A few days after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, newly-inaugurated President Lyndon B. Johnson sat across from Georgian Senator Richard B. Russell to discuss the nascent ideas that would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964. According to the New York Times, the notoriously iron-willed president told Russell, “Dick, you've got to get out of my way. I'm going to run over you. I don't intend to cavil or compromise. I don't want to hurt you. But don't stand in my way.” To this, the senator had replied, “You may do that, but by God, it's going to cost you the South and cost you the election.”
Johnson won re-election later that year in a landslide, but the first half of Russell’s prediction came true. Five states in the so-called “Solid South,” which had voted overwhelmingly for the Democrats in every election since 1876, defected to vote for Johnson’s Republican opponent Barry Goldwater, and as time went on, more and more Southern states would turn red. This created fault lines in the Democratic coalition that had dominated American politics since the Great Depression, and in 1980, the Reagan Revolution would give the Republicans a majority in one of the houses of Congress for the first time in twenty-six years. With it, a five-decade era of liberal dominance in American politics came to an end.
Democrats held on to power for so long by constructing and relying on a base that spanned the country. From 1932 until the 1960s, the core of the Democratic Party was a New Deal coalition that united white Southerners, ethnic and racial minorities, and blue-collar workers under one banner. These groups were geographically widespread as well as populous, helping Democrats handily win both congressional majorities and the Electoral College; between 1932 and 1964, all but ten states voted for the Democratic candidate most of the time, and Republicans held a congressional majority in either house for only four years.
Democrats received an electoral boost by facing a weakened opponent. The GOP, damaged by its status as a semi-permanent minority party, had fractured into two wings, one moderate and one conservative, that often came into direct conflict. Perhaps nothing typified this more than the contentious presidential election of 1964, where party leader and moderate Nelson Rockefeller was booed at the Republican national convention for condemning what he and others saw as the extreme conservatism of their party’s nominee. Goldwater would carry just six states in November—his home state of Arizona plus the aforementioned five Southern states that went red—but in the long run, Goldwater’s philosophy would defeat Johnson’s. A week before the election, an actor named Ronald Reagan entered the political fray by giving a speech praising Goldwater and his belief that “a government can't control the economy without controlling people.” When Reagan became president less than two decades later, he restructured his party on that principle.
However, in 1964, as demonstrated by Goldwater’s defeat, those ideas were still considered extremist. Moderate Republicans—those who liked the New Deal and favored some government intervention in the economy—often found more electoral success than their more conservative counterparts. The two major Republican presidents of the time were moderates Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, who between them expanded Social Security and created the EPA. Nixon initially even wanted to create a universal basic income system, an idea that is being revived among progressives today.
The strength of the Democratic coalition meant that it could only be defeated from the inside, which is exactly what occurred in the 1970s. With the defection of white Southerners from the Democrats to the Republican Party following the Civil Rights Movement and Nixon’s Southern Strategy, the coalition weakened, and as the country dove deeper into the Vietnam War and LBJ’s popularity plummeted, it collapsed. When the coalition broke apart and the old Democratic Party fell, the New Deal politics that had thrived in the United States since the Great Depression ended and paved the way for a new political era.
With Republicans facing the Watergate scandal and Democrats dealing with a seemingly weak and ineffective Jimmy Carter, the American populace found itself increasingly dissatisfied with the two mainstream political currents, so they turned to an ideology outside of the regular political binary. Propelled by Reagan’s charisma and popularity, the modern conception of the Republican Party, built on conservative ideals of free market economics and limited government—the antithesis of the past fifty years of governance—burst on to the scene. Reagan, Reagan’s vice-president, and Reagan’s vice-president’s son would live in the White House for twenty of the next twenty-eight years as champions of economic and social conservatism, the very same policies that helped lead to Barry Goldwater’s resounding defeat a just few decades prior. These new conservative Republicans would establish a base for themselves in the West and the South and challenge Democrats in the Midwest, shrinking a previously national liberal party to enclaves in the Northeast and the West Coast.
This was the most recent major realignment in American politics, dramatically changing the country’s political landscape and leading to an era of conservatism that had been virtually unimaginable a few decades prior. The government, the voters, and both parties all moved considerably to the right during this time. Between 1992 and 2009, only about 20 percent of Americans identified as liberal, whereas twice that number called themselves conservative.
Previously, political eras typically lasted about thirty years and ended in major political or economic turmoil, such as the Civil War or the Great Depression. Following this pattern, one would expect the Reagan era to have ended with the 2008 financial crash, which brought about distrust in the Republican Party’s economic policies and catapulted progressive Barack Obama into the White House. Obama, advocating “hope” and dramatic “change” in Washington, was elected in 2008 and 2012 with a working-class message that broke past the Democrats’ limited coastal base, sweeping the Great Lakes region and the Rust Belt. With such a charismatic, ideological figure, the story might have ended here, with a new three-decade era of Obama-style liberalism settling over the United States—but then came 2016. With a nominally populist, blue-collar message that sharply contrasted with Hillary Clinton’s perceived elitism, Donald Trump made large inroads in the Midwest and the Rust Belt, winning over many of those same voters who had put Obama in charge four and eight years earlier.
In the future, the period between 2008 and 2020 may be viewed like we view 1968-1980 today: a period of mass dealignment as both major camps of political thought (conservative Republicans such as the Bushes and moderate Democrats like Bill Clinton and John Kerry) were both rejected by a voter bloc seeking something new. Given a nation dissatisfied with the two major parties and the current president’s historic unpopularity, a Democratic figure for change has the potential to catalyze a mass realignment that could overhaul the current electoral map. The presidential election of 2020, then, provides an opportunity for Democrats to rebrand and re-establish themselves and to once again become the dominant force in American politics. To do so, they will have to expand their current coalition—largely comprised of urbanites, ethnic minorities, and the educated—to encompass a geographically more diverse portion of the country and to essentially woo over voters who have not identified as Democrats for at least forty years. There are three major regions where such a breakthrough is possible: the Midwest, the Southwest, and the South.
