Democrats’ Future Is Moving Beyond the Rust Belt

The partisan and generational struggles for control of the nation’s direction will be decided in the Sun Belt instead.

by Ronald Brownstein

For Democrats, the Sun Belt imperative is growing more urgent.

While most in the party are preoccupied with winning back the three Rust Belt states that tipped the 2016 election to Donald Trump, both people and political power are continuing to migrate inexorably from that region to the younger and more diverse states in the Southeast and Southwest.

This sustained population shift reinforces the consequences of Trump’s political repositioning of the Republican Party. Trump has targeted his polarizing message and agenda heavily toward the priorities of the older and non-college-educated white voters who still dominate most of the Rust Belt. That will make it tough for Democrats to rely on those states, particularly in presidential races, as much as they did during the 1990s and earlier this century.

In the near future, then, Democrats will likely need to offset any Republican gains in the Rust Belt by winning more elections in Sun Belt states, which are adding more of the diverse, white-collar, and urbanized voters at the core of the modern Democratic coalition. Through the coming decade and beyond, the crucial variable that could tilt the national balance of power between the parties may be whether Democrats can leverage those demographic advantages in the Sun Belt to break the hold Republicans have enjoyed on most of the region since at least the 1970s.

“If Democrats can make that pivot, they are in the driver’s seat for a long time to come, because these Sun Belt states are the growing states,” William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution, told me.

The challenge facing Democrats is that while the demographic trends are more favorable for them in the Sun Belt, the political attitudes among the white population specifically are not. This could expose the party to the same risk in 2020 that I wrote about on Election Day 2016: that the Democrats’ old coalition in the Rust Belt will crumble faster than its new coalition coalesces in the Sun Belt. If that happens, it could leave Democrats just short in enough key states in both regions to allow Trump to win reelection, even if he loses the total popular vote by a greater margin than he did last time.

While Democrats posted significant gains in both areas in the 2018 elections, in many ways their Sun Belt victories were more striking because they showed the party improving in places it had not successfully competed in before, including the suburbs of Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, and Phoenix. Some strategists are now warning that the Democrats’ intense focus on Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania shouldn’t distract them from efforts to advance from those Sun Belt beachheads in 2020. They’re especially concerned because the results of state legislative races in the region will determine redistricting processes, which will shape the political competition in those states for the next decade.

“It’s hard not to be obsessed with the three states that tipped the election to Donald Trump, but it’s also easy to be fighting the last war,” says Vicky Hausman, a co-founder of Forward Majority, a group working to elect Democrats to state seats. “I think our job right now is to sound the alarm that there is insufficient attention and focus and investment, particularly at the legislative level … in these Sun Belt states. And Democrats around the country have a clear interest in making smart investments there.”

The continued growth of the Sun Belt is the biggest takeaway from the new population estimates that the Census Bureau released in late December. They were the last before the 2020 decennial census, which will be used to reapportion both congressional seats and Electoral College votes among the states.

Using these estimates, Kimball Brace, the president of the nonpartisan political-data firm Election Data Services, has calculated that seven states are on track to gain House seats and Electoral College votes, while 10 are in position to lose them. (New distributions would first affect the 2022 midterm elections and later the 2024 presidential contest.) The states that voted for Trump in 2016 would make a net gain of three Electoral College votes, while the states that voted for Hillary Clinton would lose three, a modest partisan shift in all.

But on a regional basis, the new numbers have profound implications. Brace projects that Texas will add three House seats and Florida two, while North Carolina, Arizona, and Colorado will add one each. The losers are mostly concentrated across the Northeast and upper Midwest: New York, Rhode Island, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, and Minnesota are all on track to lose a seat.

The reapportionments after both the 2000 and 2010 censuses produced comparable shifts in representation from the Northeast and Midwest to the Sun Belt. If the projections for 2020 prove accurate, it will mean that since the start of this century, more than 30 seats and Electoral College votes will have shifted from the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt, with no Rust Belt state gaining a seat at any point. A map from Election Data Services tracking the cumulative impact of reapportionment from 1910 through 2010 captures an even more dramatic shift of power and population to the Sun Belt states.

Election Data Services

Not long ago, most political observers would have viewed these trends as an unqualified threat to Democrats because the party has relied so heavily on states across the Northeast and Midwest, especially in presidential races. And that’s still true in one respect: Democrats remain dominant in the Northeast states and, thus, are hurt by the population trends draining seats from New England and the mid-Atlantic.

But the steady decline of the Midwest now has consequences for both parties because those states are so integral to Trump’s political strategy. From immigration and trade to race relations and gun control, Trump has focused his agenda on maximizing the GOP’s support among older, blue-collar, nonurban, and Christian white voters, groups that remain powerful, even preponderant, across the Midwest, even as they’re shrinking as a share of the national population. That emphasis helped him flip a total of five Rust Belt states that voted for Barack Obama in 2012, including the three he dislodged from the Democrats’ “blue wall”: Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

But if Brace’s projections are right, in this century those five states will shed a combined 13 Electoral College votes. Put another way: Trump is steering the GOP toward greater reliance on the Rust Belt precisely as the region’s overall electoral clout is receding. That’s a geographic parallel to the demographic trade Trump has imposed on his party by trying to squeeze bigger margins out of voter groups that are dwindling.

The price for this trade is the resistance he’s triggered among younger people, voters of color, and college-educated white voters, all of them concentrated in the nation’s major metropolitan areas—and prominent in the Sun Belt.

