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The Democrats' emerging path to the presidency: The Southwest and Southeast

The Democrats' emerging path to the presidency: The Southwest and Southeast
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Conventional wisdom says that to win the presidency, Democrats have to lure back white working-class voters in the Midwest states who delivered the unexpected victory to Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpIvanka Trump, Jared Kusher's lawyer threatens to sue Lincoln Project over Times Square billboards Facebook, Twitter CEOs to testify before Senate Judiciary Committee on Nov. 17 Sanders hits back at Trump's attack on 'socialized medicine' MORE. Yet there is an alternative path for Democrats to regain the presidency that does not run through Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. It is comprised of a Southwest/West and East Coast coalition. Building it requires Democrats to focus their efforts in the southwestern and southeastern states that are showing cracks in the Republican Party’s Electoral College red wall.

Trump’s Midwestern victories in 2016 shouldn’t have shocked anyone. Democrats had been struggling there for a generation. Wisconsin had elected Democrats in just two of the previous eight gubernatorial elections, and the GOP had held a state assembly majority for most of the past quarter century. In Michigan, Republicans had won five of the previous seven gubernatorial races, and had held an uninterrupted state senate majority for more than 30 years. Even in Minnesota, Democrats had won just two of the previous seven gubernatorial elections. 

Trump underperformed in other GOP-dominant areas, suggesting that a realigning of the electorate is at work that can bring back the big prize to the Democrats. Trump underperformed previous Republican nominees among better-educated whites and minorities of all typesHe lost Virginia, Nevada, and Colorado, states that fit this demographic and which George W. Bush won twice. He underperformed the normal Republican margins in Georgia and Arizona as well, due in large part to his low support among college-educated voters. 

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Perhaps no state demonstrated this countertrend more than Texas. Trump changed rural Texas from strongly Republican into overwhelmingly Republican, and in some places, he received more than 90 percent of the vote. But Trump’s percentages in metropolitan areas such as Houston were a big falloff from previous Republican presidential nominees. Trump turned Romney’s tie in Houston’s Harris County into a 54-42 deficit, and suburban Fort Bend County flipped Democratic for the first time in living memory. The GOP’s statewide margin was cut in half: Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyRatings drop to 55M for final Trump-Biden debate Bipartisan group of senators call on Trump to sanction Russia over Navalny poisoning Mitt Romney did not vote for Trump in 2020 election MORE won the state by 18 percentage points, while Trump carried it by only nine. The Republican voting habit of many Texans broke in 2016, portending the beginning of a possible partisan shifting.

Trump carried Georgia with just 51.4 percent of the vote. Georgia’s Democrats have the demographic wind at their backs: The state has a growing population of African Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans. In 2016, 40 percent of Georgia’s voters were nonwhite, and 83 percent of them voted for Clinton. Where Clinton fell short was winning just 21 percent of white Georgians. If Clinton had been able to get the support of just 26 percent of white voters in Georgia, she would’ve won the state by a full percentage point.

Trump carried Arizona by four percentage points — less than half the amount Romney won by in 2012. Also, the state has a growing Latino population, which is becoming increasingly mobilized. In 2008, roughly 291,000 Latinos voted in the state’s general election, in 2016 that number was approximately 550,000, an increase of 89 percent. It will be even greater again this year.  

If the GOP leadership continues to appeal to anti-immigration voters with Trumpian stances on a border wall and deportation, then they will be effectively writing off their party’s chances in growing states such as Texas, Arizona, and Georgia. The Democrats’ task therefore is to tie the Republican Party as a whole to Trump and the attitudes and positions that contributed to his underperforming in longtime GOP states — and to provide reinforcement and further encouragement to voters who took the first step in knocking down the red wall. 

This year and in 2024, Virginia, Colorado and Nevada will likely become solidly blue, with Arizona, North Carolina, Georgia, and even Florida and Texas trending that way as well. These trends will favor the Democrats in the long term, especially since these latter states are likely to gain House seats reapportioned out of the Midwest — thus giving these states increasing power in the Electoral College.

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Quite possibly, a Southwest/West and East Coast coalition will pay greater dividends for Democrats than trying to woo back the Upper Midwest’s former Democrats who voted for Donald Trump. That doesn’t mean writing off the Midwest or ignoring it, but simply understanding that contrary to the conventional wisdom, the future Democratic path to the White House likely runs through the southwest and the southeast. 

Whet Smith is an attorney and former GOP candidate for the Texas state assembly. Mark J. Rozell is dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and co-author of "The South and the Transformation of US Politics (Oxford University Press, 2019)."