Democrats should probably move on from the Rust Belt

After last week’s presidential election, there has been much handwringing about how Democrats can communicate with the Rust Belt voters that turned on them.

On the one hand, that is natural; the losses in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan were surprising and achingly close. And Democrats are well-known for their propensity to wring their hands.

But it may also be exactly the wrong approach for a changing American electorate.


The Rust Belt states have been hard hit economically as manufacturing and coal-based jobs have left in droves. It’s true that President Obama’s policies (outside of rescuing the auto industry — a benefit for which he received credit in 2012 but did not transfer to Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWhite House accuses Biden of pushing ‘conspiracy theories’ with Trump election claim Biden courts younger voters — who have been a weakness Trayvon Martin’s mother Sybrina Fulton qualifies to run for county commissioner in Florida MORE) did not do much to alter this trend.

It is also likely, absent a massive public spending program on infrastructure, that President-elect Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote Warren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases Esper orders ‘After Action Review’ of National Guard’s role in protests MORE will not be able to change this trend either.

Globalization and automation are not going away. And even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote GOP senator to try to reverse requirement that Pentagon remove Confederate names from bases No, ‘blue states’ do not bail out ‘red states’ MORE (R-Ky.) admits that reversing Obama’s policies will not help the coal industry.

In other words, the Rust Belt is difficult terrain moving forward for both parties.

Democrats may be gleefully looking forward to blaming Trump for his failure to restore the Midwestern economy in 2020. But such an economy is likely to be even more fertile ground for the politics of resentment that Trump so thoroughly and effectively used this year.

A closer look at recent election data reveals another approach. Seventeen states were decided by 10 percentage points or fewer in the election last week. One could argue that these states are the most likely Electoral College battlegrounds in 2020.

Of these 17 states, Clinton improved on Obama’s 2012 percentages in four of them: Texas, Georgia, Arizona and Virginia. The five states that she did not improve on Obama’s performance but came closest were Florida, North Carolina, Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico.

Let’s call these nine states the Democratic Opportunity States. The other eight states were all in the Rust Belt or in New England.

The Democratic Opportunity States all have three important things in common.

Eight of them have higher nonwhite populations than the eight states that trended the furthest away from the Democrats (Michigan is slightly more diverse than Colorado).

The Democratic Opportunity States have also had greater population growth than the other states, meaning their share of the Electoral College will grow.

And finally, the Democratic Opportunity states are less reliant upon manufacturing than the others.

A Democratic Party that has its eyes on the future should focus on either winning or consolidating their gains in these nine states, particularly in presidential politics.

Of course, the Democrats should continue to run candidates for Senate, the House of Representatives, and state and local offices in the Rust Belt (and everywhere) that reflect the concerns of these states. To do otherwise would be foolish.

But as the Democrats look forward to 2020 and beyond, their resources (for voter registration and turnout in particular) should be devoted first and foremost to areas where the wind is at their backs and demographic and economic trends favor them.

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To paraphrase Horace Greeley, they should go West (and South).

Shapiro is an associate professor and director of the Public Policy Program at the Bloustein School at Rutgers University and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

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