But even as those groups helped power Democratic victories in 2018, Republicans have still maintained their overall advantage in most southeastern and southwestern states. That trend suggests Republicans are unlikely to conclude that Trump has set the party on an unsustainable course until Democrats prove they can consistently win elections there.

The possible swing states in the Sun Belt look more favorable for Democrats than their Rust Belt counterparts do on virtually every key demographic measure that now divides the parties.

Consider racial diversity in the six Sun Belt states that both sides view, to varying degrees, as potential battlegrounds this year: North Carolina, Georgia, and Florida in the Southeast, and Texas, Arizona, and Nevada in the Southwest.

According to Frey’s calculations, across those six states, nonwhite people already constitute a majority of the population ages 18 to 64 in Texas and Nevada; almost exactly half of that group in Arizona, Georgia, and Florida; and about two-fifths in North Carolina. While white people still compose most of the senior population in each of those states (except Texas), minorities represent most of the under-18 population in all of them (except North Carolina). That means that with each passing year, the population eligible to vote in those states will tilt more toward racial minorities at a time when Trump’s mission for the GOP has deeply antagonized them. “That’s really where all the growth is in all of these states,” Frey told me.

The picture looks very different in the six Rust Belt states that both sides have historically viewed as battlegrounds: Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and Ohio (though the final two appear very steep climbs for Democrats against Trump). In all of them, Frey found, white people constitute about three-fourths or more of the 18-to-64 population and at least 84 percent of the senior population. Well over half of the people under age 18 are white as well.

Other demographic measures point toward the same divergence. Using census data, Frey has calculated that white voters without a college degree—one of Trump’s core constituencies—cast a bigger share of the vote in 2018 in each of the Rust Belt battlegrounds than they did in any of the Sun Belt swing states. White Christians are also much more heavily represented in the Rust Belt than the Sun Belt, according to poll results from the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute.

But two factors above all have prevented Democrats from fully capitalizing on favorable Sun Belt trends. One is a persistent problem mobilizing the growing population of minority voters, especially young ones, to turn out. Comparing the past two midterm elections, in 2014 and 2018, Democrats saw gains among black voters in the Southeast and Latinos in the Southwest. But Latino participation in particular remains well below the level for white voters, and experts say it’s unclear that 2020 will show much improvement.

Stephanie Valencia, a co-founder and the president of EquisLabs, a Democratic firm studying Latino voters, told me that dislike of Trump “is not enough” to guarantee bigger turnout. “Democrats cannot afford to rest on the fact that Latinos hate Trump and question his moral character and question his handling of the issues that matter to them,” she said. “We need an aspirational vision of what this country can be, and not just how we are going to stop Trump from being president.”

The other challenge facing Democrats is that both non-college-educated and college-educated white voters in the Sun Belt have traditionally leaned more conservative than they do in the Rust Belt. In 2018 exit polls, Trump’s approval rating among both groups was higher in the Sun Belt than in the Rust Belt, with the gap especially wide among college-educated white voters.

Read: Brace for a voter-turnout tsunami

Still, Democrats’ wins in suburban House races across the Sun Belt—as well as the results of the Senate contests in Texas, Arizona, and Nevada—showed clear cracks in the once-impregnable Republican dominance among white-collar Sun Belt voters.

Hausman argues that Democrats must now try to capitalize on those openings and capture state legislative chambers there. Frey agreed, noting that having control of redistricting could provide Republicans their final “wall” against the growing diversity that is mostly driving the population growth in the Sun Belt. Focusing primarily on suburban seats within major metropolitan areas, Hausman’s group is mounting an effort to flip Republican-controlled chambers in Texas, Arizona, North Carolina, and Florida.

Democrats are focusing heavily on those same diverse and white-collar areas this year as they target Republican-held House seats in North Carolina, Georgia, and Texas, as well as GOP-controlled Senate seats in Arizona, Colorado, Texas, and Georgia. On the presidential level, they envision Arizona, Florida, and North Carolina as fallbacks if they can’t recapture any of the Rust Belt battlegrounds from Trump. (Democrats are also hoping to significantly improve their presidential performance in Texas and Georgia, though both remain long shots for 2020.)

Nicole McCleskey, a New Mexico–based Republican pollster, acknowledged to me that a recoil from Trump, particularly among women, has hurt the GOP in the Southwest suburbs. But she remains optimistic that the GOP can hold Texas and Arizona in both the Senate and presidential contests, noting that Republicans easily carried the governor’s elections in both states last year, despite the nationwide Democratic tide.

Once those suburban voters “put a face to what the Democratic Party is really about, it becomes a much more uphill struggle for them,” she told me. “In these suburban areas, when you start talking about what does Medicare for All mean for you, cost for you, I think it changes the face of what this election is about.”

One of the core underlying dynamics of modern American politics—what Frey has called “the cultural generation gap” and I have termed the collision between the “brown and the gray”—is the ongoing political battle between the predominantly white, conservative-leaning older generations, centered on the Baby Boom, and the more diverse and more liberal Millennial and younger generations.

The Sun Belt is where this confrontation is unfolding most directly: In states such as Texas, Arizona, and Nevada, Frey’s calculations show, white people compose at least twice as great a share of the over-65 population as they do of the population under 18.

The principal battlefield of the 2020 election may remain Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. But the unstinting population shifts that the census recorded last month make it inevitable that the partisan and generational struggles for control of the nation’s direction will be decided more and more in the Sun Belt.

Ronald Brownstein is a senior editor at The Atlantic.

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