Obama had a coalition. Biden built a new one and here's how it's different.

Alex Seitz-Wald
·7 min read

WASHINGTON — The first time Joe Biden was on a ticket that won the White House, he and Barack Obama prevailed in Biden's hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania, and surrounding Lackawanna County by a comfortable 28,000 votes.

This year, even as Biden plays up his hardscrabble roots and says the contest with President Donald Trump is about "Scranton vs. Park Avenue," the former vice president will be lucky to win his home county by half that, even if he sweeps Pennsylvania and the nation.

The types of voters powering Biden look different than the ones who made up the vaunted Obama coalition, revealing an America changing in some unexpected ways.

In the dozen years separating Biden's first win as vice president and his now potential win at the top of the ticket, Democrats have traded away white working-class voters in places like Scranton for educated ones in suburbs from Philadelphia to Phoenix, widened the gender gap, and possibly gained some older voters while losing some Black and Hispanic ones.

The result may be an electorate riven more along class and gender lines than the racial and generational ones that defined Obama's 2008 landslide.

"Democrats are going to have one of the whitest coalitions, and Republicans are going to have one of their most nonwhite coalitions in years," said Patrick Ruffini, a Republican pollster and strategist. "These were changes in motion for decades that were suddenly and dramatically accelerated in 2016."

Blue-collar whites

The Obama coalition came to signify the young and diverse. But white working-class voters were an underappreciated foundation, helping Obama win the entire upper Midwest, from Iowa to Indiana to Ohio to Pennsylvania.

He carried Pennsylvania by 10 percentage points in 2008, despite being a Black Harvard grad with the middle name Hussein who gaffed by saying small-town Pennsylvanians "cling to guns or religion."

But Obama was enjoying the tail end of white working-class voters' multigenerational affiliation with the Democratic Party, which began to fray in the 1990s before Trump severed much of the remaining ties.

Sen. Bob Casey, a Democrat who was born and raised in Scranton and still lives there, is confident Biden will get more votes than Trump in Pennsylvania on Tuesday, but he doesn't think any Democrat, even "middle-class Joe," can win by 10 percentage points like Obama did.

"This started a long time ago. Democrats have not done a very good job at connecting, communicating — and the better word, frankly, is listening — to workers," said Casey. "We've got to do a better job of that."

Still, Casey said Biden will do better than Clinton did — especially in parts of the state where Democratic support cratered in 2016 — and cut into Trump's margins, depriving him of the votes he needs to run up in rural places to counter Democratic strongholds in the cities and suburbs.

Suburban revolt

In 2008, Obama won in a landslide while narrowly losing white college graduates and white suburbanites, according to exit polls. But educated white voters' long-standing preference for the GOP flipped under Trump and Biden is now doing better with whites overall than past Democrats.

"One of the biggest areas of stratification in the country is between college and non-college-educated voters," said Guy Cecil, the chairman of Priorities USA, Democrats' flagship super PAC. "Joe Biden will probably yield a higher number of college-educated white voters than 2008 and Donald Trump will certainly yield a higher number of non-college-educated white voters than in 2008," when the GOP nominee was Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

Democrats won college-educated whites by 8 percentage points in the 2018 midterms, and those voters appear to have further soured on the president as the coronavirus pandemic wore on over the course of 2020, according to Gallup.

The suburban backlash to Trump that powered the blue wave two years ago has now helped make red, but relatively urbanized, states like Arizona, Georgia and Texas competitive for Biden as residents of metro areas break from the president.

The influx of affluent voters to the Democratic coalition has had the knock-on effect of flooding the party with cash and depriving Republicans of some of their own. Democrats now routinely out-spend Republicans up and down the ballot, and wealthy zip codes were the source of much of Biden’s financial advantage over Trump, according to a recent analysis.

Mind the gender gap

In 2008, Obama won women but split men with McCain, 49-48 percent. In Obama's re-election in 2012, the gap began to widen as he won women by 11 points and Republican Mitt Romney won men by 7.

By 2016, Clinton won women by 13 percentage points and Trump won men by 11. And the gulf has only continued growing since.

Democrats won women by 19 percentage points in 2018, and the most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed Biden ahead with women by a whopping 26 percentage points.

Nonwhite voters

Obama supercharged turnout among people of color in a diversifying America.

But people of color have been affected by the same forces that are enlarging the gender and education gaps and young Black and Hispanic men appear to be a weak spot for Biden, while Trump has made modest gains among nonwhite voters.

"We are seeing some gaps in young Black voter turnout," said Adrianne Shropshire, the executive director of Black PAC, a liberal group that works to turn out Black voters. "There's a lot of work to do in terms of engaging and making sure those voters are turning out."

While polling these subgroups is difficult, Biden had a meager 7-point lead among Hispanic men (compared with a 37 point lead among Hispanic women) in New York Times/Siena College polling. Obama won 95 percent of Black men, but Biden is carrying a relatively small 78 percent of them in the Times' polls, with 11 percent going to Trump.

Democrats have also passed around a Public Religion Research Institute survey that showed just 36 percent of Black men said nominating a Black woman as vice president was a good idea, compared to 64 percent of Black women.

"It's much more illuminating to describe any modest Trump gains among (people of color) as gains among some men with melanin, and, looked at that way, we all know a few brothers who make us shake our heads," said Steve Phillips, the founder of the group Democracy in Color, said on Twitter. "But, let's not get it twisted. Black men are the second most progressive demographic in the country (after Black women)."

Older and younger

Young voters were key to Obama's success and so far have come out in droves to vote early, though total turnout is impossible to know until all votes are counted.

The surprise for many observers this year has been older voters, who were crucial to Trump's and other Republicans' victory, but appear to be turning away from the president.

"I've written a lot about what I call the cultural generation gap, and it's all about how these young, LGBT, Black and brown, single women were going to be countering the Baby Boomers and the older, mostly white generations," said William Frey, a demographer at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution.

But instead, Frey's recent analysis found that older white voters could end up being the key to Biden wins in battleground states. And they're especially valuable since they're a large and growing part of the population who tend to vote reliably.

"I would be the last person to predict this," said Frey.

Experts say these trends could be unique to Trump or Biden, who are both unlikely to look like future nominees of their parties.

But Casey is telling Democrats they need to focus on winning back working-class voters even after Trump, whom he said was Republicans' strongest candidate for Pennsylvania since Ronald Reagan.

"The ability for another Republican down the road to capture some of those blue-collar Democrats is still available to them, unless we do our job," Casey said.

And Ruffini is urging Republicans to start thinking about trying to build a multiracial coalition of working-class voters.

"What I'm telling my clients is you should assume these are the new coalitions going forward," he said. "It's not going back."