The most obvious strategy for Democrats in 2020 is to pursue a Midwestern/Rust Belt strategy, battling Trump in the key states that elected him in 2016 but voted for Obama eight years prior: Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, and Iowa. Winning only the first three—the low-hanging fruit—but losing every other battleground state would just barely push Democrats over the 270 electoral vote threshold for victory. If Democrats want to establish themselves as a party that dominates in the electoral college in not just this but future elections, one possibility would be to capture most or all of these Midwestern and Rust Belt states. Of the various likely 2020 Democratic contenders, the most well-positioned to do this might be Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, who made central to his 2018 reelection campaign the “dignity of work,” a message that would likely help recapture many Obama voters who were alienated by Hillary Clinton. “If you love this country,” Brown said in one television ad that features haircutters, electricians, and mechanics, “you fight for the people who make it work.”
While a Midwestern strategy may be tempting to Democrats, it is not the only path to long-term electoral success. Another possible path is through the Southwestern United States, primarily centered around Texas. Texas has long been an elusive prize for the Democratic Party, one of the only large states that reliably votes Republican. Many saw a possible progressive breakthrough in the state’s 2018 Senate election, when Beto O’Rourke posed a strong-but-not-quite-strong-enough challenge against incumbent Ted Cruz. Some, emboldened by his campaign’s moment in the national limelight and surprisingly successful faring at the polls, have called on O’Rourke to pursue the presidential nomination in 2020, with an eye toward flipping Texas. Democrats securing Texas in this and future elections would force the GOP on defense and could shut them out of the White House for years.
O’Rourke is not the only Texan Democrat interested in running against Trump; if he does run, he will have to face off with Obama’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro, who launched a presidential campaign this January in his hometown of San Antonio. If both O’Rourke and Castro run, they will be set on a collision course that will probably come to a head on Super Tuesday, a month into the primary process, when Texas Democrats cast their votes for nominee. Both Texans are in their forties and have the potential youthful energy to excite unlikely voters and possibly flip Texas and Arizona, extending the Democratic coalition into the Southwest and virtually securing the Electoral College. A choice between the two (if they both run and remain in the race until the Texas primary) will likely boil down to comparing O’Rourke’s popularity and charisma to Castro’s White House experience and connections to the Democratic establishment.
The Democrats’ third possible approach to the White House has the best past track record but the worst future prospects. Apart from Obama, the only other Democrats to win presidential elections since Kennedy have been white Southerners who broke into the Republican base by presenting a relatable, blue-collar, simple-Southern-man public image that Republicans in the South could relate to. Jimmy Carter, presenting himself as a peanut farmer from Georgia, carried every Southern state except Virginia. Bill Clinton also made serious inroads in the South as well as the Midwest, earning him more electoral votes in each of his elections than Obama in 2008 or 2012, despite the fact that he won more of the popular vote. Perhaps a Southern Democrat with the right message could appeal to enough Republicans in 2020 to turn the South blue; however, almost nobody in the early analyses of the Democratic primaries fits such a role. The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake only put two Southerners, Beto O’Rourke and former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe, in his “Top 15 Democratic presidential candidates” ranking (#8 and #10, respectively), and neither of them have the kind of public image necessary in order to appeal to voters in the Deep South. O’Rourke’s appeal in the Southeast would be limited since, in an election where border security is such a central issue, Texas is more of a Southwestern border state rather than a Southern one, more like New Mexico or Arizona than Alabama or Tennessee. McAuliffe, coming from the purple state of Virginia, neither looks nor sounds Southern, unlike Clinton or Carter, and would connect to Southerners to a similar degree as Tennessee native Al Gore did in 2000—that is to say, not at all.
The most prominent and well-known 2020 hopefuls either lack any appeal in these key regions—the Midwest, the Southwest, and the South—or have a limited one that would have to battle against Trump’s. There is not yet a clear reason why an Ohioan or Iowan would vote for Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, or Cory Booker over Trump, and while Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Joe Biden have a much more working-class message than other challengers, their appeal in these states is on par with the president’s. Democrats don’t want the 2020 election to be a close battle over a few swing states; given Trump’s historic unpopularity, any result other than a clean electoral sweep could be viewed as underperforming. To win in a landslide not just in 2020 but consistently for years to come, Democrats need an inspiring figure to rally behind who pulls Republicans away from their party, flips states, and positions Democrats to dominate the two elected branches of government.
Of course, the Democratic 2020 nominee does not have to take a singular approach to the White House. Obama won North Carolina as well as Iowa; winning a selection of states from the Midwest, the Southwest, and the South could be enough to put a Democrat in the White House for four years. But if the Democratic Party wants to send a message that they are the new dominant force in American politics, if they want to reject Trump and Trumpism, if they want the chance to implement their agenda nationwide and start a new progressive era of American politics, they need to create a new coalition that spans the country by swinging at least one of these regions to their side. Trump’s unpopularity may provide the canvas for Democrats to redraw American politics, but they have to decide what the picture will look like—and the right person has to hold the brush.
The image featured with this article is in the public domain. The original can be found here.
Jake Biderman is a fourth-year political science major interested in law, journalism, and governance. He has worked for outlets including the Des Moines Register and Fox News, covering the Democratic primaries and a Democratic presidential debate. When he’s not worrying about Americans’ critical thinking skills, he’s exercising, learning foreign languages, or watching baseball. Go Nats!