share of immigrants and college-educated professionals would soon tip the electorate decisively toward the Democrats. What they didn’t predict—what no one predicted—was the continued erosion of Democratic support in the white working class, which at the time they wrote was a fait accompli in the South but not yet a decisive factor in the Midwest.
It is now, as the Post’s numbers in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio (where Trump holds a three-point lead) clearly suggest. The decline of white working-class support for the Democrats has engendered a debate as to its causes: whether it’s due to the declining economic condition (and, indeed, life expectancy) of working-class whites, or to their racial and cultural resentment at the rising number of minorities and the programs the Democrats have championed for the past 50 years to help them. Clearly, the cause isn’t simply one or the other. The sense of abandonment that many working-class whites feel is rooted both in economics and culture. It’s worth noting, however, that even at the height of the United Auto Workers’ power in Michigan, as far back as 60 years ago and more, it could persuade its white members to vote for Democrats for state and federal office, where economic policies were formulated and implemented, but never could persuade them to vote Democratic for Detroit city officials, who held sway over policing, school and housing policies—that is, over the policies with the greatest impact on race relations and discrimination.
Still, the presidential contest is for a federal office with huge power over economic policy. Shouldn’t unions be moving their white members toward Clinton? They probably are: The AFL-CIO released survey data yesterday that showed Trump is polling just 36 percent among its members in five swing states (Florida, Nevada and three in the Midwest: Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin). That, of course, is a survey of all its members, not just its white working-class members, whose level of Trump support is certainly higher than these aggregate totals. But more important than the preferences of these union members is the preferences of non-members who would have been members before the near collapse of private-sector unionism—that is, before corporations abandoned their employees for cheaper labor in China, before American management began to oppose and thwart unionization all across the private sector, and before a number of these states (Wisconsin and Michigan most notably), under Republican government, went right-to-work. In 2015, just 15.2 percent of the Michigan workforce was unionized, just 12.3 percent of Ohio’s, and just 8.3 percent of Wisconsin’s—all states where close to 40 percent of the private sector workforce was unionized in the mid-20th century.
The AFL-CIO’s Working America program, which goes door to door in white working-class neighborhoods to talk with non-union voters, does yeoman work, but there’s no question that unions’ capacity to reach and impact the kind of voters they once had as members isn’t what it used to be. Looking at exit polling since the early 1970s, white working class union members have tended to vote Democratic at a rate 20 points higher than their non-union counterparts—a tribute to the unions’ ability to get its white members to consider economic issues, not just what for some is their racial fear and loathing. Looking at the numbers in the Post’s poll, then, one explanation for the surprisingly high level of Trump support in the Midwest—beyond the purely economic or racial—is the declining level of unionization.
However large a role white racism is playing in this year’s election—and the evidence suggests it isn’t small—what the Post poll illustrates is the degree to which racial composition is playing a decisive role in many states. In those states to which immigrants have flocked since 1980, Clinton is doing better than Democrats have done before; in the states that immigrants have largely shunned, most particularly where the white working-class share of the population has remained high, Trump is doing better than Republicans have done before. Trump’s candidacy has clearly mobilized both minorities (con) and working-class whites (pro) in greater numbers than we’ve seen in previous elections, but the movement of these two constituencies into the Democratic and Republican camps, respectively, didn’t begin with this election and won’t end with it.
It’s hard to envision what changes the Republicans are likely to make that will win them a substantial share of minority voters, since the party has been trending in a white nationalist and xenophobic direction for many years, and isn’t likely to transform the racial attitudes and provincialism of its base voters. And unless the Democrats can create a vibrant full-employment economy (no easy task in an age of globalized and robotized production), or unless Republicans regain executive power and plunge us into another disastrous war or recession, it’s hard to see what would impel those working-class whites who have drifted right to return to the Democrats’ ranks.
In other words, in elections still to come, the Democrats are likely to pick up the growing Southern border states and states with increasing percentages of college-educated whites, while the Republicans may run stronger than they have in the shrinking states of the once industrial Midwest. Electoral advantage: Democrats.