Here's how Biden can win back Obama-Trump voters: analysis

Here's how Biden can win back Obama-Trump voters: analysis
Photo via White House.

With the election barely a week away—and the fate of our democracy hanging in the balance—it's time for closing arguments. Turning out the base is vitally important, and it's right that most progressive attention is focused there. But I would like to take a different tack, and make sure we collectively leave no stone unturned.

Although there are relatively few undecided voters, the ones who voted for President Obama and then for Trump—and, in some cases, for Democrats in the 2018 midterms—are numerous enough to make a difference in close states that could swing the election: Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

It's tempting to say: Who needs them? The answer? Joe Biden. I want to reach out to Obama-Trump voters and convince them to vote for the Biden-Harris ticket, as well as Democrats straight down the line.

Of course, COVID-19 and Trump's general unfitness are of primary importance for every type of voter, and Biden has to lead with those topics overall. Nevertheless, there are other issues and themes that Democrats must emphasize as well when targeting these voters specifically.

We know quite a bit about Obama-Trump voters thanks to survey data, which I summarized in my recent book. Most of them "expressed high levels of anger toward non-whites and foreigners," even though they voted to elect the first African American president. This might seem counterintuitive, yet the data shows, for example, that a quarter of the white voters who disapproved of interracial couples nonetheless cast a ballot twice for Obama—whose own parents were an interracial couple.

Reaching out to Obama-Trump voters does not in any way mean accepting or, even worse, playing to any kind of racial resentment. Barack Obama never did that. Doing so would represent a clear violation of our most fundamental progressive values. Nevertheless, we can and should try to win votes where we can while always remaining true to those values. We can do what Obama did so well, namely get those voters to prioritize interests other than their perceived racial grievances. That's the opposite of what race-baiting demagogues like Trump do.

For example, we know that a decent chunk of Obama voters overall "expressed varying degrees of white racial resentment while also overwhelmingly embracing liberal positions on issues such as taxation and the existence of climate change." These are the Obama-Trump voters who are most likely to choose Joe Biden.

Likewise, the Obama-Trump-2018 Democratic voters held strongly progressive positions on health care, the environment, and gun control. However, they took a somewhat less progressive stance on immigration—although a majority nonetheless supported DACA, and there was little daylight on that issue between them and the Obama-Trump voters who went Republican in 2018—and were less progressive still on a border, as well as race and gender issues.

On a related note, the graph below also shows those who voted for Obama in 2012, then sat out 2016, before coming back to the Democrats in 2018. Compared to Obama-Trump-2018 Democrats, those voters look more like the Democratic base, i.e., those who voted for Obama and Hillary Clinton, in particular on health care and the environment. It's worth noting that support for two economic issues garnered almost universal support among all three groups: raising the minimum wage to $12 an hour (it doesn't appear they asked about a higher level) and raising taxes on millionaires. Those two issues don't appear in the graph, but were discussed in the article from which it came.

Voters who voted for Obama in 2012, then Trump in 2016.

To be sure, Biden has been talking about health care, the minimum wage, millionaire's taxes, and climate. Now is the time for him to powerfully hammer home the differences on these vital issues between him and the Man Who Lost The Popular Vote. The large numbers of early voters, especially among Democrats, actually makes such an approach even more strategically valuable now than even a couple of weeks ago.


To any undecided Obama-Trump voters reading this, I'll say the following: Vice President Biden and Sen. Harris will enact economic policies to help the bottom line of middle- and working-class voters who are doing everything they can to make ends meet. The Democrats will make the wealthiest—the richest of whom have increased their net worth by an obscene amount during the pandemic—pay their fair share. Furthermore, a Biden White House will raise the minimum wage so that a full-time job pays a living wage.

Trump's policies, on the other hand, pad the bottom line of millionaires and billionaires, and do little to nothing for the vast majority of Americans. Because he doesn't want you to be thinking about that fact when you cast your ballot, he constantly spews lies aimed at scaring you about Black and brown people.

The Democrats will build on Obamacare, making it more affordable and accessible. The Republicans want to destroy it and return us to the days when having a preexisting condition—like, for example lung damage caused by COVID-19—makes it practically impossible to get health coverage. Joe Biden will fight to protect our environment, to keep it clean, safe, healthy and, in a word, livable—creating huge numbers of jobs in the green industries of the future in the meantime, while also taking care of workers during the transition. The Orange Julius Caesar stands instead with polluters who don't care that their actions harm the health of the American people, not to mention their own employees. Big picture: Trump and the Republicans will fight only for those at the top, while Biden and the Democrats will fight for every American. That's why you should vote Democratic.

