The Beltway has a fetish.
Open almost any major newspaper in almost any week, and you’ll find a story set in a working-class community, opening with a vignette from a local diner or a failing factory. These stories wax nostalgic about Obama-Trump voters: those Americans who backed President Barack Obama in 2012 but supported Donald Trump in 2016. In the analysis, they are almost invariably oversimplified as white, working class and lacking a college education. And this same conversation also dominates discussion among top Democratic Party operatives, pollsters and some elected officials.
This focus isn’t exactly wrong: Yes, Democrats lost those voters in 2016, bigly. It’s one of the many reasons Hillary Clinton lost the White House (disclosure: I worked on her campaign). And yes, the future of the Democratic Party does depend, at least in part, on figuring out how to win some of them back. But the tunnel-vision focus on these Obama-Trump voters as the only path forward for the Democratic Party ignores a major opportunity. In the six months since the election, we’ve obsessed about Obama-Trump voters but completely ignored their inverse: the Romney-Clinton voters.
Who are they? Romney-Clinton voters are, generally speaking, college-educated suburban professionals: lawyers, doctors and businesspeople. They voted for Mitt Romney in 2012, but switched to Hillary Clinton in 2016. They abhor xenophobia, the alt-right and racists, but they also mostly socialize within their own race and they’re mostly white. They’re socially liberal but not obsessed with a political agenda. They value fiscal responsibility but also believe in investing in the future, especially education. They remain deeply worried about Trump’s qualifications, scared about his temperament and alienated by his misogyny and ties to extremists. For the first time in a long time, they’re willing to hear about and vote for Democrats.
For journalists and political operatives, these people are harder to romanticize. They lack the stirring, deeply ingrained Americana imagery of the Appalachian coal miner or the Rust Belt autoworker—a news story set against the backdrop of a paralegal’s research library or a suburban office park simply doesn’t feel as compelling.
But if you want to see the future of the Democratic Party—and if you want to understand how Democrats can win back a congressional majority—then it’s important that you pay attention to a group of voters who might cut a less evocative image than their Obama-Trump counterparts, but whose support of Democrats could cause the GOP to collapse.