The Democratic Party of 2020 will face a reckoning with the Democratic Party of 50 years ago if former Vice President Joe Biden seeks the presidency, as he’s expected to do.
When Biden, who’s now 76, was first elected to the Senate from Delaware in 1972, Democrats relied on an electoral coalition that revolved primarily around working-class white voters, many of them conservative on cultural issues, particularly those involving race. With those voters in sight, Biden was one of many generally liberal Democrats during that era who took nuanced, or even openly conservative, positions on racially infused issues, including school busing and crime.
If Biden runs, he will force Democrats to decide whether those earlier views are still acceptable in a party that has moved left since then on all racially related issues, in response both to shifting attitudes in the country and the increasing diversity of its voters.
“His career is really a microcosm of the changes in the Democratic Party over the past half-century, all in one person,” says Bill Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and longtime Democratic policy analyst.
The electoral landscape that confronted Democrats of Biden’s generation is almost unimaginable for today’s younger party activists.
Biden, a lawyer, began his political career in 1970 by winning a seat on the county council of New Castle, Delaware, which included Wilmington, the state’s largest city. Two years later, he won election to the US Senate, just weeks before his 30th birthday. He served in the Senate for the next 36 years, until he joined President Barack Obama as his vice president in 2009.
Over that period, the country — and the Democratic coalition — experienced enormous demographic change. In the 1976 election, when Democrat Jimmy Carter won the presidency, whites without college degrees composed 70% of all voters, according to an analysis of census data by the nonpartisan States of Change project. Minority voters — almost all of them African-American — made up only about 11% of voters then, with college-educated whites providing the remaining 19%.
Even as late as 1992, when President Bill Clinton was first elected, those blue-collar whites still represented about 60% of all voters, with college whites composing about 25% and minorities the remaining 15%. According to the States of Change calculations, working-class white voters cast a majority of the votes in every presidential election until 2008 (when they represented 48% of the voters).
African-American voters were already reliable Democrats by the 1970s, having moved decisively toward the party after the passage of the landmark civil rights laws in the 1960s. But white-collar whites in that period still leaned heavily toward the Republican Party: During the three presidential elections of the 1980s, Presidents Ronald Reagan and then George H.W. Bush carried college-educated whites by at lest 20 percentage points each time.
The result that Democrats in almost every state — and certainly in presidential elections — relied on an electoral coalition centered primarily on whites without college degrees and secondarily on African-Americans. In 1980, for instance, fully 60% of Carter’s votes in his losing race against Reagan came from working-class whites, according to calculations by longtime Democratic elections analyst Ruy Teixeira, one of the founders of the States of Change project.
“That’s a world that is gone, and it is easy for people to forget how different things were back then, both in terms of voting behavior and relative size of the groups,” says Teixeira, co-author of “America’s Forgotten Majority,” a 2000 book about the white working class.
By 2016, blue-collar whites, in stark contrast, accounted for slightly less than 30% of the votes that Hillary Clinton won. That was partly because the group continued its long-term decline as a share of the total vote (reaching 44% by the States of Change calculations), but also because it broke so decisively toward Donald Trump. Minorities, including growing populations of Hispanics and Asian-Americans, provided about 40% of Clinton’s votes, while whites with college degrees, among whom Democrats have gained strength steadily since the 1990s, contributed the remaining 30% or so.
Younger Democrats reared in a political world where the party mobilized that latter coalition have little experience with the choices the party faced in the 1970s and 1980s. The principal electoral challenge facing Democrats during the first decades of Biden’s career was crafting an agenda and message that could unite working-class whites and African-Americans.
“It was the central issue,” said Democratic pollster Stanley B. Greenberg, who became nationally known from his studies of white working-class alienation from the Democratic Party in Macomb County, Michigan, after the 1984 election. “Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, were seen as very responsive to African-American voters in their time, yet they were also candidates who stretched to reach white working-class voters. You could not contemplate being successful and sustainable as a national party through Bill Clinton without making an imperative of (attracting) very strong support with both those groups.”