The median voter is a 50-something white person who didn't go to college

Cognitive behavioral therapy for Democrats

So much in politics is uncertain or difficult that I think even professionals tend to underrate the upside to doing things that are obvious and easy.

Back in 1992, James Carville supposedly hung a sign in Clinton campaign headquarters that said, “it’s the economy, stupid.” By the same token, Democrats today could improve their performance enormously if every staffer’s computer monitor had a Post-It stuck to it that said “the median voter is a 50-something white person who didn’t go to college and lives in an unfashionable suburb.”

This is important because it’s true. But I think it tends not to be front of mind when decisions are getting made. That’s because decisions about how to frame issues are most often made by young college graduates who live in big cities and consume a lot of media created by other young college graduates who live in big cities. And while Republican staffers also inhabit a similar left-of-the-party-base bubble, the staff bias is constructive, pulling toward the median voter. For Democrats, it’s the opposite.

The basic facts about the electorate

Most people in the country are white, and the population of voting-age citizens is whiter than the overall population, in part because Asian and Hispanic Americans participate in electoral politics at a lower rate than white and Black Americans.

White people predominate so heavily in the electorate that most Biden voters are white, as are an overwhelming share of Trump voters. Here is Pew’s read on this:

Catalist’s numbers, which are just slightly different, show that this was “the most diverse electorate ever” and also that it was 72% white. Because Catalist is a Democratic outfit, I think it’s telling and significant that they highlight the diversity fact as their No. 1 bullet point about the 2020 election. Democrats love to talk about, celebrate, and ponder diversity. And that’s great. But it’s why the sticky note on the computer needs to remind them that the median voter is white.

The median voter is also old — 55% of the electorate is over 50.

I’m 40 and constantly feel like an old person, regaling younger journalists and progressive foot soldiers with war stories from the 2004 campaign. But even at my advanced age, I am much younger than the electorate median. I dimly recall the waning days of the Cold War, but the median voter heard Ronald Reagan tell Gorbachev to “tear down this wall” and then saw it happen. Ideas that strike 30 year-olds as painfully old-fashioned are mainstream.

And again, most voters don’t have a college degree.

Of course, you can’t exclusively focus on the intersection of these three categories. Non-college whites over 50 are a minority of the electorate, even though whites, over-50s, and people who haven’t gone to college are each individually a majority. But it’s still the case that non-college whites over 50 are a huge share of the electorate. And people who are at least two out of the three are all over the place. Even when you talk about a two-out-of-three-er who is overwhelmingly likely to be a Democrat (say, a retired Black plumber), he almost certainly does not share the full cosmopolitan worldview of the young metropolitan professional class.

Where people live

A huge share of the electorate is in “the suburbs,” which I think everyone knows. It should also be pretty clear if you’ve ever been anywhere in the United States that there is a world of difference between the suburbs of San Francisco and the suburbs of Toledo.

But the basic facts bear mentioning. Fully 6% of the American population lives in the New York City metropolitan statistical area, which is genuinely a lot. But if you add up the 50 largest metropolitan statistical areas, they together add up to only about 42% of the population. The 50th-largest metro area is Birmingham, Alabama and number 51 is Rochester, New York. I’ve never been to Birmingham, but Rochester is nice (the weather was good when I visited). It’s home to a good university, I had an excellent dinner at a well-regarded local restaurant, and it was cool to see the graves of Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass at the Mount Hope Cemetery. But it’s not a very big city, and the suburbs of Rochester (which contain 80% of the metro area’s population) are a world away from the inner-ring suburbs of the giant metropolises.

The point is most people live in communities that are smaller than the Rochester metro area. Either they’re in rural areas, a smaller metro, or a community like Kerrville, TX (where I spent much of the summer) that’s so far out on the exurban fringe of San Antonio that it doesn’t qualify for membership in the MSA.

In practical terms:

  • The Philadelphia and Pittsburgh MSAs combine to contain less than 50% of Pennsylvania’s population.

  • The Milwaukee and Madison MSAs combine to contain less than 50% of Wisconsin’s population.

  • The Detroit and Ann Arbor MSAs combine to contain less than 50% of Michigan’s population.

Interestingly, the “new” swing states of Georgia and Arizona are more urbanized, with the giant Atlanta and Phoenix metro areas each comprising a majority of their respective state’s population. So it’s not like nobody lives in giant metro areas or they don’t matter. That said, a lot of work in media and progressive politics is done by New Yorkers who snobbishly disdain D.C., which — whatever its flaws — is a substantially bigger, more urban, and more cosmopolitan place than Phoenix.

The point is that when we talk about decisive suburban voters, we’re likely talking about the suburbs of Grand Rapids or Kenosha.