In reaching out to these Obama-Trump voters, Biden cannot ignore racism—either its prevalence in our society, in Trump's policies, or in his rhetoric—when appealing to Obama-Trump or other undecided/persuadable voters who may not be, despite our fondest wishes, across-the-board progressives. In fact, those voters need to hear how race intersects with economics, in particular when it comes to Trump's campaign message, because explaining that will only further convince them to vote Democratic.

Prof. Ian Haney López has explored this issue in depth. His research—which included extensive surveys designed to test various messages—is laid out in his recent book Merge Left: Fusing Race and Class, Winning Elections, and Saving America. The book makes clear exactly what is the most effective way to talk about race and economic issues. Since its publication, López has continued his work, creating a whole array of material as part of his Race-Class Academy, which seeks to explain "how together we can beat dog whistle politics by building cross-racial and cross-class solidarity." Here's the guts of his message:

Certain politicians exploit racist rhetoric to divide and distract, while they rig government and the economy for themselves and their big money donors. They get richer, we get poorer—and the power of government is turned against communities of color.

But we can fight back and win. Here's the most powerful movement-building message today:

When we come together to reject racism as a weapon of the rich, we can make sure that the government works for all of us, of every race and color.

A team led by López put together a series of 12 short videos that present the race-class message. The videos were created recently enough to incorporate COVID-19 and its effects. The first set examines how the economic elites use racism as a class weapon. The next set demonstrates how more limited, standard progressive messages—such as the race-blind, class-only approach, and the class-blind, "call out racism" approach—are not the most effective ways to gain widespread support for progressive candidates and policies. The third set explains in depth the race-class message itself. The final video argues that we now have the best opportunity in our history to create a sustained cross-racial alliance of voters—what López calls "race-class solidarity"—to not only defeat Trump and the economic elites he serves, but to create lasting change and achieve both racial and economic justice. The videos all together take 25 minutes, and I encourage you to watch them all.


Race-Class Academy 1.1 - Dog whistle politics youtu.be

López tested the race-class message against the other progressive messages mentioned above, as well as the racial fear message used by those, like Trump, who practice dog whistle politics. The race-class message proved to be the most appealing one not only to whites, but to Latino and Black voters as well. Most recently, in a New York Times op-ed that focused on how to win over Latino voters, Prof. López argued:

As Mr. Biden makes his own pitch, he should see Hispanics not as a monolith but as America in microcosm. Some Latinos view themselves as whites, others as people of color, and still others minimize the importance of race in their lives. Typically, this diversity among Hispanics — and in the multiracial Democratic coalition more generally — is seen as a major challenge for Democratic strategists. But our research suggests there's a way to build common cause that speaks persuasively across the spectrum of class and race. By pointing to Mr. Trump's strategic efforts to stoke division, Mr. Biden can better make the case that our best future depends upon joining together.

As for Biden making the case, just about a month ago, in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, he specifically addressed Obama-Trump voters. He acknowledged that "an awful lot of people in this county" voted for the Obama-Biden ticket and then voted for Trump in 2016. Biden continued: "I know many of you were frustrated. You were angry. You believed you weren't being seen, represented or heard. I get it. It has to change. And I promise you this, it will change with me. You will be seen, heard and respected by me. This campaign isn't about just winning votes, it's about restoring the basic dignity in this country that every worker deserves."

Elsewhere in the speech, Biden contrasted his support for raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, as well as his plans on taxing the rich, health care, and more, with those of Trump: "Trump's tax cut for the wealthy is going to cost billions of dollars a year and whose hide does it come out? It comes out of your hide. The simple truth is that Donald Trump ran for office saying he would represent the forgotten man and women in this country. And then once he got in office, he forgot us. Not only did he forget them, the truth is that he never really respected us very much."

These are powerful words, and important sentiments. Biden and Democrats need to keep on emphasizing their stark differences from Trump and the Republicans on these kinds of bread-and-butter economic and public health issues in order to identify exactly whom each candidate and party truly cares about. This is, as the former vice president has stated repeatedly, a campaign where one side represents Scranton and the other Park Avenue. Biden must also highlight how Trump and his ilk use racist dog whistles to divide middle- and working-class voters along racial lines—and distract them from the reality that his real interest is helping those at the very top.

That's how we bring those Obama-Trump voters and other undecideds—as well as the Latino voters whom we need to win overwhelmingly—into the Democratic column, and bring an end to the most destructive presidency in our country's history.

Ian Reifowitz is the author of The Tribalization of Politics: How Rush Limbaugh's Race-Baiting Rhetoric on the Obama Presidency Paved the Way for Trump (Foreword by Markos Moulitsas)

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