Who needs to know this?

Obviously, not everyone in life needs to feel beholden to the median voter. In fact, if you’re working at the DSCC and trying to secure a majority against the backdrop of a skewed map, you need to focus on someone well to the right of the median voter.

The injunction to pay attention to electoral demographics comes most naturally to people in roles like that: working at the party committees, the aligned super PACs, or staffing frontline House districts. And obviously, if you’re working for a specific senator, you probably want a Post-It that’s about your state-specific demographics.

Realistically, though, I think the people most in need of the Post-It are probably people working for activist or advocacy groups where they don’t necessarily see it as their mission to cater to the median voter. And that’s fine; there is more to life than pandering to the public opinion status quo.

But I think that if you want to speak, write, or otherwise engage with the political system on almost any level — whether as a professional activist, a scholar who is interested in real-world impact, a journalist, or just a citizen who’s active on social media and makes small-dollar donations — it’s worth keeping these demographic considerations top of mind.

  • Say your goal is to persuade people not to pander to their existing views — well, you need to know who you are hoping to persuade.

  • Say you think you have a chance of getting something done even though the mass public doesn’t agree with you — then a quiet, insider strategy could be more effective than a noisy outsider campaign.

Public opinion needn’t be a binding constraint on politics, but it’s always a relevant consideration. When Republicans gain power, they cut taxes on the rich regardless of the polls. But the donor base doesn’t demand that GOP candidates loudly and frequently pledge allegiance to the cause of low taxes on the rich because that would be counterproductive. They act as if they are aware that working-class 50-somethings living in exurbs and small cities are not incredibly concerned about the well-being of people who own large amounts of stock. So when they do talk about taxation, they always find some way to make it about ranch owners.

Long story short, if you’re going to blow off the median voter, you ought to do it purposefully and with a plan — don’t just act like the views of under-40 college grads are typical.

Cognitive behavioral therapy for Democrats

A long time ago, I got cognitive behavioral therapy for an anger management problem.

The nature of this kind of therapy is that it involves explicitly saying a lot of stuff that’s so obvious it almost feels dumb articulating. Like when you’re feeling upset, ask yourself before you do something, “is this going to make me feel better or worse?” Well, don’t do the thing that’s going to make you feel worse. Most people seem to have a handle on that intuitively. Some of us, for whatever reason, don’t. You need to try to learn to recognize the physiological signs of anger and remind yourself to repeat the basic point.

And for a lot of stuff with Democrats, I think it’s similar. The basic demographic facts are not secret. Nor is there some giant controversy over the size of the population of various metro areas in Pennsylvania.

And I don’t think there’s a mass delusion where people have come to believe that left-wing cultural politics and student debt relief are the top priorities for 50-something working-class people living outside the top 50 metro areas. But when people who work in Democratic and party-aligned causes put out their products, I think they tend not to stop and consciously go through the process of asking, “Who are we centering here? What is the message we are implicitly sending about who we care about? Whose language are we speaking?”

Which mostly means there’s enormous room for improvement.

Winning is important

When Clinton was running in 1992, the country had been through 12 years of Republican presidents. Really, the GOP had been running the show for 20 out of the past 24 years. And the people working to elect Bill Clinton were Democrats. The kind of people who voted for Walter Mondale and probably even George McGovern. They had huge conceptual disagreements with the Republican Party that had nothing to do with the sluggish economic recovery.

It’s not just that those disagreements were unrelated to the economic recovery; they were more profound and probably more personally interesting to them than blaming Bush for the economy.

The point of the “it’s the economy, stupid” sign was to remind the staff that they were weirdos. Most people voted for Reagan in ‘84 and then for Bush in ‘88. They did not share Democrats’ big-picture criticism of the GOP. Yet Clinton was hoping to win the votes of some of those people — or at least make them feel comfortable tossing a vote away on Ross Perot — and that meant focusing on the economy. You needed the sign to remind the staff that the point of the campaign’s message was to win, not to talk about the things that the staff thought were most important.

Today, a good Post-It note would help progressives keep their eyes on the prize, but it would also help keep moderate Democrats on track. It’s all well and good for Kyrsten Sinema to be trying to check the loftiest ambitions of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. But she and a number of allies are out there opposing Biden’s prescription drug pricing proposals — literally the single most popular thing on the Democratic agenda. You want to avoid alienating 50-something white people living outside of big cities, but you also want to give them something to vote for, like prescription drug pricing reform. Otherwise, people’s perception of politics will be that it doesn’t really matter and they should just vote based on hazy symbolism and culture war position-taking with results that will be even more deadly to centrist Democrats than to progressive ones.